Recalling Some of Oregon’s Unluckiest Days

Friday the 13th isn’t a day we celebrate, but it is one we recognize. Superstitions aside, consider how much luck has contributed to whatever we call our fate — as people and as a state.

On this Friday the 13th, check out a new, six-part Netflix documentary, “Wild Wild Country.” It recounts some of Oregon’s unluckiest days. It includes some familiar faces.

In the first episode, Wasco County Commissioner William Hulse remarks, “Someone will write a book about this. The people that read it will say that it’s fiction.” The arrival of Indian guru Bhagwan Rajneesh and his followers in 1981 begins a tale of utopia, ambition, espionage, and attempted murder. But it’s not fiction, and there’s more that will be familiar than the names and faces.

Rajneesh charged his personal secretary and spokesperson Ma Anand Sheela to find land in America for a utopian commune that would practice Rajneesh’s “New Man” teachings, rejecting cultural limits on sexuality and greed. They bought the 64,000-acre Big Muddy Ranch near Antelope, Oregon and his disciples went to work.

The cult didn’t steal a part of central Oregon. They hacked our systems and freedoms to assert their rights as new Oregonians. The state’s new land use laws became the first line of defense. They voted to give themselves home rule as an Oregonian city. When that didn’t give them the freedoms they wanted, they set their sites instead on nearby Antelope, Oregon.

Rajneeshees began buying properties and claiming their rights as Antelope residents. They took over the town and elected their own mayor, changing the name of the village to Rajneesh. They kept an appearance of democracy by retaining one longtime resident, John Silvertooth, on the local city council.

Wasco County then exerted its authority, so the Rajneeshees began recruiting homeless people from across the country to move to central Oregon. They promised them room and board, if they’d only step on a waiting bus and register to vote when they arrived.

When it became clear they couldn’t amass a majority before the county election, they took another tack. They tried fiery rhetoric and poisoned salad bars to see if they could suppress the vote enough to gain control.

Against their plans, three heroes emerge. Dave Frohnmayer was Oregon’s attorney general. As a Constitutional law professor, he had a keen interest in the necessary separation of church and state.

Frohnmayer may not have become aware of the magnitude of the threat coming from a desolate spot of the state, had he not heard from his lifelong friend, Bill Bowerman. Bowerman’s son, Jon, ranched next door to The Big Muddy in Antelope.

Bowerman’s weren’t the only cowboy boots on the ground in Antelope. Silvertooth stopped one day at the city dump and saw some Rajneesh posters that might be worth saving as collectibles. Surrounded by his neighbors’ trash, Silvertooth discovered incriminating documents that hadn’t been properly shredded.

I don’t mind giving away parts of the story because the story’s not fiction. If you lived in Oregon in the early 1980s, you may remember how it all unfolded in real time. You won’t feel cheated that I highlighted a few points of the saga.

It’s hard to think of events in our own lifetimes as part of our heritage, but when those events are as large and spectacular as these, the shadows of history are cast quickly. After watching the miniseries, you’ll know Oregon a bit better — and probably love it a little bit more.

You’ll also recognize in the story some familiar themes that are recurring around us today. It’s important to remember that our freedoms have been hacked before, setting neighbor against neighbor. Antelope survived the tumult because they’d always been a place where people help one another. We may need to summon that mettle again.

You might not be an attorney general or the childhood friend of one. You might be only the guy who ends up finding important evidence carelessly discarded at the dump. We all have a part to play. Not every hero will be well known.

Circumstances don’t shape our destiny. Character does.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.