Oregon: Militant Cowboys and the Legend of the Old West

Ammon Bundy, the leader of the American paramilitary militants who have been occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a federal nature reserve located south of Burns, Oregon since Jan. 3, 2016, isn’t exactly a nobody from nowhere.

He is someone fairly popular among ranchers in Nevada, his home state. In April 2014 in the town of Bunkerville, Bundy — who was arrested on Jan. 26 with his two brothers — staged a noisy protest against the rangers called in to confiscate his livestock, after he and his entire family had refused to pay grazing taxes.

This rancher, who always appears in front of the camera with a massive cowboy hat and a twisted sneer, was even then calling on his organization’s hotheads to respond to the authorities’ intervention through rallies, declarations in front of TV cameras against Washington’s tyranny and ultranationalist flags flapping in the wind. Evidently, the call did not fall on deaf ears, even though at that time the theatrical protest was extinguished without the dramatic results of Jan. 26.

Ranchers’ Rationale

There was substance, however, in the fear that the militant ranchers’ protest could have spread from rural southeast Oregon through to Nevada. In these parts, there are ancient roots beneath the cowboy ranchers’ protest. They were the main players in the bloody gunfight on the road between the federal area, where the other 150 militant extremists were barricaded, and the Burns hospital. Known in the U.S. as the Sagebrush Rebellion, it is an age-old struggle for control over part of the federal government’s millions of acres of land in Oregon and other western American states.

Even if they do not share the more violent, outspoken actions of the militants from Bundy’s Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, local ranchers are almost all in agreement over accusing Washington of wanting to overturn the right of free grazing inside federal territories and hunting within nature reserves. It is not a directly political issue for them, notwithstanding the ultranationalist and anti-government rhetoric utilized by every militant cowboy arrested in Oregon on Jan. 26.

For the area’s ranchers, it is a question of survival, or their natural right to ranch and graze just as their forefathers have done for centuries, according to them: pelt hunters, gold prospectors and ranchers who, according to widespread interpretation in these parts, contributed to settling these lands and reclaiming the old West from the Indians without — and in some cases despite — the central government’s assistance. The fact that all members of Bundy’s organization are on the extreme right is not the main issue in this story, despite what the American media maintains. At the core of this protest is the legend of settling the West.

Cowboys and the Legend of the West

Emanating from the ranchers’ age-old diffidence toward Washington is the echo of every American’s rejection of abuse by the central government, a sentiment that runs deep in these territories. There is the myth of the West’s settlement as a personal and collective epic. There exists the hard-to-kill idea that the Old West was won and settled, up until just a few decades ago, only thanks to the sweat and initiative of American whites — without aid from the central government.

In actuality, from at least the end of the 1800s, after the Indian genocide and the central government’s expansion, the soil and lands of the West have been largely federal property – with the land and water rented out to the ranchers. It is also true that the settling of the West, with the impressive construction of dams and highways, has continued to occur even outside the western territories thanks to the expansion and finances of central government, as attested by Gilberto Oneto, a federal historian.

However, the legends endure, often nurtured by the movie industry. The Bundy brothers, having organized a nearly hundred-strong militia, are proof. For them, the legend of the West belongs to them and their forefathers; what right does the state have to violate these rights, won with the blood and sweat of their ancestors? Why pay rent for land they consider to be their property? In America, legends are hard to kill.

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