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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.


  1. I don’t agree one bit with what they Bundy’s are doing. It is an illegal act. However, it is a matter of perspective as well. I suggest that the occupations during Occupy Wall Street are no different (sans the guns of course). Both are quasi-illegal acts of political speech. and if I cannot support both, I can support neither.


  2. Ranchers have a long history of acting like terrorists and abusing the land and everyone else. Anyone with a like of history takes their claims with a grain of salt. Where I live was grassland with plenty of wild game in 1881. In forty years it was turned into brush land and then later into desert by massive over grazing. Farmers completed the job by over watering and going down finally a thousand feet to get enough water to grow crops. When I came here pecan orchards flooded their entire orchards several times a season. Farms used storage ponds and canal irrigation, in what was already a desert, where more than half of the water evaporated before it ever got back into the ground to grow crops. Now they use drip irrigated, but most of the farms are long gone and the rest are closing down, while the two towns of the county are desperately buying up water rights as they are sold with much of the water not even drinkable, either naturally or because of heavy use of farm chemicals. Most local well drilling companies no longer drill well some only maintain them and the cost of drilling is too high for most people to do anyway. Most of the population is retired people from else where who find once they move here the cost of living keeps going up as their pensions,or social security is frozen or going down. Unemployment is really about 30%, but we are told 13% to 20%. Welfare keeps what business their is going, but business keep closing and we now have Payday loan companies charging 300% interest and store front churches where we don’t have empty shops, and Wal-Mart and K-Mart soaked up much of the business while not replacing jobs lost and the workers need welfare and food stamps to survived. Illegal aliens are the preferred employees. Years ago they stopped mentioning things like the number of local gangs, STDs among children, HIV infections and we have all the forms of child abuse you could want. Smuggling drugs and illegals is a major business with the border gangs killing each other and the other’s customers, the police. judges, business men are often related to the local criminals as well, corruption is the norm in government. As long as you don’t get in the way of of all of this you are okay and everyone pretends everything is fine. Personally I have never had any real trouble, but then I am not nosey and stick to my own business. I also rarely go to town beyond getting supplies as needed. Meanwhile the powers that be hope to make a killing off of developing the land and turning the main town into a 100,00 people. So far the economy has not let that happen.The village south of me had the entire town government, including the chief of police arrested and convicted of selling automatic weapons to the Mexican Drug cartels. I have heard street rumors of land deals for cash, and I would love to know the number of Cadillac Escalades owned there, the favored car of the Mexcian Drug Cartel. So far I have not been able to talked anyone into doing it for me and I am far too old and feeble to go down there and do it myself.. But as you can see, the wild west never died off, we just look more civilized now and crime is government subsidized now and very business like.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am watching the developing splintering of the group and wondering whether it is the natural ineptness of the organizers and members, or it it is helped by the FBI infiltrating it, a common practice of the police.


      • I’m not actually following this story closely, but my initial thoughts upon reading about it were similar to Sean’s: it’s already occupied indigenous land.

        But yeah, it could be both or either.


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