How the strange tale of the "Oregon standoff" explains what happened in America in 2016

Anthony McCann on his extraordinary "Shadowlands," and how one misunderstood event defines our entire crazy nation

Published September 8, 2019 1:25PM (EDT)

Ammon Bundy, one of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, arrives for a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. With the takeover entering its fourth day Wednesday, authorities had not removed the group of roughly 20 people from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon's high desert country. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Ammon Bundy, one of the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, arrives for a news conference at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. With the takeover entering its fourth day Wednesday, authorities had not removed the group of roughly 20 people from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon's high desert country. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Anthony McCann's "Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff" is one of those extraordinary books that seems to be about one thing, and turns out to be about almost everything. I raved to people a lot while I was reading it, drawing unwise comparisons to "Moby-Dick" and "Beyond Good and Evil."

I'm still somewhat OK with those analogies. But rather than going deep on the lit-crit, I would more soberly suggest that "Shadowlands" belongs on the shelf beside Peter Matthiessen's "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" or Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire," as a work of political nonfiction that isn't really "political," at least not in the narrow, normative use of that word.

McCann is a poet and writing teacher who lives in the Mojave Desert of Southern California, and was drawn into the now-half-forgotten story of the 2016 "Oregon standoff" by his interest in the geography of the West, Native American messianic spirituality and the way those things intersect with the uniquely American theology of the Latter-day Saints. (Who have officially requested that we no longer call them the Mormons: Everybody gets a safe space.)

I want to let my fascinating conversation with McCann tell most of the story, but let's just say that whatever you think you know about the Oregon standoff — when a handful of libertarian loons, associated with the notorious Bundy family of Nevada and drawn together by the internet, took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the remote desert of southeastern Oregon — is probably wrong. The Malheur occupiers relied on a thoroughly nutty interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and most of them came from the fringes of the far right. But they weren't white supremacists, mostly weren't gun-totin' militia types (except for a few hangers-on), and never resorted to violence or even seriously threatened to do so.

You don't have to agree with anything about the occupiers' understanding of America or God or freedom — and McCann certainly doesn't — to agree that they were responding to something real: a notionally democratic state that has lost much of its popular legitimacy, and a civil society that often feels unmoored or uprooted. Something else, of course, also happened in 2016, and McCann's book becomes an inadvertent chronicle of the weird stew of discontent, on social media and IRL, that led to the election of our current president.

If the Oregon standoff provided an early warning of what would happen in November of that year, it wasn't exactly in the way you might think. Many of the Malheur occupiers vigorously despised Donald Trump as a statist or authoritarian strongman, and Trumpism wound up dividing their quadrant of the right just as it broke apart the old Republican Party. Ammon Bundy, the movement's charismatic leader, eventually wound up breaking with Trump's version of conservative politics entirely, endorsing asylum for Central American refugees and the abolition or devolution of the federal prison system.

Yeah, the deeper you go the weirder it gets, and you'll want to keep reading "Shadowlands" not just for McCann's remarkable powers of description and narrative sympathy, but in hopes he can explain not just what has gone wrong in America but why.

I spoke with Anthony McCann earlier this summer by Skype from his office in Palm Desert, California. You can watch our full conversation below. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Anthony, this is such a remarkable account of what happened in America in 2016, in my judgment. Would you agree with my characterization that "Shadowlands" is fundamentally not a book about politics?

Yeah. There's politics coursing through it, but I think I probably see it more as being about the powerful presence of history and certain forms of political theology, and different kinds of sovereign geographies, and the cultural impasses, and also the political impasses of the presence.

There's an amazing sense of place in this book. By profession you're a poet and a writing teacher, and one of the things I found the most compelling about this book is the tremendous evocation of the landscape. Many people may not really remember what the "Oregon standoff" was, but let's start with where it happened, in southeastern Oregon, which as you point out is one of the most remote areas of North America.

Yeah. Harney County, Oregon, is — there's one thing that local folks like to point out, which is that in the continental United States, they have the point that's the furthest from an interstate. The night sky there is insanely bright. It's a huge county, the size of Massachusetts, but there's only 7,000 people in it, something that played a really important role in what Ammon Bundy and his friends were able to do there. A good portion of the county is high desert or sagebrush steppe, with a big fault-block mountain. It's at the northernmost point of the Great Basin, and then the northern part of the county is dry pine forest. It's a big, big landscape. Not a lot of people, far from a lot of stuff.

So what people may remember about the Oregon standoff is that some guys who were somehow affiliated with the infamous Bundy family — who are from southern Nevada, hundreds of miles away — took over a national wildlife refuge in that county in southeastern Oregon, in the name of some weird, militia-style misreading of the Constitution. That's partly correct, but it's really a tremendous oversimplification. Talk us through what actually happened at the Oregon standoff. What was it, and what was it about?

Yeah, there's so much background. Ammon Bundy, Cliven Bundy's son, was drawn to Harney County, but he's not from Oregon, and most of the people who were involved in the standoff were not from Oregon.

Ammon Bundy had become a charismatic, inspirational figure within a pretty horizontal, interknit kind of community of people who call themselves sometimes the Patriot Movement, which brought together a lot of different movements, like Sagebrush Rebels, anti-federal land people in the West, militia-type people who have been energized by what they call fighting back against the war on rural America — and then some of those people had been part of border militia stuff in the past — and then you also had Ron Paul-inspired anti-police militarization activists, but from the right.

In that community Ammon had become a very important figure because of the standoff at his family's ranch in Nevada, when his family had decided that the federal government didn't have the right to own or manage land, and had discovered an interpretation, a very theo-legalistic interpretation of the Constitution in their Latter-day Saint mode, that proved to them that this was true, by way of a couple clauses in the Constitution they quote endlessly. They responded to a crisis that they were facing in terms of new regulations on federal lands regarding the new priorities in the West, including for environmental conservation and species protection — in this case the desert tortoise down in Clark County, Nevada — which were going to create hardship for them in terms of how they ran cows on federal land.

This all had to do with Las Vegas in the '90s. There's so much background to the story. Las Vegas was going to encounter a tremendous difficulty if it didn't figure out some way to keep building, because it was growing tremendously then, when the desert tortoise was listed as an endangered species. So a way was found to make sure that those investors didn't lose their money, and that was declaring this Mormon ranching zone a desert protection zone.

Most of the ranchers there eventually accepted the new regime and accepted buyouts of their federal grazing permits. But one person did not, and that was Cliven Bundy, and he discovered that the divine Constitution was on his side, and he refused to accept any deals. Then, 20 years later, after refusing to pay his grazing fees or recognize the federal government, the federal government came to collect his cows, which had been grazing the whole time. A standoff ensued because a video of Ammon Bundy being tased by Bureau of Land Management agents went out on the internet and went viral in that sphere, where all those people had been interconnected through the internet. They showed up, and a lot of them had guns, and in this standoff that ensued BLM decided that it was not worth it. They backed down, and gave Cliven back his cows, and nothing happened with that for two years until the late fall or early winter of 2015-2016.

Ammon Bundy had since moved to Boise, Idaho, and he had begun following this case in Harney County. Boise being the only major city anywhere near Harney County.

And when you say "anywhere near" ...

I'd say three or four hours, yeah. Depending on what's going on with the passes and snow.

People in his community had been following this story of the Hammonds, a ranch family in Harney County who had been fighting the same fight that the Bundy family had been fighting. Some ranchers, when regulations changed, adapted and began to use more ecological practices. The Bundys don't recognize the right of the government to even do that, and from their faith they think that preservation is ridiculous because the earth is here for human beings to use as they pass through on their earthly sojourn.

The Hammonds aren't Latter-day Saints, but they're involved in resisting strenuously any new regulation for a long time, and they'd gotten involved in a case where they were using fire on public land in a way that ranchers had traditionally done, and eventually they got charged with arson, and then they were convicted, and the charges themselves did have a mandatory sentence of five years, partly because they were written toward instances of arson on public land near urban areas.

There's a sort of terrorism component [to the law], and the judge in that case ended up deciding to not apply the mandatory sentence. That resulted in the federal government appealing and winning and re-sentencing the Hammonds to prison after they had already served time, which to people in the Ammon Bundy world looked like, here's another example of the federal government defying the Constitution, this is double jeopardy.

So Ammon Bundy, feeling what he characterized as holy urges, as being guided by the Holy Spirit to this case, began to try to figure out how to save this family from going back to prison. That culminated, after his efforts failed to convince the local sheriff to refuse to allow them to be taken into custody, in the takeover of the refuge. And that's still the short version of the book!

One of the fascinating themes in your book is the question of perspective. OK, you and I can understand why technically that was not double jeopardy, for the Hammonds to be recharged in that case. But from their point of view, or the Bundys', yeah, this does seem like a pretty harsh exercise of state power. To most of us from the urban liberal contingent, the Bundys and their fans and followers in the Patriot movement may seem crazy. But some of the things they are complaining about are legitimate, right?

Yeah. Some of the things, the way that they talk about them and depending on who you're talking to — there are people who are pretty articulate and pretty involved in thinking about things, especially with law enforcement, and there are people who are just pure conspiracy all the way. 

I mentioned the Ron Paul, anti-police militarization people, and there's a strong contingent in that movement, as I learned the more time I spent around them, who have been thinking about law enforcement and mandatory sentencing and prisons for a long time. But from the right, which I think people like us from the left, aren't familiar with. We've been thinking about it more along the Michelle Alexander line.

That's documented later in the book, where all these people were circling a private prison in the Nevada desert every day, and actually the line of their rhetoric sounded very familiar at that point. They were very well informed on that stuff, and their characterization of the federal justice system as an incarceration machine led to one of their leaders, Ammon Bundy, eventually, while he was in prison, coming out with these public statements basically calling for the abolition of prisons entirely. That's not something that I think people who have a vague familiarity with him would expect to come out of his mouth at all.

What you capture really brilliantly in this book is that within this fairly small and arguably inconsequential event at the beginning of 2016 — first of all, there was a tremendous diversity of views. It wasn't all one thing that drew people there. That's one element of it. Another element is the power of the internet and viral video in organizing all these people, which is a strikingly contemporary part of the puzzle. And then in certain ways that you kind of gradually became aware of, this was an early indicator of how that historic year was going to unfold, right?

Yeah, definitely. I think the internet thing in particular. There's so much of the book for me that is also about the presence — I think of it as undead history in the contortions of the moment, but there's an intersection of that with our new privately owned public sphere of the internet, and also the way feeling is automated. The impasse is just continually accelerated, and so much content is just hurled back and forth, a lot of it with historical origins. But the role of the internet, both in terms of political emotion, but also in terms of how it made the occupation possible, is something that was drawn to my attention early on by people in Harney County who watched it happen to their county, and who told me early on, "You got to think about this in terms of Facebook."

I remember a librarian at the Harney County library just showing me her Facebook feed, and being like, "This is all about Facebook," and talking about the first town meeting where one of the speakers was a local rancher who got up and just said, "I think Facebook should be illegal. That's all I've got to say," and sat back down.

As I began to think about it, and then to watch all these videos, and began to notice just how much the whole thing took place on different layers of the internet, it also became clear how much, as I began to get to know the Bundyites, they were a vast internet friend group across the very alienated West, across communities that are pretty broken down economically, with devastated public sectors.

They had this community of intense feeling of purpose. It's not an exaggeration to say, messianic purpose, because Ammon is actually offering an opportunity to come forward, and at the occupation he was saying, "Come watch the wonderful thing. Come be part of the wonderful thing the Lord is about to accomplish." And that includes basically putting humankind on the right track through its vehicle, the United States of America.

But he was able to do all that in this very horizontal, non-organized, instantaneous way, because of the power of the Facebook Live video, the YouTube video, and also the way feeling is automated on the internet and brings people together, and it caused this thing that it feels really important to think through as we move forward. The challenge to sovereignty that they were able to effectuate in that county by virtue of this horizontal, instantaneous network, in this place that suffers from public sector disinvestment, economic hardship.

It's a county with at most five sheriff's deputies, that's the size of Massachusetts. The way they were able to just come in instantaneously, like a flash mob, as one journalist as described them, and challenge sovereignty, seems to me to speak in sort of Ammon Bundy's Mormon messianic language, a type of shadow of the platforms themselves, and how they seem to operate, and the ways they engage with national sovereignty on a global scale, in terms of the kind of disruption they bring, and have continued to bring.

Despite all the hand-wringing and public apologies, just a few weeks ago Facebook announced that they're starting their own global currency, a news story that was oddly eclipsed by all the chatter that's happening continually on the same platforms. They want to start their own global currency with basically a global bank  that'll basically bypass Wall Street, which also means bypassing what forms of financial regulation are left in existence through the powers and sovereignty of nation-states.

So much of our crisis right now seems to be a crisis in sovereignty and in our understanding of what a nation is, and how that has been undermined. Certainly I see Trump partly as — in the end, it comes down to people in an auditorium chanting, "Build the wall! Build the wall!" and imagining this sovereign geography where, in an embodied way, become the wall. It's a sort of symbolic performance of the nation still existing as a sovereign power, in a way it seems not to.

That's a really important set of ideas that may help convey why people should read this book. I feel like you're wrestling the whole time with the sense that this strange event in this remote place that involved, at most, a couple of hundred people drawn together from the right-wing and libertarian fringes of the internet had a much larger meaning. What was the connection between that, and the election of a president who largely depended on spreading memes, spreading videos and galvanizing the deplorables, people who feel themselves to be on the fringes of society? 

Certainly because the whole time I was following the story, the election was happening, I was, like so many people, able to convince myself that this guy would never be elected. In that world, it's interesting, very few people talked about Donald Trump during or after the election. Some people definitely support him in that world, but it's a point of contention. There's a lot of people in that world who despise him, because it's a very libertarian world, and the reactionary mode that Trump offers is super-statist, right? It's super about identifying yourself with law enforcement, with power, with ICE, and with the big leader. For a lot of those people there's a lot of open suspicion of that. 

What's the difference? And I talk about this a lot in book. What's the difference between the two reactionary positions? There's the much grander and more successful reactionary position that Trump has taken, and there's the strange sort of retro-neo-settler position that I was around with all the Bundyite people, and I think a lot of it has to do with the state. Trump is offering classic authoritarianism, you get to be me, and I am powerful, and our power will course back and forth. As you give me your power, and I am engorged, so you shall be powerful, and we'll be a wall together.

With the Bundyites it's this total — again, staged for the internet, again, in this messianic way — it's a neo-Jacksonian, small government, going out into the frontier even though there isn't a frontier anymore, and establishing a maximum-liberty frontier society. But that's not possible for anybody. So it's entirely in a world of political fantasy, which leads to one of the things that was the strangest about spending time with them.

You think they're all these libertarians, and when I talked to them about, "What was the most striking thing for you about being part of the occupation, about being part of this community?"

They're always like, "The community." Then they start saying things like, "The best thing was we didn't use any money." This one guy even told me, "I was finally outside the war machine," which is not what you're expecting to hear from right-wing militants who've occupied a national wildlife refuge with the goal of returning all public land to the people, and possibly some of them to private ownership.

There's a lot of division there. There's been division since then, since Ammon broke with the Trumpite agenda in his own world over immigration. Ammon supports giving refuge to refugees from Central America, which earned him a lot of hatred in his community.

But to go back out your question about the election year, I think maybe more formally thinking about the role of the internet in mobilizing emotion and disruption, and also in presenting possibilities for different reactionary fantasies and communities of feeling. Definitely that year was full of that, and also full of the unresolved history of the 19th century coming back to bite us.

think of the Trumpites and the Bundyites — you can see them both descending from Andrew Jackson in a certain sense, except the Bundyites maintain a little bit more of that frontier, limited-government fantasy, which has to be then reduced to political theory, because you're not going to find a place to homestead anymore. Performatively they were able to pretend they were doing it at Malheur, which led them, of course, into conflict with the local Paiute group, who had some strong critiques of that whole position, whereas the Trump side has kind of abandoned all that. He has abandoned the small-government part of Jacksonianism for the pure effective — you know, the racism. The whiteness.

I want to grab hold of one last important theme you just mentioned. You write a fair amount in the book about the kind of tormented relationship between the occupiers at Malheur and local Native Americans, the Paiute people in this case. The Bundyites made a semi-good-faith effort to get Native Americans on their side, which didn't work at all. But when I talk to people in New York or wherever about your book, people who only know about this event from the media, their assumption is that we're talking about a bunch of wacko white supremacists of the militia variety. Although that wasn't completely absent, you would argue that's far too simplistic.

Yeah, I think they definitely see themselves as speaking for everyone in this universal way, while, of course, the universal hero of their narrative still remains a white man. Ammon likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr. whenever he can, probably, to compensate for certain horrible comments of his father's, which sound like they could come from a speech by Andrew Johnson, or Ronald Reagan for that matter. There's certainly white priority expressed throughout, but they were not a white supremacist organization. They're not alt-right in that way, they are this different thing, and very Mormon.

I think people were shocked to find out that Ammon was supporting refugees. I wasn't shocked at all. It's entirely predictable within his faith that he would feel that way, it's just surprising that he decided that he was going to risk alienating a huge amount of people who supported him, and come out and scold them in that way, and basically call them warmongers, and compare their rhetoric to that of Nazi Germany. But, still, within the story, they're still strongly advancing a white fantasy. Basically, I like to think of what they were doing out there as a neo-settler re-enactment Wild West show, performed for the internet, with all these messianic currents.

They were going to redeem America, and get us back to the proper future in all those ways, but of course any land out they were doing it on what was Native land. It's a desert marsh, which are very special landscapes, which is why it's a national wildlife refuge. It was an incredibly important space for the Native people there. It was where winter camps were pitched, full of artifacts and remains. And the local tribe entered into the story very quickly when Ammon was announcing that we're going to return this to the rightful owners. The Paiutes were like, "Well, hey. You know, we're here, but we know you don't mean us."

They used that as opportunity to tell their story. A story of displacement and refusal of that displacement, and incredible persistence in returning to that place. Their perspective opened up, I think, the nature of the performance that the Bundyites were doing out there, the racialized nature of that.

Very quickly some of the Bundyites, particularly a man named LaVoy Finicum, who ended up being the one casualty of the occupation, and has become the movement's martyr, he made these videos directly addressing the Paiute, and trying to use the artifacts as kind of a way of beginning a conversation. That didn't work at all, because his understanding of what the value of the artifacts was is very different from the tribe's understanding, that relates very much to their conceptions of geography and time and land, and his coming from his libertarian perspective. As the tribal archaeologist, Diane Teeman, explained, the traditional Paiute worldview there is that those things belong back in the earth, where they're connected to the community as dirt, which already is a temporal pathway that connect to everyone who's ever touched that landscape in the past.

That clash to me was fascinating. Finicum's efforts were poignant if ham-fisted, and probably also both genuine and also strategic, with the recognition that if the tribe joined them it would've been a very different story. In the media, if it was a bunch of cowboys and a bunch of natives out there, standing against the federal government, you would have had something more like a Wounded Knee situation, which is a history there. That 1973 occupation is something that was very much on the minds of those who are informed about history at all.

Your story is deeply embedded in history and geography, but you've really, for the most part, resisted any idea of heroes or villains. Even with someone like Ammon Bundy, you allow yourself to be a little bit seduced by him, or to understand what is appealing about him, without embracing his worldview. Did that just happen organically, or was that kind of what you wanted to do?

It was the tribe's story that first drew me in, because I was really interested in Native American messianic ideas, particularly from the deserts. And then suddenly the story happened with this very different kind of messianism of Ammon's coming in. I've always been really interested in Latter-day Saint thought and theology, and how the Latter-day Saint dispensation is a strange parallel dispensation to the nation and to manifest destiny or what have you. The political theology that Ammon embodies is fascinating to listen to, because these guys aren't — it's important to realize that people like Ammon Bundy and Ryan Bundy are really smart, but their education is entirely theological, so their whole political vocabulary is political mysticism. When they're talking about the Holy Spirit guiding them to what they're doing — the presence of that throughout American history seems so important, and I think it's a thing that we on the more secular left don't understand enough, and don't understand the power of enough.

Watching the effectiveness of it and also the poetry of it and the weirdness of it, definitely drew me in. It became not so hard to present the spell that Ammon was casting over this landscape, with his Latter-day Saint geography, and then bring that into conflict with the other geographies that emerge from other protagonists in the book, including the Paiutes.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir