There are more than a few eyebrow-raising ideas -- Manifest Destiny, ownership, group entitlement and superiority -- deeply embedded in conversations about the Oregon occupiers and their political goals.
Wait. What? Manifest Destiny? Let us explain.
The Citizens for Constitutional Freedom-- that's the name the armed individuals occupying federal buildings in Oregon have given themselves -- have identified their core demands. Most people know that the group wanted to see father and son Oregon ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond avoid a return to jail after being resentenced for five years for arson. That moment came and went Monday. Both men are in federal custody. And, it seems that's no longer the group's chief cause.
This is what Ammon Bundy, one of the armed occupation's principle organizers, told the Oregonian on Monday:
Bundy, who spoke in measured tones, wanted to talk economics – how his crew at the refuge intended to return the land to private citizens and help restore ranching.
The goal, he said, was "to get the economics here in the county revived again, getting it hopping again."
... He justified the occupation on Constitutional grounds.
"It is the duty of the people to put that government back in its place," Bundy said. "That's what we, the people, are doing here," Bundy said.
He said the occupiers intended to be at the refuge for months, if not years. He said the militants would help adjudicate claims on federal land.
Of course, the implication of the term "return" is that the land in question -- the Malheur Wildlife Refuge -- once belonged to area ranchers or those that came before them. Comments Bundy made to the Oregonian and reporters with other outlets have implied, insinuated and all-out stated that federal lands were somehow taken, seized or purchased and then hoarded by federal officials due to some blend of irrational environmental protectionism and avarice.
Why precisely the U.S. government would want to limit economic development, Bundy has not explained. He also hasn't detailed what, if any, amount of wildlife or land and resource protection he deems acceptable. But what he has said again and again is that this land should be "returned."
Here's the problem with that: European trappers, traders and later ranchers who settled in the area have never owned this land. And therefore, any "return" would likely involve the Native Americans who once did own it. To understand why this is just the plain and simple truth, not some kind of kneecapping in a dark, language-obsessed alley, you have to be a believer in accurate rather than apocryphal history. You have to accept that the land that makes up Malheur did not materialize out of the ether or come into existence specifically so that ranchers might run cattle on it. And it was not always utterly uninhabited.
First, long before the Lewis and Clark expedition mapped portions of the Northwest, and before a single European or European American did business, trapped animals, traded fur or ran cattle anywhere near Malheur, the land was inhabited by Native Americans, according to Jessica Goad, advocacy director at the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities. Then, white migrants began to move into the region. They arrived prompted in part by government policies such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and General Mining Law of 1872. Both policies aimed to put as much of the land that was by then located in the state of Oregon in the hands of private citizens.
And now, we do have to be specific about race and homesteading here. While these policies did not specifically aim to encourage Europeans and European Americans to move west and lay claim to land, many other things -- citizenship requirements for homesteaders, certain state laws (known as black codes) and federal immigration policy that barred most immigration from non-white countries -- all but made these policies an exclusive means by which white Americans and white immigrants could claim land.
Then, along came President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, avid hunter and outdoorsman who was deeply concerned that too much of the country was in the process of being spoiled or irredeemably damaged -- and wildlife imperiled. Roosevelt created the nation's first national forests and wildlife preserves, including Malheur in 1908. Again, just to be uber-clear here, the land that makes up Malheur was at the time and remains federally owned. For relatively brief intervals, some of it served as a sparsely populated Native American reservation, but the remainder was land never claimed by white settlers.
Never, Goad said. It never belonged to the territory or state of Oregon or to private citizens. You can read more about the share of federal land that is leased for grazing or other mineral extraction and that which is set aside for wildlife and flora protection in a 2015 Congressional Research Service report here.
Native Americans owned land that has become the Malheur Wildlife Refuge; portions of it had some brief life as a federal reservation, and it has remained in federal hands ever since. So, while this seems unlikely, if land were to be truly "returned," Bundy and his crew probably would not rank among those with a claim. That's just the plain, simple and historically accurate truth.
Now, if you spend all your time gathering information from conservative blogs and those who have labeled the occupiers "social justice activists," this might all be a little hard to grasp or believe. In fact, if you read an entry on The Conservative Treehouse, which more than a few people referred The Fix to as a space where we might learn the "truth," there is no history, there were no people and there is little to tell about life in the area -- not even noteworthy flying fauna in and around Malheur -- until white settlers arrived. Now, in fairness they omit the word "white." What they do say is this:
HISTORY: (aa) The Harney Basin (where the Hammond ranch is established) was settled in the 1870’s. The valley was settled by multiple ranchers and was known to have run over 300,000 head of cattle. These ranchers developed a state of the art irrigated system to water the meadows, and it soon became a favorite stopping place for migrating birds on their annual trek north.
Yes, we are aware of the widely discredited theory that all land belonged to the states once admitted to the union. But this is not a credible idea, according to most legal scholars and The Washington Post's own Fact Checker. And the the simple truth is time did not begin in 1870, when settlers began arriving in mass -- nor did it begin in 1859 when Oregon became a state.
Bundy's calls to "return" the land almost certainly aren't a minor error, Goad said. It's more like the artful and shrewd use of rhetoric that implies rightful ownership, belonging and righteous aggrievement. It is a claim based on nothing more than a sense of entitlement and the potential to extract financial gain. And, what else is that but an arguably modernized version of Manifest Destiny?
A more accurate and far less racially and morally charged word for what Bundy wants might be "transfer" -- or better yet "sell." That's essentially what The Post's fact checker staff recommended back when GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson used the "return" word last month when discussing how the federal government should give federal land to the states.
While the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom have the same right to protest, peaceably assemble and call for specific political changes that any group of Americans share, it's also reasonable to examine closely what they want and the language they are using to stake their claims. And "return" just isn't a word that fits.