The American media has suddenly discovered that anti-government Tea Party hero Cliven Bundy is a racist. While this has caused some discomfort among some of Bundy’s admirers, it should really come as no surprise to anyone with an understanding of history or Western American white culture. The sagebrush rebels like to portray themselves as heroic “salt of the earth” rugged individualists trying to preserve their way of life in the face of evil federal government alphabet agency oppressors like the EPA, ATF, FBI, and BLM. However, racism has always had a central role in the white man’s conquest of the West and that racism never died.
The West was won by slaughtering the original inhabitants, and white control of the land was entrenched by massacres at places like Sand Creek and Wounded Knee, where American Indians were brutally murdered by men who believed themselves to be racially superior. While the modern cattle man cannot be held directly responsible for 19th century massacres, the ideology of white supremacy runs through the veins of many a Western cowboy or rancher.
John Wayne, a Western icon, perhaps best illustrated the Sagebrush rebels racial attitudes late into the 20th Century. The movie star’s opinion of the white man’s treatment of Native Americans can be summed up by this choice quote from a 1971 interview with Playboy magazine.
I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were
selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.
John Wayne’s attitudes towards blacks was also decidedly racist and in the same vein as Cliven Bundy’s contemporary remarks. In the 1971 interview, the cowboy actor proclaimed his belief in white supremacy as follows:
I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.
Now to be fair, John Wayne is a pop culture Hollywood actor representing the Western rancher ethos and not a real rancher, but as a cultural icon he is one that is readily embraced by many white folks in the West to this day, in spite of or maybe because of his blatant racism.
The modern Libertarian movement that is so closely aligned with the Sagebrush Rebellion of the American interior West defines itself as race neutral. However, time and time again, the leaders of that movement reveal themselves to be White Supremacists not the race-neutral opponents of federal power that they like to present themselves as.
How quickly Americans have forgotten that Ronald Reagan’s controversial Interior Secretary James Watt was not ousted from his position for his confrontational attitude towards environmentalists, but rather because he referred to an advisory panel as containing ”a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple”. While many Senators favored his resignation, the staunchest defender of his racist remarks was a Western GOP Senator, Alaska’s Ted Stevens.
Perhaps Americans have also forgotten that in the 1990s a favorite Congressperson for Sagebrush rebels, militia leaders, anti-environmentalists, and others who opposed federal government authority was Idaho’s Helen Chenowith. Chenowith, a White Supremacist congress woman once railed against the Endangered Species Act by proclaiming that “it’s the white Anglo-Saxon male that’s endangered”. That comment was well received by White Supremacists who built their Aryan separatist community in the Idaho panhandle.
While Southern bigotry, associated as it is with the slave holding states of the Old Confederacy, receives the most attention, the Western bigotry of the Cliven Bundy variety is no less toxic. Racism has always been a central feature of the Sagebrush rebellion’s anti-government crusade. Many wealthy Western ranchers who receive generous federal subsidies, view themselves as deserving of government support from the very government they refuse to recognize, while at the same time they demonize racial minorities as undeserving welfare recipients stealing from “hard-working” Americans like themselves. While they may try to deny their bigotry, the Western anti-government movement has a long tradition of racism, and Cliven Bundy is part of that tradition.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.