In pictures: The Oregon siege
On February 11th, the 41-day occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by armed militia ended with the group’s surrender.
Two months later photographer Daniel Cronin, who had documented the initial occupation, returned to the scene and the nearby town of Burns to record the fallout. Here are some of his stunning pictures – and the stories behind them in Cronin’s words – which we featured in Delayed Gratification #22.
“Harney County has a lot of open space – it is the largest county in Oregon, but has the smallest population – but for the six weeks of the standoff it felt pretty claustrophobic. The world was watching.
The occupation began as a peaceful protest in the town of Burns. There was a march there in support of local farmer Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven. The Hammonds had been convicted of arson on federal lands and had already served time in prison; they were released, but a judge ruled that this release was too lenient and they were ordered back on 4th January. This resentencing angered anti-government groups across the country and Burns became a magnet for activists.
The initial protest was a couple of hundred people, a mixture of locals and outsiders. It became about trying to reclaim federal land. The activists believe that rather than being in the hands of the federal government, land like the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge should be managed by locals. To everyone’s surprise the officials didn’t crack down on the takeover straight away. The occupiers dug in, eventually staying for 41 days.”
“Most people I spoke with weren’t from Oregon, they had dropped whatever they were doing at the time and headed to the refuge when they heard the news. There were people from New Mexico (like the above pictured James Ranger Stanton, from Fort Sumner), Arizona, North Carolina – all over the country.
The militia were surprisingly media-savvy. Almost every day at 11am they would hold a press conference in front of the reserve. Spokesperson Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum would talk about how they were good stewards of the refuge and why lands like these should be returned to local people.
After one conference he led us down into the refuge and showed us one small area where the occupiers were fixing up buildings and cleaning them out, but it felt like a farce. Photos that emerged after the standoff showed they had pretty much trashed other areas. There was human faeces and rubbish everywhere. They left the refuge in a pretty bad way.”
“Since there was no significant law enforcement presence around the refuge, the occupiers and people supporting them were free to travel out and bring in supplies. The occupiers got so used to commuting from the siege to the town that they got a false sense of freedom. They got used to moving around without any trouble from the authorities, but they were being lulled into a false sense of security.
The trap was sprung on Tuesday 26th January. Finicum, the Bundys and four other men were driving on Route 395 north of Burns to a community meeting when they were met by police. Shots were fired and Finicum was killed. The others were arrested. After this the federal and state police forces formed their own perimeter around the refuge. The occupation continued for another fortnight, but with the police roadblocks keeping out supplies, Finicum dead and the Bundys in jail, it lost its impetus. The remaining occupiers surrendered on 11th February.”
“When I returned to Burns in April, two months after the surrender, the whole physical and emotional landscape seemed to have changed. It was spring, the snow had melted and the air felt fresh and alive, but the mood in the town could not have been more different.
Whereas before everyone was happy to share their opinions, now nobody really wanted to talk about the occupation. It’s like the old adage that you never discuss religion or politics at a dinner party – the siege had revealed everyone’s political stance and caused arguments within families between people with different opinions on it.
The Burns Paiute tribe are the forgotten people in this story. The occupied refuge is on tribal land – there’s a burial ground there. The occupiers did a lot of damage. There’s a road that runs from one building to the next, but not taking the most direct route. The occupiers thought ‘Well, that’s kind of stupid’ and put in a straight road between the buildings. But the reason the original road was indirect was to avoid all these native American artefacts, a lot of pottery and other rare archeological finds, some of which hadn’t yet been excavated. The occupiers destroyed them by building this new road.”
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