“I just feel like there’s something more behind this than a disagreement over who owns the land,” says journalist Leah Sottile, explaining what drove her to spend two years reporting on the Bundy family — a notorious Western ranching family who engaged in two standoffs with the federal government, and won each time. It’s the central instinct driving Bundyville, a new podcast from Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting, and Sottile’s pursuit takes her and the listener through the history and mythology of one of America’s most entitled families. In the end, a podcast about the lunks at the center of a public lands dispute becomes a refreshingly present true crime show teasing the biggest horrors yet to come if people like the Bundys continue to gain political power. (Disclaimer: Bundyville is available on NPR One, a platform that also carries The Outline's World Dispatch.)
Most people who don’t follow Western public land news first heard of the Nevada ranching family in 2016, when brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their band of sovereign citizen supporters took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon to assert their belief that the federal government shouldn’t control any land. The 40-day occupation turned into a standoff and shootout with police that resulted in one militant killed by police as he was reaching for a handgun, along with the arrest of 27 people (including both brothers) for the occupation. The militants also caused $6 million worth of damage to the refuge, and in the process desecrated Paiute tribe sacred artifacts.
The brothers were following in the footsteps of their father Cliven, who two years before had engaged in his own Nevada occupation with his sons. In the end, all of the Bundys were acquitted of charges in Oregon, having convinced the jury that they were merely unthreatening protesters. (The Nevada case resulted in a mistrial after the judge determined the prosecution withheld evidence.) Slowly, but naturally, the kooky family’s story faded from national headlines.
Bundyville attempts to understand what would motivate someone to go to such extremes over a public lands dispute, without letting the Bundys or the federal government off the hook. It argues that the Bundys’ successes weren’t flukes, but were harbingers of the nation’s changing attitudes toward protest and public lands. As many pieces of journalism since the 2016 election have shown, the quest to understand the current political moment can far too easily shade into unnecessary sympathy and justification for figures who don’t merit the effort. And though too much time of the 7-episode series is devoted to humanizing the Bundy family, Sottile proves her deep dive isn’t without reason.
In the show’s estimation, the Bundy family’s war with the federal government amounts to a cultish obsession undergirded by radical Mormon mythology. We learn about how the Bundys came to lay their legal and spiritual claims to the American West and the religious beliefs (both found in Mormon scripture and not) that brought the family to their modern day extremism. It’s fascinating to hear Sottile research her way through the Bundy’s ideology, and have her suspicions eventually confirmed by Cliven and Ryan themselves.
But while the podcast is a necessarily intimate look at the family, it toes a fine line between making the Bundys understandable and relatable. “You can’t help but see your own grandpa in his face,” Sottile says about interviewing Cliven in person at his home. “It’s hard not to feel a little twinge of grandfatherly affection for him.” It’s a dubious attempt to relate to the Bundys, considering that their entire ideology and family narrative is rooted in white supremacy and the erasure of Native people. Bundyville explains how the Bundys’ claim of representing rural ranchers is paper thin, but an explanation of their flirtation with white supremacy only follows a lengthy chunk of time devoted to hearing their side. Despite the care with which Sottile researches and tells the family’s history, it’s easy to not identify with the Bundys after knowing they believe things like “[black people] abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” as Cliven said in 2014, and “Native Americans had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim... the current culture is the most important,” as Ryan said in 2016. The question of the logic behind the Bundys’ claims to their rights to the land quickly feels beside the point.
What is convincing, however, is that unlike many works that probe hateful minds, Bundyville is ultimately forward-looking. As Sottile explains toward the show’s end, the entitlement and extremism that the Bundys represent is gaining political power across the country. Leaders like Donald Trump and his Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke are shrinking public lands; political candidates with anti-government platforms are proving more and more electable (Ryan is running for governor of Nevada); lack of accountability for extremist actions including the Bundys’ acquittals are empowering the family and people who think like them to go even further.
#Bundyville chronicles the rise, fall, and resurgence of the Bundy family, the armed uprisings they inspired, and the fight over the future of the American West. Listen to the podcast and read the companion print series here: https://t.co/YQkjIXOY3y— Longreads (@Longreads) May 22, 2018
Bundyville is the name of the family’s short-lived town in Arizona, but as the show convincingly explains, it’s also an increasingly validated national mindset that the federal government is separating people like the Bundys from having the opportunity to truly succeed in America. Now, they must do “whatever it takes,” as the Bundys often say, to take the power they see as divinely promised to them.
Instead of simply asking how did we get here, Bundyville asks us to consider what’s next. As the show sometimes hints at, it’s easy for urbanites and Easterners like myself to overlook the impact of supposedly fringe thinkers in rural areas like the Bundys. Bundyville shows that not taking their threats seriously could eventually prove foolish. “It’s not so much whether there will be another Bunkerville or Malheur, but where,” Sottile says at the end of Episode 6. For me, the scariest part was realizing she’s right.