The Fight Against Public Lands: Racism Runs Through It
When the neo-Nazi and his acolyte came to my high school, I dimly thought racism was just a history or geography lesson. I was born and raised in Missoula, Montana, a friendly college town cut through by great trout rivers and surrounded by mountainous national forests protected more than a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt. I was also a white teen in the middle of one of the whitest regions in the country. To introduce my class to ideas outside our pine-fresh bubble, our teacher invited as guest speakers the late Richard Butler, who founded the Aryan Nations in Northern Idaho, and his onetime associate John Trochmann, co-founder of the Militia of Montana.
The men spoke on different days and they hammered on the threat public lands posed to white society. Our nation’s more than 600 million acres of national parks, forests, grasslands, wildlife refugees and Native American reservations held in trust by the federal government were, we heard, tools of the United Nations to keep whites from having a sanctuary…or something. We also heard that the swastika had been unfairly maligned because to some people it signifies a blessing. What surprised me most though, was the bile that welled up in my guts at our sex ed lesson. People with different skin tones having babies, we heard, was like different species of animals being mated. The example I remember is the old trope about donkeys and horses, but to check my memory after twenty years I reached out to others in the class and heard it might have been pintail and mallard ducks. (Another detail I just learned: the father of my only Jewish classmate went out and got a gun for protection because of these men.)
What seemed an unnatural pairing – attacks on public lands and racism – went on display for all the country to see in the summer of 2014 when Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy went on a racist rant in front of a New York Times reporter who visited his ranch and cantaloupe farm. Bundy had summoned a militia to brandish arms against employees of the Bureau of Land Management, who were trying to round up his illegal range cattle. The reporter had expected to hear Bundy’s reasons for wanting the federal government to sell off or transfer to state control some of those 600 million open acres of public land. Bundy unexpectedly reminisced about his impressions on driving past public housing in Las Vegas. Out flew a barrage of bigotry about how blacks today might be better off still locked in chains and picking cotton.
If there’s a worthy case against public lands, it ought to be made without a whiff of racism. Yet, at the beginning of 2016, there it came again. Two of Bundy’s sons led another militia on a caravan to the edge of the Great Basin Desert in Oregon and seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, set aside for trumpeter swans in 1908 by Roosevelt (also near the spot where in 1897 cattle rancher Peter French was murdered for taking over lands that a court ruled were public). One of the Bundy brothers’ ransom demands was the Bureau of Land Management dispose of thousands, perhaps millions, of acres of public lands.
This was at a time when the nation was watching the rise of another BLM – Black Lives Matter. In cities and towns from coast-to-coast hordes of BLM marchers took to the streets and shouted their rallying cry, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” drawing attention to the disproportionate amount of violence meted out by police against people with black and brown skin.
Twenty-four days into the Malheur standoff, militant LaVoy Finicum, 54, ran a roadblock in his white pickup and was shot by Oregon State Police. His supporters took to the downtown strip of tiny, windblown Burns, Oregon and also chanted “hands up, don’t shoot.” That right there, to use a phrase making the rounds right now, is some white appropriation. The thirteen males and one woman ages twelve to 44 mourned by BLM to that point had been unarmed (with the exception of seventeen-year-old Chicagoan LaQuan McDonald who reportedly had a three-inch knife, and was shot sixteen times). Finicum was shot three times after he reached for the loaded nine-millimeter pistol strapped to his chest. Finicum’s family and friends had every right to call his death a great loss and sorrow – he was by many accounts a hardworking father and foster father to dozens of children. But racial parity in martyrdom it ain’t.
The national media seemed flummoxed by the racial messaging coming out of these anti-public lands events. There was the Washington Post simply noting the discordant spectacle of a mostly-white mob toting Black Lives Matter signs in Burns. There was Rolling Stone snarking at the start of the Bundy’s trial this month about how one of their lawyers compared them to civil rights protesters. There was liberal writer Jonathan Chait reasoning in New York magazine of the elder Bundy, “it is 100 percent possible to agree with his views on grazing rights without being racist.” And there was Sean Hannity of Fox News saying the story was only “proof that we have a government gone wild.”
Lacking was any historical perspective on the movement against public lands, particularly with regard to race. But as attacks on public lands now grow more overt, organized and well-funded, their history demands more scrutiny, and the racial slurs require a different lens. Because long before the late 1970s when the movement was dubbed the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” its forbearers had already molded it out of anti-semitism, xenophobia and abject racism.
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The Bundy family attacking the Bureau of Land Management is ironic, because the agency was created in 1946 to be weak and rancher-friendly – the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining,” environmentalist Edward Abbey sneered. The withering of the agency was primarily the doing of one Nevada Senator. Decades before anyone was called a “Sagebrush Rebel,” Patrick A. McCarran (D-NV) was known as the “Sagebrush Caesar.”
The Sagebrush Caesar hated Communists, and he suspected anybody Jewish was probably a Communist. He also saw creeping Communism in attempts by federal conservation agencies to protect natural resources from private exploitation. In his head, this meant Jewish conspiracy.
“The threats to our form of government are more likely to come from unworthy agencies,” he said in 1939. “The greatest enemies of our republic may not be foreign foes, but rather domestic termites.” A few years later he talked publicly about a “Trojan Horse” in America and privately, specified it was filled with people of, “one blood, one race, one religion. You know what that is without me telling you.”
Possessed of a cliff of white hair, a heavy chin, and V-shaped eyebrows, he took advantage of the world being distracted by WWII to slash away at conservation. Thirty percent of the West’s biggest cattle barons grazed public land in Nevada, and he wanted them to rule the range. During the war he formed an alliance with Wyoming Senator Frank Barrett, who advanced legislation to sell off tens of millions of acres of national forests and national grasslands as well as to destroy Grand Teton National Park. McCarran railed that “the swivel-chair oligarchy” in Washington, D.C. had too much environmental protection power. When he cursed them behind closed doors, anti-Semitic slurs dribbled from his lips.
In 1940, the Sagebrush Caesar stumped alongside aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, just back from Berlin where he had medals pinned to his jacket by Hermann Goring. Their cause? Appeasing Hitler’s Germany. The name of their campaign? “America First” – the original. After the war, McCarran became convinced that Communist Jews bent on destroying America had snuck in as war refugees and United Nations diplomats in order to join forces with secret traitors already in high office. In the Senate he appointed himself leader of the “McCarran Committee” to root them out. Many were hounded by the committee’s interrogations about potential Communist sympathies, and by extreme new probes regarding physical health and past associations, which McCarran forced Immigration and Naturalization Services to conduct. A man from the Ukraine sliced an artery in his leg and bled to death, a war orphan from Poland hanged himself, and Abraham H. Feller, a Jewish lawyer who helped found the United Nations, tore himself from the terrified grip of his wife and leapt out a twelve-story window. “If Feller’s conscience was clear he had no reason to suffer,” McCarran said hours after the suicide, as he left on a luxurious South American cruise. President Harry Truman compared the McCarran Committee to “an inquisition.”
The Sagebrush Caesar brought U.S. immigration to a standstill in the mid-twentieth century to keep out “unassimilable blocks of aliens with foreign ideologies” and he ratcheted up deportations of Jews. He even pushed past a presidential veto a law dictating suspected subversives be rounded up and put in concentration camps (though never used, it took twenty years for the concentration camp clause to be repealed). Late journalist Michael J. Ybarra made the case in his 2004 McCarran biography, “Washington Gone Crazy” that it was this “vindictive in the extreme” parliamentary craftsman who actually built the legal framework stood upon by his era’s more infamous demagogue, Senator Joseph McCarthy. “The rank and file people of America today are behind McCarthy,” McCarran had proclaimed. “Pat is one of the greatest senators we’ve ever had,” McCarthy return-fawned.
To round out his prejudices, McCarran supported poll taxes that kept African-Americans from voting, and he exploited the segregation in early Las Vegas that earned it the nickname, “The Mississippi of the West.” Southern Democrats, wrote Ybarra, “followed McCarran as if he were Robert E. Lee.” He used crafty legislative moves to keep squatting cattle ranchers on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, and charged those who criticized him for swindling the Paiute out of their lands with inciting, “class hatred between races.” Speaking in 2012 at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport, Senator Harry Reid, who in 1986 won McCarran’s old seat, called him, “one of the most anti-Semitic … one of the most anti-black, one of the most prejudiced people who ever served in the Senate.” McCarran is rumored to be the inspiration for the corrupt senator character in “The Godfather II.” (“I don’t like your kind of people, I don’t like to see you come out to this clean country … I have to leave these proceedings to preside over a very important committee, my own committee.”)
But as hard as McCarran was on the public, he was worse on the public’s land. To him, the only thing other than the free feeding of cows and sheep that federal land in Nevada was good for was testing nuclear bombs.
In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law an agency called Division of Grazing (later renamed Grazing Service) to help stop the Dust Bowl, at the time the worst manmade environmental disaster in the earth’s history. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Kansas, some fifty million acres of land, were ruined, along with countless lives. The Dust Bowl was caused in large part by range-warring American stockgrowers and woolgrowers cramming too many domestic animals onto the shrinking public domain – acres deeded to the federal government via purchase (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase) and war (e.g. the Mexican-American War) – where the cows and sheep gnawed the native buffalo grass down to dust. In signing the Taylor Grazing Act, FDR organized the remaining unplowed grasslands into regulated districts where ranchers could rent public land at rates deeply subsidized by the federal government. Grazing Service re-seeded ranges and enjoyed populist support for stopping range wars. The land-renting system allowed family ranchers to continue working the range alongside the land barons and cattle kings with the wealth to outright buy the thousands of acres needed to make livestock-raising profitable in dry country.
But as the lease system put an end to ranchers taking free grass from the public domain, Western politicians like McCarran blamed it for, as historian Douglas Brinkley put it in his new biography of FDR, “Rightful Heritage,” “the closing of the West.” Publicly, McCarran railed that Grazing Service handed too much control of the West’s grasslands over to regulatory agencies based in Washington. The argument was similar to the one shouted a generation earlier when the other conservationist Roosevelt, Theodore, created the Forest Service – a model for Grazing Service.
In a private letter to his daughter, however, in which he perplexingly conflated the Taylor Grazing Act with land conflicts in the Middle East, McCarran voiced a different reason for wanting Grazing Service gone.
“Under the Taylor Grazing Act all grazing rights have been allotted to the Jews,” he fumed. “And all the Arabs can do is tend camp for the kikes so what’s the use.” While the Grazing Act had nothing to do with the Middle East, the sentiment McCarran expressed about Jews is loud and clear.
In 1946, The Sagebrush Caesar mortally slashed the budget for Grazing Service, and brought an end to the career of its conservationist co-founder, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, also a staunch civil rights defender. “One can raise merry havoc with these departments by the control of their purse strings,” McCarran crowed to his daughter. The service was resurrected in far weaker form by Truman and with a new name – the Bureau of Land Management. Writing in 1947 for Harper’s magazine, historian Bernard DeVoto asserted that The Sagebrush Caesar’s goal was to get public lands away, “from federal officials who cannot be coerced, and into the hands of the states, that is officials who can be coerced.”
He continued, “Senator McCarran has been the ablest representative of cattle and sheep interests in Washington, against the West and the people of the United States.”
It was prejudice against certain people as much, or more than, principal against regulation that made McCarran kill one of America’s most important conservation agencies. With respect to DeVoto, McCarran’s attacks on public lands were motivated by his animus against some people of the United States more than others.
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But McCarran was not even the first senator from Nevada to attack public lands for racist reasons. In the summer of 1912 Nevada senator Francis G. Newlands traveled to the contested Democratic Convention in Baltimore clutching a two-thousand-word autobiography in case he, a darling of southern newspapers, was picked as the nominee. While there, Newlands did something extreme even by the rank racial standards of the day. He tried to write a plank into the Democratic National Platform to strike the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – the one that gave African-American men the right to vote.
“The only sure development of the black race in this country,” Newlands said, as quoted in William D. Rowley’s biography “Reclaiming the Arid West,” “depends not upon the grant of political rights but their denial.”
Like the Sagebrush Caesar, Newlands attacked public lands, but he didn’t start out that way. As a young politician, he backed the creation of national forests in order to save trees, protect watersheds and end range wars. His support led to the eventual creation of Nevada’s 6.3-million-acre Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Newlands also attached his name to a 1902 law creating the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to build dams on the great rivers of the west and redistribute water to homesteaders settled on dry lands. Supported by both presidents Roosevelt, the bureau was socialist in scope, humane in intent, and hell on native fish and the people who ate them. The first project, the Derby Dam east of Reno, near fields where a young McCarran grazed his sheep with itinerant herders who castrated the ram lambs with their teeth, swished Truckee River water south to new cantaloupe farmers and away from the piscivorous Paiute on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. At its 1905 opening, the sagebrush-allergic Newlands ordered the dam christened by his second wife with a bottle of White Seal Champagne. Afterward, the Paiute downstream watched the Pyramid Lake strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout – the size of king salmon, possibly the biggest trout to ever evolve on earth – go extinct.
Later in life, as his jowls, aquiline nose and steepled eyebrows all drooped, Newlands turned against public lands. He became a vector for how the range wars shifted from the great outdoors to the halls of legislatures. Asked to back a bill to create national forests in the east, he refused. And he increasingly fell under the sway of lobbying by western stockgrower associations and mining companies who wanted greater control over the national forests – in their parlance, “local control.” By 1914, when pressed to support federal conservation of open public domain lands, Newlands pushed back. The federal ranges where sheepherders grazed should be, he said, transferred to “state control.” Never mind that in 1880, and again in 1926, Nevada lawmakers crying “state control” coerced the federal government into the unprecedented move of transferring over more than two million acres of public land – a Yellowstone National Park amount – and promptly turned around and sold off almost all of it, mainly to themselves.
(Nevada isn’t alone. A 2016 study by the Wilderness Society showed Idaho has also sold off close to two million acres of formerly federal public land that were transferred to state management. Of the 3.4 million acres transferred to Oregon, fewer than 800,000 remain.)
In 1914, Newlands had real reason to woo land-grabbing stockgrowers, woolgrowers, and mining corporations because he was in the re-election fight of his life, meaning his long-held white supremacist dreams were on the line. He sat on the Senate Committee for Washington, D.C., a body that acted as the municipal government for the federal city, and was widely regarded as a low-prestige appointment. Newlands wanted to return as a senior member so he would have increased power to segregate Washington, D.C., which since 1900 had the highest percentage of African-American families of any city in America. In particular, he wanted to gut educational opportunities for blacks. Under Newlands, African-American schoolchildren would not learn reading, math and history. He wanted them taught only menial manual labor – the stuff of servitude. “He believed African-Americans were an inferior race who should be educated to be hewers of wood and drawers of water,” historians Martin Ridge and Walter Nugent wrote.
This was at a crucial time in America because Washington, D.C., which drew black families because of its educational opportunities, was beginning to export black professionals. By 1903, historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that more than 2,500 black college graduates had become teachers, clergy, physicians, merchants, farmers, artists and civil service employees. Moreover, in the former Confederate states some thirty thousand black school teachers had driven illiteracy in the region below fifty percent. Du Bois believed this was the key to improving the lives of African-Americans.
“Is it possible,” Du Bois wrote, “that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste and allowed only the most meager chance of developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic no.”
But Newlands had an ally in the White House, Woodrow Wilson, then re-segregating the federal government. Newlands wanted to squelch black education in Washington, D.C. so he could, he said, “furnish a model system to all the southern states for the training of colored children.”
Turning against public lands was crucial to Newlands’ political strategy: Stay in power and marginalize every American who wasn’t white. He said he wanted to “write the word white into our constitution” and round up all African-Americans for deportation to another country. He called to “prevent the immigration into this country of all peoples other than those of the white race,” and supported laws barring Chinese and Japanese people from owning homes out of fear they would “quickly settle up and take possession of our entire coast and intermountain region.”
When it came to homeownership, Newlands privately left his real mark on history. His first wife was the daughter of the monopoly owner of Nevada’s billion-dollar Comstock silver mine, so he was fabulously rich. Newlands bought farmland on the edge of Washington, D.C. and co-built the bedroom community of Chevy Chase, one of America’s first modern suburbs. Later in the twentieth century, the suburb and the planned community, based on Newlands’ Chevy Chase prototype, gave tens of millions of people an opportunity to own their own houses. Suburban home ownership provided the world’s greatest vehicle into – and mooring against slipping out of – the middle class.
Newlands set the precedent for making suburbs whites-only. In 1909, when he discovered that a parcel of land had been sold to a developer who intended to build housing for African-Americans, he sued for fraud and took the land back. By the 1920s deeds from his land company contained covenants that prohibited Chevy Chase homeowners from selling or leasing to Jews or “any person of Negro blood.”
Such legal and extralegal means of keeping blacks out of white neighborhoods is now known as “redlining.” Throughout the twentieth century it led to nonwhites concentrating in poor neighborhoods, primarily in cities, where public housing was constructed. In his 2014 Polk Award-winning investigation for The Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations,” journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that redlining “plundered” wealth from generations of African-American families, and the interest is still compounding.
Newlands was America’s original redliner. He held on to power by attacking public lands. Here are a few of the white supremacist statements he left behind:
“Under the old system of slavery, every plantation was a training school, in which discipline was maintained. The colored race has lost this training.”
“Blacks are a race of children requiring guidance, industrial training and development of self-control.”
“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro … I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves?”
“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned to pick cotton.”
Actually, those last two were uttered in 2014 by Cliven Bundy, the Stetson-topped flag-waving patriarch of the family leading the armed front of the modern movement against public lands. Which brings us to today.
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Atop the Republican ticket now, and leading by landslides in most of the inland western states, is a man who fuses Newlands’ housing construction sensibilities with McCarran’s taste for dealing with immigrants. Public lands supporters took heart in January 2016 during the Malheur standoff in Oregon when Donald J. Trump assured Field & Stream magazine that he did not agree with the movement to get rid of public lands. He wanted “to keep the lands great,” he said, for once, with appropriate lack of nuance. Read by millions of hunters and anglers who depend on public lands, Field & Stream had good reason to raise their concern with the Republican frontrunner. In 2012, the Republican National Platform called for the U.S. to gradually get rid of some public lands. In 2015, according to the advocacy group the Trust for Public Land, 228 representatives and 51 senators voted for measures that would weaken federal conservation. One of them was the man on his way to earning the second most Republican primary votes, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who campaigned to dispose of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands across the west as fast as possible.
When Trump accepted the nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland however – a campaign that saw him refuse to immediately disavow the Ku Klux Klan, share insults written by white supremacists with his legions of Twitter followers, propose a ban on Muslims entering the country, revoke sanctuary from war refugees for fear they constitute a “Trojan Horse,” insist that a U.S. judge from Indiana can’t do his job because his heritage is Mexican, and continuously propagate the conspiracy that the circumstances of Barack Obama’s birth make him illegitimate – there came another answer to the Field & Stream question. The 2016 Republican National Platform rolled out during Trump’s coronation as party leader contained even more extreme language than the 2012 platform regarding the disposal of public lands.
Immediately after the convention, Trump began walking back the bold stance he voiced to Field & Stream. “I have some pretty strong opinions but I won’t talk about it right now,” Trump told a reporter in Colorado. Pressed on whether he thought the Bundys had gone “too far” Trump answered, “I’m not going to comment on who went too far.”
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In 2015 an advisor to Trump co-filed a lawsuit in Washington D.C. to stop the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in Montana from operating a hydroelectric dam on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It made the bizarre claim that the tribes intended to sneak nuclear materials to Turkey. Native Americans make up the highest percentage of nonwhite residents across much of the western U.S., according to census data. Despite their mantra of “local control,” Sagebrush Rebels have consistently staked positions at odds with tribal councils in order to force open natural resources on reservations to exploitation by others. Members of the movement have fought for grazing, mining and easement terms that have benefitted outside corporations at the expense of the fabric of tribal communities. One example playing out right now is tribal protests on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation against the construction of an oil pipeline by a corporation based in Dallas.
Opposed to tribal sovereignty efforts is a group called the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance. The alliance was condemned as “anti-Indian” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Montana Human Rights Network named it “the most notorious organized anti-Indian group in the U.S.” In the fall of 2015, the Human Rights Network accused Montana State Senator Jennifer Fielder of racism because she gave a speech to the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance.
I wanted to talk to Fielder, rather than the overexposed Bundys, whose antics have garnered them a public platform far in excess of their actual political power, because she is an elected leader working within the system to further their goals. In addition to being Vice Chair of the Montana Republican Party, she is the CEO of the American Lands Council. Founded in 2012 and partially funded by an infusion of money from the Koch brothers, the ALC organizes western state and county governments to pressure the federal government into transferring western lands – the precursor to privatization. (Notably: the council opposes the proposed establishment of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, though it is supported by leaders from five local tribes.)
Shortly before Fielder weathered the charge of racism, she wrote an op-ed piece for the Missoulian newspaper defending the motivations – though not the tactics – of the Bundys. She called for calm during the manhunt for the last Malheur fugitive, Jake Ryan, 27, whose family is one of Fielders’ constituents inside Sanders County (named for early vigilante Wilbur Sanders). Ryan eventually took a plea deal after he was charged with using heavy machinery to dig outhouses on an archaeological site held sacred by the local Paiute tribe. Imagine for a moment such a gesture being made at the Gettysburg Battlefield… The Eldridge Street Synagogue… The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma…
Yet Fielder believes that to ask if racism is brewed into the movement is to sensationalize the issue, demonize its backers, and muddy hard questions. Questions about how we as a society should share our natural resources, and how livelihoods can be earned honestly and safely in rural communities that have traditionally counted on mining, logging and grazing. Her positions deserve consideration and sympathy from an economic perspective, the racial connotations deserve scrutiny from a human one.
“I’m the leader of the movement right now and there’s absolutely no racial animosity in any fiber of my being,” she told me by phone from Thompson Falls, Montana. “It’s just the opposition that’s trying to make it an issue constantly.”
By opponents, she means not only environmental groups, but also the Montana Human Rights Network, whom she called “an anti-human group” that plays “the race card” and is “always trying to throw out” the fact that she served on a county council with Militia of Montana co-founder Trochmann (who spoke at my high school all those years ago). She cited the devastating wildfires sweeping the warming west as reason that federal lands need to be transferred to states. “Local control” will open forests up to more logging and cattle grazing as a way to reduce fuels and make them healthy – a position heartily agreed with by the logging and ranching industries, though not by most forest ecologists. Though she stridently supports federal lands being transferred to the states, she said she does not want the lands to become privatized, despite history showing the former is forerunner to the latter.
“People on both sides don’t want lands privatized,” she said. “We just want them managed better.”
Fiedler is an outspoken critic of federal management agencies, so I brought up the fact that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management came about, respectively, because of Newlands and McCarran. She didn’t respond. When I pointed out the senators’ racism, she bristled at me for “trying to bring up certain characters.” She volunteered that the historical figure she draws her inspiration from is Thomas Jefferson.
“He is accused of being by the left a racist because he owned slaves,” she said.
She continued that actually Jefferson was “angling towards” full emancipation, and on three different occasions “attempted to bring legislation to end slavery,” and even nearly condemned it in the Declaration of Independence.
“But it was illegal to set slaves free, those decisions were made by a distant government who weren’t allowing local people to have a voice,” she said. “That’s why those states revolted, against a distant government.”
It is true that Jefferson tentatively proposed a few laws and provisions that could have curbed the spread of slavery, and he considered adding to the Declaration a condemnation of the slave trade as a swipe at its monopolist, England – though not against the institution itself. But to divine that the man who upon death freed only five relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, while sending nearly two hundred other human beings to auction, was actually a misunderstood abolitionist whose anger over the thwarting of his emancipationist works by distant government figures inspired him to foment revolt is far-fetched. “Seriously deluded,” is how Fielder’s thinking was put to me by Peter S. Onuf, who for years taught about Jefferson at the University of Virginia and wrote and co-wrote numerous books about him.
Fielder blamed the media for asking inappropriate questions.
“I think that’s digging for dirt to try and connect the movement to something dirty, that’s typical of today’s journalists,” she said in a measured tone. “You will pay for that eventually. You will be accountable to God for what you do.”
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In 1889, Christ appeared in Nevada. He came in a vision to a Paiute spiritual leader named Wovoka. Christ taught Wovoka the Ghost Dance. By this year all the great buffalo herds that Plains Indians had depended on had been slaughtered, the native Lahontan cutthroat trout that the Paiute ate in the Great Basin were in deep decline, and almost all the surviving Native Americans in the west had been starved onto barren and remote reservations. If they danced the Ghost Dance, Wovoka proselytized, all their dead relatives would return, along with the wildlife, right after a great flood washed away all the new settlers. “Whites can’t hurt Indians then,” Wovoka said, according to Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
Wovoka brought the Ghost Dance to the shores of Pyramid Lake. From that Nevada oasis, it shot out to other western reservations like lightning. Army soldiers feared it would spark revolts. In December 1890, on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, tribal police arrested and killed Hunkpapa Sioux Chief Sitting Bull in similar circumstances to the earlier death of his fellow Custer battle comrade, Crazy Horse. Two weeks later, jittery Army soldiers opened fire on some 300 unarmed members of the Sioux tribe. Their bodies, mostly very small, very wrinkled, or with breasts, froze solid on the Dakota tundra. Ten months later Chief Charlo, leader of the last band of Salish in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, led his people on a tearful, forced march to a new reservation across the river bridge nearest the future site of Hellgate High School, where I would sit a century later and listen to a pair of neo-Nazis hold forth on misunderstood swastikas, miscegenation and what could be done with public lands were it not for federal conservation laws.
Could a movement that has displaced Native Americans, rejected regulation with scoffs that the benefits would fall to Jews, and mocked African-Americans not be called racist? Or has an implicit and inherent bigotry in the movement against public lands received a pass because the language used to discuss it is usually that of “resource management?”
It’s noteworthy that Ta-Nehisi Coates used the word “plunder” to describe what systematic racism has done to the bodies of African-Americans. Western writers from Bernard DeVoto to Wallace Stegner to Terry Tempest Williams have used the same piratical verb to describe what has been done to bodies of land. It’s not a coincidence. Race may not be the main motivation of the attacks on public lands, but there is virulent undercurrent of racism in it. From Newlands to McCarran to Bundy to Trump, bigotry has hitched its wagon to the movement.
The racially-tinged manias that cyclically sweep the west, promising to turn back the clock to some group’s Eden myth – be they Sagebrush Rebels or Ghost Dancers – never work, and tend to end in blood. However, had Wovoka lived to the 21st century, he would have seen part of his prophecy come true. Not from the supernatural, but from hard cooperation. The giant Lahontan cutthroat trout was returned to Pyramid Lake after a lost population was found alive on a high desert mountain. It took years of work from all levels of civic society to ready the restoration – private landowners, the states of Utah and Nevada and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But it was the Paiute, who spent decades in court fighting for their water rights, who ultimately, when their voices were finally heard, made it possible. Today the region is experiencing an economic boom driven by the fact that people want to live near abundant, conserved and accessible natural resources. Right after the great trout returned, Tesla built a $5 billion electric car factory an hour’s drive from Pyramid Lake. What worker wouldn’t want an after-shift shot at catching a cutthroat trout bigger than the world record 41-pounder taken in the old days by tribe member John Skimmerhorn? I’m certainly grateful that every year around Christmas I can wade into the bracing waters of Pyramid Lake before dawn, think about Wovoka, and give it a cast. The movement against public lands isn’t just a land grab, it’s a people grab. “State control” or “local control” means segregating public lands from the bodies and voices of the great multicultural majority of the 322 million Americans alive today. Citizens who, along with their progeny, are the legal owners and rightful beneficiaries of those lands. (“Segregating” here is actually the legal term for cutting out sections of public lands.)
Justice requires more diverse voices have a say in our public lands, not fewer. It’s the only way to get old enemies past squinting at each other from across the range, wondering who’s walking like pintails, talking like mallards.
[Nate Schweber is a freelance journalist from Montana now based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the New York Times and Al Jazeera America and he is the author of the 2012 book, “Fly Fishing in Yellowstone National Park.” Follow Nate Schweber on twitter.]