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for people who care about the West

Wild country

Western mythology still holds tremendous sway.


For anyone with an appetite for the West’s ongoing culture clashes, the new Netflix series Wild Wild Country is an unexpected feast. It describes how the followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh bought a ranch outside of rural Antelope, Oregon, in the early 1980s and attempted to build a utopian community. The series hits themes familiar to High Country News readers: a persecuted minority seeking a remote place to practice their beliefs without interference; conservative white locals with little tolerance for outsiders; fabulous wealth (the Bhagwan reportedly had 90 Rolls Royces and wore million-dollar diamond watches) contrasted with wretched poverty (the Rajneesh community bused in thousands of homeless people from cities in an attempt to sway local elections); and, of course, guns and violence. There’s even an environmental angle — Oregon’s first counterattack focused on the community’s violation of progressive land-use regulations designed to protect agricultural lands from development.

I couldn’t find anything about this tumultuous episode in HCN’s archives, perhaps because the story was already heavily covered by the Oregon and national press, or, more likely, because back then we had a tiny staff busy covering Ronald Reagan and his Interior secretary, James Watt, who, citing his own religious convictions, wanted to drill, mine and log as much of the public lands as possible.

But I think we’d cover it if it happened today, much as we have followed the strange, winding saga of Cliven Bundy and his family. This issue’s cover story, by Associate Editor Tay Wiles, untangles the many threads behind the Bundys’ rebellion. As devout Mormons, the Bundys inherited a reverence for the U.S. Constitution, which protected their ancestors from persecution, even as they absorbed more radical Western strains of anti-government ideology. The story also describes how the Department of Justice and Bureau of Land Management bungled their own legal case against the family.

Paul Larmer, executive director/publisher.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

In Oregon, the state and the feds built a case that led to the conviction of the Bhagwan’s lieutenants, the guru’s forced return to India and the dismantling of his utopian community. In Nevada, the Bundys walked away unscathed, and Cliven is back to running his cows illegally on the public lands, even as his fellow ranchers dutifully pay the modest fees.

Why the different outcomes? As Wiles points out, the Bundys play right into a Western mythology that still holds enormous sway. They are white ranchers, who unapologetically took land stolen from Native tribes and scratched out a living even as environmental regulations tightened. The Rajneeshis were never part of this narrative.

But the tale of the Bundys and their allies isn’t over. One can hope that the next skirmish will help blow away the clouds of Western mythology and reveal the real issues. Allowing a rancher to use the threat of violence to prevent reasonable regulation of public lands should be a thing of the past, perhaps memorialized in a Netflix series.

Paul Larmer is executive director/publisher of High Country News.