Ammon Bundy and the myth of the American West

January 27, 2016
Leader of a group of armed protesters Ammon Bundy talks to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 8, 2016. Saturday's takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside the town of Burns, Oregon, marked the latest protest over federal management of public land in the West, long seen by conservatives in the region as an intrusion on individual rights. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart - RTX21KXG

Leader of a group of armed protesters Ammon Bundy talks to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart – RTX21KXG

The arrest of Ammon Bundy and many of his supporters on Tuesday left one man dead and a handful of protesters still occupying a federal wildlife refuge in rural eastern Oregon. Weeks after they first occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the question remains: What do they want?

Ammon and his brother Ryan Bundy had issued an array of claims and accusations that resonate with many Western land users. Who are the enemies they confront? The federal government, the Bureau of Land Management and even Linda Sue Beck, a biologist at the wildlife refuge whose office they are occupying, draw the ire of the Bundy brothers and their followers.

Declarations of federal tyranny, divine inspiration and potential armed revolution provided a barrage of headlines, media musings and fodder for political analysts and late-night talk-show hosts alike. But why does this rhetoric sound so familiar and why are so many sympathetic to the message, if not the method? Because it’s based on the myth of the American West — a land of good guys and bad.

Inmates (clockwise from top left) Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Brian Cavalier, Peter Santilli, Shawna Cox, Ryan Payne and Joseph O'Shaughnessy are seen in a combination of police jail booking photos released by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in Portland, Oregon January 27, 2016. One protester was shot dead and eight others were arrested on Tuesday after authorities confronted members of an armed group that has staged a month-long occupation of a federal wildlife reserve in Oregon, activists and officials said.  REUTERS/MCSO/Handout via Reuters TPX IMAGES OF THE DAYFOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTX2495O

Inmates (clockwise from top left) Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Brian Cavalier, Peter Santilli, Shawna Cox, Ryan Payne and Joseph O’Shaughnessy are seen in a combination of police jail booking photos released by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Portland, Oregon January 27, 2016. REUTERS/MCSO/Handout via Reuters

To many Americans, the West remains a place of nostalgia, fueled by decades of enthralling tales that reverberate with man’s conquest of an untamed land. It is a “West” occupied by cowboys and Indians, ranchers and pioneers, lawmen and gamblers. It’s rife with guns and violence, where the good guy in the white hat takes a stand against a bad guy in a black hat. It is this imaginary West that infuses the rhetoric and misguided agenda of the Oregon protestors. One idea ties it all together: land rights.

The West, real or imagined, is about land and its claimants. It remains a vast and largely unoccupied geographic space that encompasses a multitude of ecosystems and crosses numerous state and tribal boundaries. Federal lands, like those disputed by the Bundy family, are managed for the benefit of the nation. The Bundy brothers lease the land and must, like all renters, abide by the contract terms. The federal government rents grazing land at a price far below market value. But the Bundy family, including father Cliven Bundy, decided to stop paying the rent.

Ironically, Ammon Bundy’s objective is to reclaim control of “our land” for the local population. When he was asked what it would take to end the occupation, Bundy responded, “When the people of Harney County are secure enough and confident enough that they can continue to manage their own land and their own rights and resources.”

Yet, it is not their land.

Throughout the 19th-century, the juggernaut of U.S. expansion into the continental West was rapid and lucrative for many Americans. It was, however, often ruinous for the environment, and it shattered the Native American societies occupying the territory.

The West became a proving ground of an imagined American character and national fortitude. Mythical battles between civilization (“white settlers”) and “savagery” (Native Americans, cattle rustlers) were played out in deserts, prairies and mountains. For the Bundy encampment and its sympathizers, it was their contest and their battle. Character and manhood were to be tested. The protestors were the self-appointed white hats, standing up for misconstrued ideas of “freedom” and “liberty” in this most recent showdown.

But who are the black hats this time? An old and familiar opponent: the federal government.

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President Theodore Roosevelt on Glacier Point overlooking Yosemite Valley, California, in 1904. Library of Congress

At the beginning of the 20th century, activists, artists and scholars expressed a growing awareness about the vulnerability and value of the American West.  This realization culminated in federal legislation that sought to both manage and exploit Western lands — spawning numerous agencies and a plethora of legislation.

Today, the federal government controls almost half the land in the American West. In some states, like Oregon, the feds control the majority of it. Among the network of federal agencies in charge are the Bureau of Land Management (the current nemesis of the Bundy brothers), the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bundy has been claiming land and rights that dismiss a century of laws and legislation. He also ignores the land’s first occupants, the Burns Paiute, who continue to rightfully claim that land. He sidesteps his family’s dependence on government support and subsidies — which include a sizable federal Small Business Administration loan for more than a half-million dollars. He banters about a potential armed revolution while proclaiming his dedication to the U.S. Constitution.

Bundy’s confused rhetoric is partly a refraction of spotty Christian theology, fringe militia movements and American mythology. Yet he is standing on solid ground in the imagined West in which his ideology resides.

20 comments

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Before the Bundies at the wildlife refuge: Public was welcome and had full access.

After the Bundies at the wildlife refuge: Public is not welcome and has no access. They are instead met with an ISIS style armed checkpoint.

So this helps the public…. how?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Before Bundies: A pack of m&m’s or a dangling knife is good enough to get killed under the suspicious looking premise.

After Bundies: Armed with potent weapons, earns you the respect for – peaceful resolution.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

You say, “To many Americans, the West remains a place of nostalgia, fueled by decades of enthralling tales… [and so forth]”. I would challenge you to find a single American that holds such a simplistic, stylized view of the West. I would suggest that your characterizations and representations of the situation are not adding any clarity to general understanding of the circumstances and the situation.

You say, “Federal lands, like those disputed by the Bundy family, are managed for the benefit of the nation.” I believe that I remember that myth from my 7th grade civics class.

~toktomi~
[will this be my first comment that gets through the censors at Reuters?]

Posted by claired | Report as abusive

Dirt bags with too much time on their hands, itching for a fight.

Get a job, bundeez.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

He’s trying to get his own reality show.

Posted by Calvin2k | Report as abusive

Quakers you write about in Indiana and you think you know about the West. You’ve probably never even been in the West. Typical Phd buffoon.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

P-u-n-k-s with guns. What a waste of taxpayer money having to babysit their tantrum. Hopefully they’ll take the time to learn something about America while they’re behind bars.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

The locals don’t want the Bundies there. These losers are transplants with too much time on their hands.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

“…the West remains a place of nostalgia…”

And, nostalgia for a time that never existed is at the core of American Libertarian ideology.
If you are lucky enough to have a faux Republican Libertarian governor or a Libertarian blog in your state, you soon learn that all the Libertarian talk of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ boils down the ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ of business to mess over their employees, customers and the environment any way they can.

Posted by emm305 | Report as abusive

Land of the Free, until Big Gov wants your property – http://theconservativetreehouse.com/2016  /01/03/full-story-on-whats-going-on-in- oregon-militia-take-over-malheur-nationa l-wildlife-refuge-in-protest-to-hammond- family-persecution/

Posted by Flax | Report as abusive

A Canadian once told me that their frontier IS the North and their national hero is the policeman while our frontier WAS the West and our hero is the outlaw. The big question for me is what sort of government would you get from people willing to threaten you with guns at a town meeting? Who’d want to live like that?
The other myth these people try to further is that the “founding fathers added the 2nd Amendment to allow citizens to mount an armed challenge to the government. It was actually added because the US at that time did not have a standing army and depended on citizen militias organized by the states for “the common defense”. The current myth was foisted on the public by the drooling morons that run the NRA and used by the “gun press” to sell magazines. Now a man is dead and more could follow.

Posted by elcantwell | Report as abusive

Federal Congress passed legislature carelessly that gave the federal claims to state land they never had the authority to take according the Constitution.

Posted by TJ2000 | Report as abusive

The Forest Service, BLM, Wildlife Service, NPS, all are guilty of empire building. One of the goals of each of these, as well as any corporate or even charity operation, is to compete for more power and influence. It’s reasonable for families who have been ranching on public land since pre formation of these govt. agencies to be disappointed if not bitter. The guy that was killed, from what I understand has 11 kids and runs a construction company in Cedar City UT, hundreds of miles from Burns OR. Why he was so enthusiastic about leaving his responsibilities as a father for to join these ya-hoos is beyond me. Now we the people can look forward to supporting those kids.

Posted by flashmayo | Report as abusive

This is they steal land:

Shame federal politicians http://www.bundysbuddies.com/

Claim its because of their “State Enabling Act”
https://www.americanprogress.org/wp-cont ent/uploads/2013/03/GoadLandsReclaimBrie f-1.pdf

Where (pg 9 above Idaho example);
“And the people of the state of Idaho do agree and declare that we forever
disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof ”

GETS TAKEN OUT OF ITS OBVIOUS CONTEXT

“And the people of the state of Idaho do agree and declare that we forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof, and to all lands lying within said limits owned or held by any Indians or Indian tribes;”
http://legislature.idaho.gov/idstat/IC/A rtXXISect19.htm

Posted by TJ2000 | Report as abusive

WE KNOW HOW THE MEDIA CONTROLS DISSENT–ALL OF IT! REUTERS TO!

Posted by JIMSHADY | Report as abusive

I will gladly pay you grazing fees on Thursday with a loan you provide on Tuesday.

Posted by drummer185 | Report as abusive

The author clearly did no research at all before writing this article. She seems to be completely unaware of the circumstances leading up to the current situation and instead posits that men who wear cowboy hats every day must be playing dress up and acting out a game. What an uninformed fool.

Posted by Karody | Report as abusive

A bunch of ignorant criminal transplants with nothing better to do. If you can leave your ranch for two months to go play army at a bird refuge in Oregon…. you don’t do much.

These losers are unwanted by the locals. Glad they’re being arrested and shot.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

For those that can’t read, the issue in Oregon had nothing at all to do with a Federal land grab. Take your fake outrage and apply that energy to something positive.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Well we wont post just any ‘ol patriotic comments, right? If the dumded down Sheeple where to learn the truth and see the lies for what they really are, yikes, for you.

Posted by 45thPresident | Report as abusive