The Birds in the Refuge


In some of our country’s first collective excitement of 2016, a gaggle of armed rightwing individuals took up roost in a federal government building at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The people themselves were not from Oregon but rather had flocked to the state from Nevada in this episode of venting about an ongoing grievance against the government in general and the Bureau of Land Management in particular. Though the standoff ended after 40 days, when the last four of the militants surrendered and flew the coop, the ramifications are still developing six months later.

A writer at the Washington Post grappled with what term we should call the nest of militants, and many readers were swift to parrot the writer’s position that the term terrorist should be used (if it walks like a duck…). As the news stories continued to crop up, an increasing number of people began to chat and tweet about the takeover. Some pun-loving people came up with the nicknames Vanilla ISIS and Y’all Quaeda.

Meanwhile, I was wondering what the museum world was to make of the situation. (And apparently I never figured it out, since I am only now getting around to revisiting the rough draft of a blog post that I started writing.)

I won’t go into all the details of the conflict from which this protest arose, since they can be read elsewhere, but the gist of it is that some ranchers in Nevada were continuing to snipe and grouse and crow about the Bureau of Land Management robbin’ them of their land. In this particular event, the militants’ feathers were ruffled by the jail sentences handed down to two ranchers. These two ranchers themselves, however, did not support the takeover of Malheur.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a place primarily for wildlife – for the birds, based on the photos and descriptions I have most frequently seen online. But it is also a visitor destination for humans, with a museum and a visitor center on site, and vast nature to explore and enjoy. (The visitor center and museum have been closed since the occupation began, however, while some portions of the refuge are now open.) I learned from the website that the refuge, under normal circumstances, offers on-site education programs, exhibits, audio tours, wildlife viewing and photography, and hunting and fishing (hunting and fishing are permitted during certain times of year, in limited areas, and within regulations).

The Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon) issued a statement on January 3, 2016 condemning the then-fledgling occupation. “The occupiers have used the flimsiest of pretexts to justify their actions—the conviction of two local ranchers in a case involving arson and poaching on public lands. Notably, neither the local community or the individuals convicted have requested or endorsed the occupation or the assistance of militia groups,” reads the statement. “…We hope for a safe, expeditious end to this armed occupation so that the myriad of local and non-local stakeholders can continue to work together to restore Malheur in ways that are supportive of both the local ecology and the local economy—the occupiers are serving nobody’s interests except their own.”

A post on dailykos.com from January 5, 2016, is full of barbs on behalf of the birding community, demonstrating their fury at an armed insurrection at a wildlife refuge – and arguing that the birders’ skills in observation, stealth, and braving the perils of nature give them an advantage in their quest to #takebackmalheur: “We are watching you and our years of birding photography have made us endlessly  patient and determined.”

In a more somber turn of events, on January 26, 2016, the only death to emerge from the occupation occurred. LaVoy Finicum was killed in a standoff with law enforcement while driving away from the refuge.

The takeover is still having its effects on the community in which the refuge is located. In June 2016, a special recall election against Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, who took a hard line against the insurgents, was seen by Grasty himself “as a referendum on the county’s handling of the crisis.”  The recall efforts lost by a landslide.

In perhaps the ultimate irony in a protest against purported government encroachment on one’s land, the occupiers not only chose to comb through sacred Native American artifacts that were part of the refuge museum’s collection, but also used the Paiute tribe’s burial grounds as their personal restroom. Additionally, they left their mark on the site by leaving behind everything from rotten food to weapons.

So, many months after the fact, I am now again trying to figure out what the museum world is to make of this sequence of events. Certainly, museum exhibits often celebrate the accomplishments of protests from the past, and civil disobedience is meant to be disruptive. Whether I understand or agree with a particular protest’s stance is irrelevant.

But should the museum world really support an occupation of this scale, an occupation that involves closing a taxpayer-funded visitor center to the public for seven months and counting, keeping its staff from working during all that time, defending the incursion with weapons, and literally shitting all over the collection? (Please excuse the foul language.) Seeing such events happen at a museum is hard to swallow. Though I am not a birdwatcher, as a museum-lover, I too can appreciate the birders as they rail against the shutdown of and damage to a museum all about birds.

And while I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to test whether sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, it does stretch the imagination to believe that a group of protesters of a different demographic makeup would have been able to carry on an armed occupation of government property for so long and with only one fatality.

The little stint of armed incursion at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has sung its swan song and ended, but the on-site museum and the local community are still feeling its effects. Though the militants and their ravin’ retain some public support, collective opinion generally sees Finicum’s death as sad and unfortunate, but overall views the group as loons and terrorists. In the midst of a presidential campaign cycle and a seemingly endless string of violent news stories around the nation and world, we hardly hear anything about these occupiers anymore, and perhaps they will be considered a fly-by-night group who will flicker in the public consciousness again the next time they hatch a scheme that makes the news. Whether such an event will happen at a museum remains to be seen.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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