In 1598, a defining Spanish expedition, led by conquistador Juan de Oñate, departed Zacatecas, Mexico. The Spaniards and their indigenous servants, following trails previously blazed by Native Americans, made their way north to what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico, founded in 1610. To solidify its occupation, the Spanish monarchy awarded mercedes (land grants) to early settlers committed to community building. Abiquiú, Tierra Amarilla, Truchas, and many others are among the earliest land grant-based European settlements in what is now the United States.
Upon gaining its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico recognized the validity of the mercedes. Note that nearly 1,200 miles separate Mexico City and Santa Fe. My sense is that the young republic thought it impractical to disturb things in far-flung communities, by then over two hundred years old. Things went rather swimmingly until the Mexican-American War, when, in 1846, a Manifest Destiny-driven United States waged war with Mexico, producing one of the largest land grabs in world history—the states of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.
The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 brought an official end to the conflict, a document that ostensibly respected the legality of the Spanish land grants. However, through an institutionalized, race-based pattern of legal maneuvering, theft and violent confrontation, possession of too many of the mercedes was yanked away from the early settlers by the new conquerors at a startling scale and dizzying rate.
Fast-forward to the creation of La Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants), led by Reies López Tijerina, a charismatic ex-preacher and land grant activist. In October 1966, protesting the tolerated pattern of land dispossession and economic and social marginalization, Tijerina and his band occupied the Echo Amphitheater, a U.S. National Parks site located just west of Abiquiú. (Readers are probably more familiar with Abiquiú as the community just down the road from Georgia O'Keefe's storied Ghost Ranch.) By seizing this federal property, (sound familiar?) the group hoped to draw attention to the claims of the former land grant community of nearby San Joaquín. Things did not go well with New Mexico's governor and, upping the ante, the activists took over the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse, located north of Abiquiú, on June 5, 1967. Shooting erupted and hostage-taking ensued, followed by the prompt ouster of the activists and a massive manhunt. Tijerina and many of his followers were actively prosecuted.
Fast-forward again to the recent occupation of southeast Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed anti-federalists. This white militia's seizure of federal land, now in its third week, was prompted by the imprisonment of two convicted local arsonists whose crimes were perpetrated on nearby federal lands. According to an Arizona-based militiaman holding up at the refuge, "It needs to be very clear that these buildings will never, ever return to the federal government." (Washington Post, January 17) I am not sure that rough and ready Teddy Roosevelt, who established the Malheur Refuge in 1908, would approve, nor would his government standby in response to this violation of federal law. The militia has indicated that it will use force to maintain possession, which is not sitting too well with the law-abiding folks of nearby Burns, Oregon. (I wonder if some there are thinking the situation could escalate into something resembling WGN America's The Outsiders television series.) I join millions in hoping for a peaceful solution.
Let us be clear. In the case of New Mexico and Oregon, we are talking about Native lands. I find it unfortunate, though not surprising, that original claims of tribal sovereignty have been largely ignored in the reporting of the takeover, a most regrettable outcome of all of this.
Imagine, if you will, if a group of armed Latinos or Native Americans had occupied Malheur professing to violently resist eviction? I suspect that Harney County, state, and federal officials would have mobilized swiftly. I invite readers to imagine the scene and outcome.
New York-born comic Hari Kondabolu reflects, "Telling me that I'm obsessed with talking about racism in America is like telling me I'm obsessed with swimming when I'm drowning." I find his words hauntingly resonant in assessing the implications of the Malheur Refuge conundrum.