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Author and historian Betsy Gaines Quammen will speak on the Lower Terrace of the library Thursday about the rise of far-right group People's Rights. (Courtesy photo)

Far-right groups and militia groups have increasingly been in the national spotlight, especially since mention of the Proud Boys at the Sept. 29 presidential debate. But while some far-right groups have ignited social media backlashes and become household names, others have remained in relative obscurity, despite fast-growing numbers, militant rhetoric and heavily-armed followers.

Thursday, Oct. 22 at 12:30 p.m., environmental historian Betsy Gaines Quammen will give a talk on the Lower Terrace of the Wilkinson Public Library, addressing the latest efforts by one such group, People’s Rights, and its leader Ammon Bundy. The author of “American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God and Public Lands in the West” will discuss the extreme interpretation of Mormon theology adopted by Bundy and his followers and its foundational role in their political convictions and mobilization. With much buzz across the nation surrounding the Nov. 3 presidential election and its possible outcomes, Gaines Quammens argues that People’s Rights is a group the general population would do well to pay attention to.

“What we see happening now with the Bundys’ agitating, is that they see mask wearing as an affront to the Constitution. You see Ammon right now building a giant militia presence, called People’s Rights,” Gaines Quammen said. “Joseph Smith equated the Constitution to an inspired document. When I talked to Cliven Bundy [Ammon’s father], “inspired” document means that Jesus wrote it. So they believe that the Constitution is sacred.” 

Gaines Quammens noted that while Bundy’s militant interpretation is not supported by the Mormon Church, that hasn’t stopped him or his followers from organizing or using provocative rhetoric. One of the group’s leaders, according to Gaines Quammen, recently posted on Facebook asking followers, “Are you ready for civil war on November 4?”

“They are gearing up for armed insurrection. That’s just what they are doing,” said Gaines Quammens of the movement, also known as Ammon’s Army.

As of September, Ammon had claimed on a talk radio show that the group boasted 36,000 members with over 300 new members joining each day, Gaines Quammen said. 

While carefully following the recent growth and organizing of the group, Gaines Quammen’s academic work as a historian — and her recently published book “American Zion” — go deep, exploring the complex and conflicting intersections of public lands, the history of the Mormon promised land in the West, Indigenous sacred homelands and the cowboy ethos of rugged individualism. 

When early Mormon settlers reached Utah, after facing severe persecution in previous attempts at establishing the divine homeland promised by the religion’s founder Joseph Smith, they were prepared to defend their new “Zion” at all costs. Militias were formed, and violent conflicts broke out. As time marched onward, the federal government established public lands in the region, including Zion National Park.

“Zion [the Mormon promised land] and public lands occupy the same space,” observed Gaines Quammen. “If you have a God-given homeland over public lands, and public land managers are telling you to reduce your number of cows, reduce grazing in riparian areas, or whatever restrictions you see being laid out on what you see as your ancestral land, it’s an affront.”

But the land in the American West wasn’t empty before the arrival of white settlers, nor was it waiting to be claimed by religious homesteaders or the U.S. government. 

“The other layer in addition to public land and Mormon sacred homeland is that it’s sacred Indigenous land,” she said. “You have these layers on top of each other, and they really inform the way that we approach the landscape depending on the cultural understandings we’re bringing in.”

With so much occurring in national politics, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer complexity and volume of information. Knowing the history preceding modern politics can be a helpful tool to understand the roots of extreme political groups.

“As the election draws near, we hear more and more about militias and separatist groups that threaten to wreak havoc, perhaps regardless of the outcome of the election,” said Laura Colbert, adult programs specialist at the Wilkinson Public Library. “Betsy Gaines Quammen has an understanding of these groups' mindsets, having spent years researching and interviewing members of separatist groups as she was writing ‘American Zion.’ We are looking forward to hosting her in person to share her insights and talk about what has transpired in recent months with the formation of Ammon Bundy's new movement, People’s Rights.”