A rancher’s claim to tribal land

Cliven Bundy refuses to pay grazing fees on federal land taken at great cost to the Southern Paiutes.


Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

This week, the Bundy family stunned the nation again, this time with the shocking dismissal of a federal case against Cliven Bundy, the scofflaw rancher who made headlines in 2014 when he and his armed supporters squared off with federal agents trying to impound Bundy’s cattle, which had been illegally grazing on public lands. By then, Bundy had not paid grazing fees for decades, and he now owes the federal government — whose authority he refuses to recognize — more than $1 million.

On Monday, citing reports from the FBI, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal agencies, U.S. District Court Judge Gloria Navarro found U.S. attorneys withheld evidence that could have helped the defense prove that the Bundys were not a threat to federal employees. Navarro called the action “flagrant prosecutorial misconduct” and dismissed the case. As we’ve reported, Bundy’s public antics and confrontations with federal officials have transformed him from “just a rancher who wouldn’t pay his fees, to a lasting political figure that the far-right anti-federal government set continues to coalesce around.”

To Bundy, it’s more than fighting back against an oppressive federal government. Bundy has said he has an ancestral right to the land, because his forefathers have been ranching in the area since the late 1870s. In fact, county property records show Bundy’s family didn’t begin grazing cattle in Clark County until 1954, two years after Cliven Bundy’s birth, six after his family purchased the land, and eight after the inception of the BLM.

Among those who do actually have an ancestral claim in the region is Vernon Lee, a descendant of the Southern Paiute. “As a native, and as the tribe that actually had that land granted by the federal government back in the 1800s, he really doesn’t got a right at all,” Lee told NPR’s Kirk Siegler. “If anybody’s got a right it would be the Moapa Band of Paiutes.” The Moapa’s tribal lands “once included all of Gold Butte, but was later shrunk tenfold by the U.S. government,” Siegler reported. “Today the reservation is just this small sliver of desert north of Cliven Bundy’s place and adjacent to a coal-fired power plant.”

The Southern Paiutes, or Nuwuvi people, have called the area home dating back to their origin story, and it is home to rare species sacred to them, such as tortoise, bighorn sheep, and eagles, as well as endangered plants. The Moapa band first encountered white settlers in the 1830s, following the opening of the Old Spanish Trail, after which, “A peaceful people saw their land and water seized, and their homes frequently raided by slavers,” according to the tribe’s website. The tribe’s population was decimated, exacerbated by disease, and survivors fled into the desert. As a result, traditional farming techniques were abandoned and never regained. In 1873, the same decade Bundy claims his family arrived in the area, the federal government set aside 39,000 square miles for the Nuwuvi. “In 1875, though, the reservation was reduced to a meager 1,000 acres, followed by 60 years of neglect and corruption by white agents.” 

Gold Butte was designated as a monument late last year by President Barack Obama, over the objections of the state’s conservative congressmen and governor. The designation was made in the same move that declared Bears Ears National Monument, which President Donald Trump reduced by 85 percent last month. Meanwhile, Bundy’s cattle continue to graze freely on land taken from the Paiutes, as members of the Moapa band look on. In other words, while the dismissal of the case against Bundy came as a surprise, maybe it shouldn’t have.

Petroglyphs inside Gold Butte National Monument, in Nevada.

Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect court proceedings. The federal case against Cliven Bundy and supporters was dismissed; they were not acquitted. 

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

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