- Performing the Empty ArchiveFeeling and Public Lands in the Bundy Case and Percival Everett’s Grand Canyon, Inc.
The only remaining structure in the ghost town of Bundyville, Arizona, is a schoolhouse.1 On top of a mountain, two hours into the desert, the schoolhouse was burned down in 2000 and then rebuilt as a “pioneer replica” by members of the local community and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Arizona Strip field office. This remote structure serves as an important physical archive for Cliven Bundy, the American cattle rancher known for his role in the 2014 armed standoff between antigovernment protestors and federal agents in Nevada. The schoolhouse walls hold historic portraits of the Bundy family dating back to 1916, when Cliven’s Mormon great-grandparents first settled the region to escape persecution and build a polygamous community of almost two hundred Bundys, a harsh little piece of utopia.
In the 2018 podcast Bundyville, we hear host Leah Sottile walking up and down the echoing schoolhouse and commenting on the photographs, men in military costume with thick, white mustaches alongside the stern-faced “Three Mothers of Bundyville.”2 Although the names, images, and letters first appear as antiquated traces of a mostly forgotten past, Sottile explains how these objects have a direct connection to current political conflict in the American West. Throughout his twenty-one-year legal dispute with the BLM over cattle grazing on public lands, Cliven used his family tree—as embodied by the schoolhouse—to trace what he sees as his personal dominion over the public land in Nevada. Although there is no legal evidence to support his claims, the podcast suggests that Cliven has made a living off failure. In other words, his very inability to [End Page 37] “prove” his land rights is what drew his large following. As Sotille states, “His power to attract people doesn’t come from land or water rights. It comes from his ability to tell a story about himself. Cliven will let anyone who listens know that he’s trying to squeeze out a living against a government that’s trying to end him. Just like his ancestors in Bundyville. And that’s the story that his most zealous followers love: a tough old cow, sticking it out, and winning.”
This story is easier to tell when there is nothing at the core. Instead of being able to point to material documents or discrete remains that legitimize his claims, Cliven relies on the retelling of a usable past made up of fictive origin stories that open the flood-gates for emotional “freedom.” Likening himself to a founding father fighting a tyrannical government, Cliven transmits affect attached to the interpretations, desires, visions, and sentiments that many Americans feel are being stifled by the federal government and liberal society. Hiding the structural inequality embedded within his concept of sovereignty, Cliven foments these feelings through his anachronistic readings of the Constitution, an origin text that he injects with his own narratives that collapse the past and future into a divinely ordained here and now. As Percival Everett’s 2001 novella Grand Canyon, Inc. will help illuminate, these western narratives about the history and nature of public lands are told in ways that intensify fantasy, release internal noise, and reproduce fictions that often leave marginalized communities and the environment irreparably damaged.
Cliven’s calls for nativism and his rights to public lands have taken on a performative quality, as seen in the heavily broadcast standoffs, aesthetically heightened protests, and dramatic clashes among police and citizens. In both the Bunkerville standoff and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge led by Cliven’s son Ammon in 2016, a constituency of ranching supporters, far-right “patriots,” and militia men came head-to-head with the federal government to voice their anger and execute their “divine mission” to reclaim freedom from federal encroachment. According to the Bundys and many of their supporters, the federal government lacks the constitutional authority to own vast tracts of land, an argument repeatedly rejected by federal courts. When sifting through [End Page 38] the articles and videos documenting these events, I was struck by the...