Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a post that originally appeared at Indian Country Today Media Network.
In the wake of his comments wondering if “Negroes” were “better off as slaves,” Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has gone from a right-wing folk hero to a right-wing embarrassment. The Fox News commentators and Republican senators who championed his cause just a few days ago are in full retreat, denouncing Bundy’s remarks as “beyond repugnant” and “beyond despicable,” as Sean Hannity recently put it.
That they certainly are. But even before Bundy made his outrageous slurs against African-Americans, his insurrectionary claims were already racially loaded. Bundy has repeatedly trumpeted his “ancestral rights” to have his cattle graze on land administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management without paying taxes for the past twenty years. “My forefathers,” he has said, “have been up and down the Virgin Valley here ever since 1877. All these rights that I claim have been created through pre-emptive rights and beneficial use of the forage and the water and the access and range improvements.” A simple search of Clark county property records by KLAS-TV, a Las Vegas television station, however, revealed that his family had purchased the ranch in 1948 and had only begun grazing cattle on it in 1954—eight years after the founding of the BLM. KLAS reporters also received a map from the Moapa band of Paiute Indians showing how the land the Bundy ranch is on was promised to them by federal treaty.
As a Native American, I find Bundy’s late-nineteenth-century claims of “ancestral rights” presumptuous, since by law all remaining pre-emptive rights in Nevada belong not to late arrivals like the Bundy family but to tribes that have lived in the region for thousands of years. This inability to take seriously the “ancestral rights” of American Indian nations within the United States is not limited to Bundy and his supporters. In Oregon, farmers in the Klamath River Basin were shocked by a 2002 ruling that found the Klamath tribe possessed senior water rights and could turn off the water during drought years. Last year, Tom Mallams, vice chairman of the Klamath County Board of Commissioners, was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying, “They shut water off here, there could be some violence.”
Even as many Americans continue to deny the existence of Native nations’ “ancestral rights” to land and resources, the libertarian right is eager to co-opt our history to promote their own battles against the federal government. Last year, gun control opponents circulated on Facebook and Twitter the graphic photo of frozen Lakota victims being buried in a mass grave at Wounded Knee with taglines saying “Wounded Knee was among the first federally backed gun confiscation attempts in United States history. It ended in the senseless murder of 297 people.” A meme also made the rounds then featuring a vintage portrait of a Native leader emblazoned with the words, “I’m all for total gun control and trusting the government to protect you. After all, it worked great for us” around his face.