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for people who care about the West

Cliven Bundy’s victory lap

In Montana, Bundy and his followers celebrate a sound defeat of federal prosecutors.

 

There are seven speakers, songs, and prayers, another song, and then more prayers. Roxanne Ryan of the nearby town of Plains, Montana, a tall and unadorned woman, long gray hair framing a face of quiet stoicism, introduces each speaker. The sadness in her voice, her heavy air of tribulation, is real. Roxanne’s son, Jake, one of the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, is in Oregon, facing sentencing for his role in the refuge takeover. Her younger son, Jubal, is a featured singer tonight, belting out a rousing rendition of the seldom-heard third verse of The Star-Spangled Banner (“No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”), and the Ryan family will, as the hours wear on and energy in the big room begins to flag, sing a shortened but poignant version of Marty Robbins’ Ballad of the Alamo.

Ryan Bundy waves a Constitution as he speaks.
Tony Bynum for High Country News

From Ryan Bundy, who has come with his father, Cliven, to this once-proud gymnasium on this long winter’s night, we get pronouncements on history, individual sovereignty, man’s dominion over nature, constitutional law and the Bible. Ryan’s face is jailhouse-pale, his mouth and right eye distorted from a childhood injury. He is not a large or imposing man, nor a compelling speaker, but the audience seems transfixed: His countenance, in the strong lights, beneath his oversized white summer Stetson, is that of a broken angel. “I believe that God intended for land to be in the hands of individuals, and not governments,” he says, and the crowd cheers with gusto. “Is Montana a state? I’m not sure. Does it own 100 percent of its land and resources?” The crowd responds with a vigorous “No!” Ryan continues, “We should change our name, then, to the Imperial Provinces of America!”

[RELATED:http://www.hcn.org/issues/49.22/justice-how-ryan-bundy-sees-the-west-cliven-bundy-bunkerville-trial]

At first glance, Paradise, Montana, just a few miles to the west of the Salish-Kootenai Indian Reservation, seems an odd place for such a momentous event. The town has seen better days: The Pair-A-Dice Bar is gone, there is no grocery store, and in the winter’s gray chill, the 180 or so inhabitants are nowhere to be seen. This venerable old schoolhouse, perched on a hill above the ramshackle streets, closed in 2013, though a group of Sanders County residents was able to preserve the historic building for community events such as this one, the “Freedom and Property Rally.”

The railroad still runs through Paradise, but, as in a hundred desolate songs and poems, the train has not stopped here in decades. For the 25 or so years I have known the town, it has been a place where people from far away come to hide out, to get off the grid (or try to), to put wreckage or bad choices or grief in the rearview. It collects the lame and the halt, the aggrieved, like the grooves of a wash plant collect the densest gravels. People tend to seek out Paradise, and Sanders County, for the isolation and the sense that this is a last holdout of the Old West, carved out of the former plats of timber companies up any of the side drainages. The stories have been the same for decades now: of unexploited gold and silver deposits, of a timber industry shut down by “eco-Nazis” in league with a tyrannical government that covets minerals, range, timber and even private-land holdings, for some nefarious globalist plan.

Perhaps, then, the Freedom and Property Rally belongs here.

Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder — a Republican who also leads the American Lands Council, which advocates the transfer of federal lands to the states — shares headliner status here with the grand old man himself, Cliven Bundy, who has driven 15 hours from his home in Bunkerville, Nevada, to meet with his followers and celebrate his freedom after soundly beating federal prosecutors who sought to imprison him and two sons for their actions during the Bunkerville standoff and the Malheur takeover. Tonight belongs to the Bundys, to their triumph, and to all the seething resentments that swirl around them like a band of cavorting imps.

But we must wait for the prize.

Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder approaches Cliven Bundy for a signature on a newspaper featuring an article about the Bundy mistrial.
Tony Bynum for High Country News

We listen to the rambling story of a white-bearded local man named Billy Hill, whose long history of fighting with the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies is also available in printed form, for free, on the table next to the petitions and the “Jury Nullification” T-shirts. Among Hill’s grievances is a dispute over open range, or grazing cattle without fees. Such a stance ought to discredit a speaker in a room partly filled with cattlemen who must pay land taxes and grazing fees — but in one of the mysteries of Paradise, tonight it does not.

We hear from Shawna Cox, the middle-aged blond-haired matriarch who was in the truck driven by LaVoy Finicum when he was shot and killed by law enforcement officers during the Malheur standoff. Cox is outraged that an armed occupation of a wildlife refuge by men kitted out for war inspired an armed response from law enforcement. Much of the crowd seems to share her outrage; in fact, outrage is the primary currency here, Finicum the fallen martyr around which it coalesces.

The security is tight — large, mostly fit young men with ear pieces, bundled in jackets despite the warmth of the gym, most of them righteously and luxuriously bearded as befits a latter-day Son of Thunder. Pageantry is important. In addition to the ubiquitous, special-edition copies of the Constitution, worn in the front pocket like membership badges, there are posters and photos and flags. One poster shows Duane Ehmer riding his horse, Hellboy, in the snow at Malheur, the big American flag unfurling behind him. A banner featuring the late Finicum’s bar-and-V brand is stapled above an electric blue flag that just says “Liberty.”

[RELATED:http://www.hcn.org/issues/48.5/the-darkness-at-the-heart-of-malheur]

A little boy in a tricorn hat toys with a real hatchet. His adult, tricorned counterpart, verbose, pony-tailed and wearing round spectacles, sports a once-colorful homemade Colonial soldier suit and purple leggings, both a bit dingy now. A shaven-headed man who looks to be in his 60s wears a T-shirt that proclaims his captaincy in the “U.S. Militia, Northern Command, 79th Battalion, Shoshone, Idaho.” The predominant age of the crowd is over 50, and most well beyond that, but there is a smattering of families with small children, dressed plainly, members of a number of religious sects that seem to be everywhere now around rural Montana. There is a contingent of 15 or so members of the Missoula-based group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, most of them young, here to provide a dissenting view of the Bundys’ expressed desire to rid Americans of their public lands. (I host a podcast for the group, but at this rally I represented myself only.)  

Cliven Bundy takes the stage at the old schoolhouse in Paradise, Montana, for the Freedom and Property Rally.
Tony Bynum for High Country News

When Cliven Bundy finally steps to the microphone, the crowd cheers, but not for long. The elder Bundy has served, he reminds us, 700 days in jail, but he is not here to celebrate his freedom, nor to revel in the adoration of the people of Paradise. He is here to admonish, even to scold. He tells the audience they are Montanans, citizens of a sovereign state, and that they have failed to live up to that fact. He refers to himself in the third person.

“Who is Cliven mad at?” he asks.

Yells from the crowd: “Obama!” “Hillary Clinton!” “The federal government, ‘cause they violated your rights!”

“No,” he says. “Cliven doesn’t recognize their authority at all. I don’t have a contract with the federal government. I don’t graze their lands. This talk about transferring lands back to the states, I say, ‘Good heavens! We already have a Constitution!’ ”

It is late. We’ve been here for hours. The panel of speakers looks weary behind Cliven. Ryan, as if lulled by his father’s voice, closes his eyes and seems to doze, his big Stetson cocked forward a bit.

“We already talked about how there is no place in the Constitution where it says a government can own land,” Cliven continues. “A neighbor told me, ‘Never call it your lease, or allotment. Call it your ranch. You are the one who has the rights.’ All that red on the map, it all has pre-emptive rights, it has all been grazed by sheep or cattle, it has all been disposed of by the federal government, all the rights have been adjudicated.”

His talk goes on, to include the Constitutional Sheriffs’ and county supremacy movements, which claim county government as the supreme law over the federal government. Cliven is articulate, a convincing speaker, but the legalities and the natural rights to which he refers — to which he has committed his life, liberty and sons — seem nebulous at best. He winds up his talk with a return to his religious faith, the deep love of God and family that he says brought him through his months in jail. He seems — he is — sincere. “We need to love each other. My grandmother used to say, ‘We could all do a little better.’ Thank you.”

Even now, the rally is not over. There is a benediction, more talk, more fellowship. And why not? Where is there to go, with the ice-clotted Clark Fork River right outside, the dark settlement quiet under the looming darker mountains? In all this tyrannized, fallen nation, what better place than here, in the comfortable company of the true believers?

Hal Herring, a contributing editor at Field and Stream, wrote his first story for High Country News in 1998. He covers environment, guns, conservation and public-lands issues for a variety of publications.