Enclosures, New and Old
The armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on the already occupied land of the Paiute nation by a white, Christian “militia” has tangled roots in capitalism’s violent origins.
The Bundy “militia” are part of a movement with strong ties to white supremacists that has long used violence and threats of violence try to force public lands open for private profit. For over forty years, a loose confederation of right wing groups in the western U.S. have been using death threats and displays of armed force to pressure federal regulators to allow more mining, logging, and grazing on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.
As at least one other commentator has noted, their actions, in many ways are an act of enclosure — the expropriation and privatization of public lands. As such, they hearken back to the beginnings of capitalism, when European peasants were force off land their families had tended in common for generations in a massive campaign of violence that, together with the genocidal colonization of the Americas and the kidnapping and enslavement of million of Africans, provided the land base and the labor force that are the foundation of today’s global economy.
And yet, at the same time, its easy to see how distorted echoes of ancestral trauma could lead rural white ranchers to cast themselves differently in a story about farmers fighting the government over the right to graze their cattle on public land. Many white ranchers (and loggers and miners for that matter) are descendants of people forcibly driven off farm land in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, who resettled to Appalachia and New England, and then were driven west by economic pressures. (Engaging, all along the way, in the same kind of colonialism their people were initially fleeing.) Working the land is a core part of their identities, and from their perspective public lands exist for the benefit of rural communities and they are fighting a government they see as threatening their livelihoods.
Their view is distorted. The land they are fighting for access to is not theirs and does not belong to their distant ancestors — rather, it is land their recent ancestors helped to forcibly take from Indigenous people and that was eventually set aside by the federal government to protect remnant populations of wildlife after the west had been grazed, mined, and logged to hell. Many of these ranchers, including the Bundy family, have become wealthy off the exploitation of public land. And they have been ordered off the land by the people the government really stole it from.
In the absence of historical knowledge, people unconsciously respond to the world through the lens of historical trauma. Just as in the shadow of the long history of genocide against the Jewish people, Israel sees its war against the Palestinians as a fight for survival even as it visits devastating military force on people living in refugee camps, the descendants of people forced off the land where they grazed their sheep and cattle in Europe see their battle against grazing fees on public land today as a fight for the right to their livelihoods, even though they are rich and are grazing on land that rightfully belongs to other forcibly displaced people.
Bringing the history underlying those ancestral wounds forward is necessary if we are to respond to the pain they bring in a coherent way. Years ago, I heard Rod Coronado, a Pasqua Yaqui revolutionary who served time in federal prison for his actions in defense of wild animals and wild places, speak about the fact that most of us have in our ancestry both victims and perpetrators of genocide. (In no small part because of the sexual violence of conquering armies.) His words sent me on a journey to uncover more of my own ancestral stories which led me to understand my position as both a “descendant of the tribes of Europe” and a current beneficiary of colonialism and white supremacy. They also made me understand that if we want to confront white supremacy, we need to understand the complex history of whiteness, and address the reality of the tangle of violence that so many of our ancestors were caught up in, in which the victims of a campaign of forced privatization of land themselves became the perpetrators of genocide.
If we descendants of colonizers don’t acknowledge all the aspects of the contradictions in the lineages of our families, our cultures, our nations, then we cede the discussion to white supremacists who are more than happy to tell poor and working class white folks lies about the sources of the pain and alienation they feel. When we wrestle that space back from the false populists of the right, unlikely alliances become possible. A little over a decade ago in Maine, Earth First!ers reached out to loggers who were tired of seeing rich people profit off their labor while refusing to allow them to gather kindling from the land they worked in order to heat their homes. (The cruelty of these companies would inspire western Maine novelist, Carolyn Chute, to re-imagine Robin Hood as a New Englander.) The loggers ended up joining Earth First! in blockading trucks carrying raw logs across the Canadian border for export. Now I’m not saying that the Bundy family is going to join the Paiute sovereignty struggle anytime soon. But gods and ancestors work in mysterious ways. And bringing more people a clearer understanding of the nature of the history that shaped them and the origins and nature of the system we now live under makes room in more hearts for the gods and ancestors to stir dreams of once and future worlds. Then the real fight against tyranny can move forward.