Cliven Bundy, King of Nevada

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Written by Nicholas Cragoe (Sociology)

It’s been a few months since we heard anything much about Cliven Bundy. He’s fading farther and farther from the front page, being quickly forgotten by the media and the public. But for a few weeks in the Spring of 2014, he held court on the dry plains of Nevada grazing country. All the same, a quick refresher: Bundy was and is a cattle rancher near Bunkerville, NV, who decided one day that he’d had enough of being pushed around by federal legislation he had little say in. The straw that broke the rancher’s back seems to have been an attempt by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to curtail ranching ranges in Nevada in order to protect the endangered desert tortoise.
Cliven Bundy
Bundy decided to protest what he saw as federal overreaching by grazing his cattle on federally owned land without providing the necessary paperwork and fees. This was an illegal action under federal law, but through every microphone that would come near him, Bundy proclaimed his refusal to recognize the authority of the US federal government, believing Nevada to be a “sovereign” state and the highest authority to which Bundy would pay allegiance (or anything else). Bundy quickly became a cause-celebre and the mouthpiece for disgruntled anti-government types across the nation, making headlines and giving interviews, receiving support from conservative politicians and media outlets, and whipping the far right into a frenzy.
When the government wrangled Bundy’s cattle and tried to make some arrests, an armed standoff ensued near Bundy’s home involving the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), law enforcement officers, and a small militia of Bundy’s family and supporters. Ultimately the government opted to return the cattle and retreated from the scene. Bundy became the darling of the anti-political right, at least until he made some ill-advised and, frankly, surreal comments about the history of race and slavery, at which point Fox News was seen sprinting in the other direction as fast as possible, along with most of Bundy’s more mainstream supporters. In the months since, Bundy’s fame has faded, but the political and cultural conflict surrounding the Bundy family ranch remains genuinely bizarre and unsettled.

Cliven Bundy is certain that he’s entitled to graze his cattle on federal land free of federal penalty. He is sure he is entitled to do so because his family – at least, a small branch of his family going back to his maternal grandmother and her parents – has been ranching cattle and horses there since the late 1870s. Because the federal tax policies and other restrictions on grazing became so patently unreasonable as to lose their legitimacy. Because God delivered a message to him notifying him of his key role in the larger struggle against federal tyranny. Because hundreds of armed citizens from as far away as Montana – not to mention God – were willing to come to his aid in standing up to the overreaching Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Because the State of Nevada is “sovereign” from federal control, and since Bundy pledges allegiance to the sovereign state of Nevada, he too is independent and sovereign relative to the federal government.

These are the arguments that Bundy and his supporters have made concerning the right of ranchers like Bundy to be out from under the thumb of an expansive and oppressive federal regime. And for all the admittedly considerable fun there is to be had pointing and laughing or scowling after the strange events of the April 12th standoff near Bunkerville, not to mention Bundy’s nostalgic rants about the good ol’ days of slavery, there are some serious issues underlying all the hyper-right chest-thumping. In reading the news stories, blog posts, and tweets from and about the Bundy supporters, something about his arguments felt familiar. Land-ownership; land use; broken government promises and a string of policies that change or disappear altogether based solely on the whims of the massive US federal bureaucracy; sovereignty and autonomy from US government control. Of course, these are the main concerns of sovereigntist ranchers throughout the West, but those ranchers aren’t the only ones talking about these issues, nor are they the only ones whose livelihood – indeed, their very physical existence – depends on them.

Bundy was hitting the big buzz-words of American Indian political movements.

There’s something both appropriate and dissonant about cowboys and Indians echoing similar concerns. On the one hand, the westward march of the American rancher was largely to blame for the wars, land appropriations, diseases, cultural indoctrination, and false promises that wreaked havoc on the Native population West of the Mississippi; on the other hand, ranching has been and remains an integral part of the survival and lifestyle for Native and non-Native people alike, so there is some logic to their overlapping interests. This alignment has shown up recently on the national stage in the fight against the dangerous Keystone pipeline project, which is being protested by (among other groups) the “Cowboy and Indian Alliance” – ranchers, farmers, and tribal officials who have banded together to fight the threat to their environments and livelihoods.

Bundy himself has been made a fool in the eyes of the nation, studiously forgotten by the right wing, mocked by the left, and is now only supported by the fringes of far-right domestic extremism. Bundy has echoed and reflected (although he hasn’t really acknowledged it) the concerns of American Indian political movements like a funhouse mirror, showing similar characteristics but stripped of the historical context of colonial domination that legitimizes and validates indigenous demands. With all this working against him, from the lack of popular support to the absurdity of his claims, there has been no reason to expect Bundy to succeed in his struggles – to keep his cattle, to keep control of the federal land he has been using, to get respect and recognition from anyone, to avoid paying any penalties for his actions, or to maintain his claimed sovereignty from federal control.

Yet there he is, doing just that.

The luck of Bundy and his anti-federal allies will run out in the end. There is only so long that a political movement can maintain momentum in a given struggle. While Bundy’s cattle were returned to him, he still has no recognized right to graze them on federal land, and the BLM and the courts have piled millions of dollars’ worth of fines on Bundy which he will eventually have to pay. However, galling though it is to admit, Bundy is currently undefeated in his fight with the feds. During the standoff near his ranch in Nevada in April, the BLM backed down, returning Bundy’s cattle and removing themselves from the land.
Eric Parker from central Idaho aims his weapon from a bridge 
as protesters gather by the Bureau of Land Management's base camp,
where cattle that were seized from rancher Cliven Bundy are being held,
near Bunkerville, Nevada  April 12, 2014. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Fines have been levied, but Bundy has thus far refused to pay them. The federal government keeps placing demands, and Bundy keeps turning them down (successfully, so far). The Bundy ranch, and the nearby town of Bunkerville has been run recently like the world’s smallest police state, with armed militia screening visitors to the ranch and loitering, armed, at the town’s various public venues including churches and schools. This is, at root, the most unsettling fact about the Bundy situation – particularly for someone who studies indigenous politics and sovereigntist movements: Cliven Bundy is, for all his buffoonery and however temporarily, successfully asserting his sovereignty against the United States as an imperial power.

Contrary to the experience of most individual, communal, national, or tribal efforts to assert sovereignty and autonomy and to defy the legal status of American Indian peoples as “domestic dependents” (ala Chief Justice John Marshall, 1831), Bundy has actually managed, through stubborn refusal and armed threat, to live a life free from the “tyranny” of federal interference, however much the federal government would like to (and probably will) prevent him from doing so much longer. As ridiculous a figure as he is and is known to be, Cliven Bundy has struck a blow for anti-federal domestic extremists through armed resistance, found recognition for himself in the media and political arenas, and has received respect and support from neighbors, community members, allied movements around the country, armed militias willing to wage war against the US government should the need arise, and even from mainstream politicians – at least until Bundy’s persona became political poison and his government supporters had to distance themselves. In short, Bundy has so far managed to have a greater level of success and recognition in his quest for political sovereignty than many, if not most, indigenous movements manage to achieve only after decades of struggle.

Interestingly, as mentioned by a few (mostly American Indian) media outlets, there has actually been a case going on in Indian Country that is remarkably similar to Bundy’s, with the notable exceptions that (A) the plaintiffs are two Western Shoshone women, and (B) there was no armed militia to keep the BLM from seizing and auctioning off the plaintiffs’ cattle (which they did). Mary and Carrie Dann were accused, like Bundy, of grazing on federally owned land in Nevada without proper licensing.
Mary & Carrie Dann
They went to court against the BLM, arguing that the land legally belonged to the Western Shoshone since, like so many other Indian lands around what became the United States, it had been illegally appropriated by the US government. The federal government did eventually agree that the appropriation of the Shoshone land for bomb-testing in the 1950s constituted a kind of murky gray area and that it had undeniable repercussions for the Native people who had previously owned the land, but the Dann sisters nonetheless lost their court battle and were fined millions by the BLM and the courts – a sum which was barely mitigated by the auction of hundreds of their confiscated cattle by the BLM over the last quarter of the 20th century.

Recognition and sovereignty might seem at first glance to be distinct but compatible concepts, and certainly both are basic political commodities that should ideally be possessed by the kind of self-determined nations that many Native communities claim to be. However, as argued by some in indigenous studies, while it is possible to possess both recognition and sovereignty, it is counterproductive to demand both simultaneously – and here is where Bundy has the edge over Native sovereigntist movements. In order to demand recognition as independent political bodies, American Indian advocates must admit dependency on the United States to obtain that recognition; in order to demand sovereignty, on the other hand, the same advocates must categorically deny and reject any dependency on an external political body, including and especially the US federal government.

Bundy doesn’t want or need recognition from the United States in order to accomplish his aims. Never having experienced political death, historical omission, or cartoonish misrepresentation (perhaps until his recent escapades) the way American Indians have, he has no need to demand recognition. We see him. As a legal and cultural citizen of the settler-state, we’ve always seen Bundy, which leaves him free to declare the US government a myth, the Nevadan government the highest political and legal authority, and himself immune from the demands of the BLM, the federal courts, and any law enforcement agency operating on a wider scale than the county Sheriff’s office. Recognition isn’t an issue, so sovereignty can (at least for the moment) be grasped with full force.


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