The late Ryszard Kapuściński coined a striking term to describe those susceptible to demagoguery. They were believers, he said, in the Great Yesterday. In the last few years we’ve seen inflammatory strongmen, from Viktor Orbán to Narendra Modi to Donald Trump, evoking visions of Great Yesterdays, from a Greater Hungary to an India without Muslims to an America without immigrants of color. Besides their shaky connection with actual history, such Great Yesterdays have several features in common. One, hinted if not spelled out, is that everyone who enjoyed that golden era in the past was of the same ethnicity or religion. Another is that the Great Yesterday was destroyed by malevolent outsiders. And finally, in traversing the arduous path toward its restoration, the faithful are enduring a martyrdom that will be rewarded.
All these elements were part of the Oregon standoff in early 2016, when a small group of militants bristling with semi-automatic rifles occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, and for forty days defied the federal government to evict them. The leaders included the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, two sons of a Nevada ranching family that two years earlier had staged an armed confrontation with the authorities over their father Cliven’s refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federal land. They had other grievances as well, but the most fervent belief of the Bundys and their followers was that the federal government has no constitutional right to own vast tracts of land, as it does throughout the Far West. Instead, the land should be given to the states, which would surely turn it over to deserving, cowboy-booted folk like themselves. The Great Yesterday thus restored would be the homestead era, when hardy pioneers tamed the arid countryside and hardy prospectors staked claims, all without interference from far-off Washington, D.C.
Anthony McCann is a poet, and Shadowlands, his first nonfiction book, is the most substantial account to date of the Oregon standoff. It’s a curious mix of lyricism and trenchant portrayals of the occupation and the trials that followed, along with abundant meditation—sometimes intriguing, sometimes overly convoluted—on what it all means. He assumes, though, that readers already know the basic story. After gradually introducing a huge array of participants and observers, he gives no reminders of who they are when we meet them later, and provides no index, timeline, or cast-of-characters list to help us keep track of them. Near the end of the book, for instance, the patriarch Cliven Bundy, who did not take part in the standoff, is with much ado released from jail, but you have to go riffling back nearly two hundred pages to be reminded why he was there in the first place.
David Byars’s PBS film, No Man’s Land, also covers the standoff, but in a bare-bones style that is the opposite of McCann’s quirky commentary. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting visual counterpart to the book, for it includes a number of the scenes McCann writes about. Byars’s camera work gives you a sense of these determined true believers stalking about in pistol belts and leather vests in their snowbound citadel.
The Oregon standoff caught the public imagination because, in a country where tens of millions of people blame sinister bureaucrats in Washington for all their problems, here were bold rebels who seized an actual piece of federal property. No matter that it was a few low buildings in a place hardly anyone had heard of, whose name might be translated as the Bad Luck Refuge. And no matter that the Bundy brothers had no long-range plan, no specific demands. They were not political organizers but producers of political theater.
The theater was effective because it evoked other occupations, from the Native American takeover of the Wounded Knee battle site in 1973 to the seizure of Massachusetts courthouses by disgruntled Revolutionary War veterans in Shays’ Rebellion of 1786–1787. The Malheur occupiers frequently flew the rattlesnake “Don’t Tread on Me” flag of that earlier era. The film shows one supporter in a pickup truck flying the Confederate flag, and one of the occupiers told McCann he felt akin to the Bonus Marchers, World War I veterans who converged on Washington in 1932 during the Depression to demand early payment of their wartime bonuses.
The Bundys and their allies were masters of media, staging daily 11 AM press conferences and knowing the value of doing so in cowboy hats. There was a high ratio of journalists to occupiers, and Byars often trains his eye on the over-the-shoulder TV cameras, boom microphones, and floodlights on hand. Whenever Ammon Bundy speaks—whether at a press conference or elsewhere—dozens of reporters and fellow occupiers brandish notebooks, cell phones, tablets, and other devices to record every word. You can hear spasms of shutters clicking. For the media, the standoff was catnip: covering such a spectacle was vastly easier than covering the complex social tensions behind it. “His head is held at a slight, sad puppy-dog tilt,” McCann writes of Ammon.
There is no Limbaugh-like apoplexy, no snide Breitbart affect here. Ammon is a different figure of masculinity—a right-wing version of the sensitive man. His public face is a pure stream of real-time concern…delivering his payload of sincerity each and every time. Few, even among his worst enemies, have ever doubted that Ammon Bundy mostly means what he says, but the full power of Ammon’s direct address comes from his ability to make it clear, again and again, just how much he really means it.
Bundy was also skilled at reaching across the political spectrum by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks about the duty to defy governmental power.
Among the growing number of occupiers, incidentally, were at least nine FBI informants, one of whom gave the Bundyites rifle training. Unfortunately, Byars’s film, with its cinema verité style, doesn’t tell us if the man we see giving live-fire instruction is that agent. Other characters also showed up at Malheur and appear in the book or film or both: a heavily bearded supporter who had grown up Amish and delivered most of his eleven children; a man dressed as George Washington, in full blue and gold with brass buttons and lace cuffs, who stayed in character; a pipefitter who rode up one day carrying an American flag, described by McCann as “a one-man float in the daily parade of the Bundy Revolution…a kind of color guard for the leaders, accompanying them on horseback”; a mother-and-kids group of gospel singers, perhaps evoking a Great Yesterday when women and children knew their place; and an ex-Mormon turned messianic mystic, blowing a long, curling shofar “direct from Israel—blessed by a rabbi.”
There were several ironies in the Oregon standoff. The first was that if anyone had a claim against the federal government’s possession of land, it was not the ranchers with their pickups and string ties but Native Americans whose ancestors lived in this region for thousands of years. Understandably, they had no sympathy for the occupiers, despite hazy appeals from the Bundyites that the federal government was their common enemy. The Native Americans McCann talked to saw the occupation as “a kind of ceremonial land grab, a historical reenactment of white settlement.”
Most other people in Harney County were also unenthusiastic. Years-long negotiations had led to an unusual degree of consensus among the groups often at loggerheads elsewhere in the West: Native Americans on a nearby reservation, residents of the county’s small towns, cattle ranchers, and the officials running the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Byars’s film shows locals angrily speaking out against the armed occupation at a community meeting. “I should not have to be scared in my own hometown,” says a fifteen-year-old girl in tears. On the highway leading to the refuge, townspeople hold up signs saying “Militia Go Home.” This was surely not the response the Bundys expected.
Although the occupiers displayed many “Ranchers’ Lives Matter” signs, few actually were ranchers. Clearly none of the dozens of militia members with bullet-proof vests, walkie-talkies, camouflage pants, and what McCann calls the “Blackwater strut” who flocked to Malheur to join the Bundys and live on the abundant food donated by their sympathizers had any worries about cattle they were leaving back home for weeks. The charismatic Ammon Bundy came from a ranching family, but for years had run a truck-fleet maintenance company—with the help, incidentally, of a $530,000 loan from the Small Business Administration of the federal government he so despised.
According to McCann, the occupation leadership included only one bona fide rancher, fifty-four-year-old LaVoy Finicum, who wore a revolver and “fringed and silver-studded leather chaps.” His face was “polished by wind and sun, its skin always seemed pulled a little extra taut around the hard insistence of his skull, as if expressive of the ideological intensity of this otherwise genial and welcoming devout Mormon cowboy.”
Finicum would become the standoff’s one fatality. Some three weeks into the occupation, needing something to revive fading media attention, he, the Bundy brothers, and a number of others left the refuge for a meeting in an adjacent county that had a sympathetic sheriff. With warrants out for their arrest, this rash foray was clearly inviting a confrontation. On a deserted stretch of highway, FBI agents and the Oregon State Police stopped the convoy and made arrests, but Finicum yelled, “You want to shoot me, you shoot me!” He then zoomed away, only to run into a roadblock a mile later. After veering into a snowbank and getting out of his pickup, he shouted again, “Go ahead and shoot me!” And that is what they did—either as an act of trigger-happy madness, his allies and some critics declare, or, as state police officers maintain, because he was reaching for his own loaded pistol. As with everything about the standoff, it’s all on video, which you can see in No Man’s Land, but the footage can be interpreted either way. In any case, the Bundyites now had the martyr that every crusade for a Great Yesterday needs, and the site of Finicum’s death was marked with crosses and American flags.
Finally, the greatest irony is this: If the Bundys’ dream were fulfilled, and the bulk of federal land were turned over to the states, who would end up with it? The states would almost certainly sell it to the highest bidders—and they would not be small ranchers and lone miners. They would be large corporations. This is what happens when western land is for sale. For example, Farris and Dan Wilks, brothers who made a $3.5 billion fortune in the fracking and oil-field service business, have bought more than 700,000 acres of land, mostly in Idaho and Montana, for their Texas-based real estate company.1 The even richer Koch family owns some 460,000 acres of western ranchland. Not surprisingly, the Kochs’ powerful lobbying network has long supported the push for western land privatization; for them, a movement whose face is rugged-looking small ranchers provides useful cover. The Wilks family donated $15 million to the PAC of Texas senator Ted Cruz, an evangelist for the same cause.
“In all the hours I have spent listening to Ammon Bundy,” writes McCann,
I have personally never once heard him utter the word corporation. His Reaganesque worldview seemed only to accommodate the existence of the People…on one side, and the bureaucrats of the wicked, overreaching federal government on the other.
There are no huge corporate ranches or mining conglomerates in the Bundys’ imagined Great Yesterday. “The militants,” says the journalist Hal Herring2 of High Country News, whose thoughtful comments thread through No Man’s Land, “saw a fantastical golden age of the cowboy, when men were men and justice was served and cows went to Abilene and were paid off in gold.”
McCann is an eccentric guide to the Malheur saga. A passionate lover of the far western landscape, he never misses a chance to describe it, sometimes for a page or more at a time, even if it’s the Mojave Desert in Southern California, which he drives through on one of his many trips to Oregon. He wanders to yet another state to evoke the part of Nevada where the Bundy ranch is, with
its roaring wind and silence, its gas-flame blue sky, and its otherworldly landscape of jagged, alien-looking plant life and brooding stone. These are…natural homelands of revelation, ready-made for the slow cooking of heretical doctrine.
Another detour begins, “How have I written most of an entire book about people taking over a bird refuge and forgotten to talk about birds?” There is something both distracting and endearing about such descriptions. He also makes long, rambling digressions about the Constitution, John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, Bill Clinton’s best speeches, watching a solar eclipse, a conversation with a motorcyclist in Joshua Tree National Park, and much more, including Donald Trump (but we all digress about him).
If anything, McCann portrays the men and women with whom he spent so many hours a bit too generously, at times falling under their expertly stage-managed spell. “Even for someone like myself, who disagreed strongly with most of the ideology,” he confesses at one point, “it felt strangely thrilling to be around them.” Honest though he is in acknowledging it, this feeling leads him astray. He spends far too many pages elaborating the occupiers’ woolly “cowboy Ayn Randianism,” with its virtuous People and evil feds, its theological underpinnings (the Bundys are Mormons and in the film we often see the occupiers bowed in prayer), and its ardently trumpeted connection to the Constitution, which all the believers carry around in a pocket-sized edition with George Washington on the cover.
By contrast, McCann spends too little time exploring exactly what drew the Bundys and their many supporters, on the scene of the standoff and elsewhere, to this ideology. After all, people only become enchanted by a Great Yesterday when their today is not so great. One reason, surely, is that after a peak in 2014, cattle prices plunged over the next four years. Obviously that made small ranchers or would-be ranchers feel menaced by forces beyond their control.
In many other ways as well, tens of millions of people in rural America have lost ground economically. Jobs on farms, as elsewhere, are being lost to automation. Young people often leave for better prospects on the country’s coasts or in its cities: in the film, we see notably few men and women in their twenties or thirties either among the occupiers or the townspeople who oppose them. One symptom of the crisis in rural areas is the opioid epidemic. Another is that the mountain states of the Far West are the center of what public health officials call America’s Suicide Belt—and there is something distinctly suicidal about LaVoy Finicum’s cry of “Shoot me!”
In the face of all this despair, the standoff offered these middle-aged, often paunchy men a chance to flaunt the symbols of their masculinity—their AR-15 rifles, cowboy hats, and pistol belts—and the chance to hitch themselves to a glorious Great Yesterday. The federal government provides a convenient scapegoat for all ills, a point of view relentlessly promoted by the far right, with stunning success, ever since Ronald Reagan began giving speeches for General Electric in the 1950s. The huge acreage evil Washington owns in the Far West further incites its opponents to portray it as pandering to migrating birds, tree huggers, city-slicker tourists in national parks, and endangered species—everybody except the hardworking farmer-rancher-logger descendants of pioneers that the Malheur occupiers imagined themselves to be.
Lost in the mythologizing is that corporate ranchers, oil drillers, and giant lumber and mining companies already exploit much of that federal land on very generous terms. And this will only increase as Trump puts wolves in charge of every sheep pen in sight. Of the newly appointed acting director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, Koch-funded lawyer-activist William Perry Pendley, a Washington Post headline says it all: “Trump’s Pick for Managing Federal Lands Doesn’t Believe the Government Should Have Any.”
Even if someday there are no more federal lands to complain about, the powerful current of feeling that led to the Oregon standoff will be with us for decades to come. Nothing is going to easily eradicate the economic and social malaise that leads so many people in rural America to yearn for an imagined Great Yesterday.
The legal aftermath of the Oregon standoff was mixed. After the last occupiers surrendered to the FBI, twenty-six of them were indicted on a variety of charges. The charges against one were dismissed. Fourteen people took plea deals, and four were tried and convicted. They received sentences ranging from probation and a fine to thirty-seven months in prison. To the great rejoicing of their followers, however, the Bundy brothers and five others were found not guilty.
One of the last events described in Shadowlands took place when, after the Malheur occupation was over, Ammon Bundy was in prison, having been convicted on charges relating to the earlier standoff at his family’s Nevada ranch. He proved himself just as stubbornly defiant of federal authority as he had been when free. At one point, he was cruelly punished by being dragged into a shower stall and left there for thirteen hours with his hands tightly cuffed behind his back. With flags flying and the shofar still blowing, Bundy’s supporters carried on a protest at a roadside “Camp Liberty” they had set up outside the prison’s walls. To raise funds, and to underscore their hero’s martyrdom, two of them reenacted his Calvary in plywood reconstructions of the shower stall, painted prison gray, livestreaming to the world while attempting to last the thirteen hours in handcuffs that Bundy had suffered. It reminds you of reenactments of religious martyrdom around the world, whether Shia Muslims flailing themselves with chains or Catholic pageants about the crucifixion.
It’s possible that this same harsh punishment might have been meted out to Bundy in a federal prison—but this was not a federal prison. It was a profit-making one run by the notorious CoreCivic, which changed its name from the Corrections Corporation of America after its abusive prisons were the subject of a prize-winning 2016 exposé by Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer, who worked undercover for several months in one of them as a guard. During the first few months of the Trump administration, the company’s stock price soared. Despite his many digressions, Anthony McCann fully recognizes the irony with which his story ends: the great prophet of privatization jailed in a private prison.