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What Made The Bundys The Bundys?

<p>Rancher Cliven Bundy holds his 5-month-old grandson Roper Cox in April 2015 in Bunkerville, Nev. Bundy was hosting an event to mark one year since the Bureau of Land Management's failed attempt to collect his cattle.</p>
John Locher/AP

Rancher Cliven Bundy holds his 5-month-old grandson Roper Cox in April 2015 in Bunkerville, Nev. Bundy was hosting an event to mark one year since the Bureau of Land Management's failed attempt to collect his cattle.

For the better part of this decade, the Bundys of Nevada have, at times, captured the nation's attention. 

There was the armed standoff at their ranch in Bunkerville back in 2014. 

There was the occupation of Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. 

Federal prosecutors have tried to send members of the family to jail for those incidents -- but have had mixed results.  

And the Bundys have long been at odds with the federal government over various acts of what they consider to be an overreach of power.  

But what drove the Bundys to their beliefs? 

A new podcast from Oregon Public Broadcasting and Longreads called "Bundyville" explores that topic. 

"I think our motivation was primarily letting people know that this story about the Bundys wasn’t over," Ryan Haas of Oregon Public Broadcasting told State of Nevada.

Haas said many people thought after the Bundy trail in Nevada was declared a mistrial, the story was over. But Haas and fellow reporter Leah Sotille felt there was more to the story to explore. 

"Once I was able to speak with Ryan Bundy -- when he was able to leave Nevada -- I felt like I started to see that there is lot more to this story than they had really said to the media," Leah Sotille from Longreads said.

Two parts of the Bundy story that have not been explored as much involve a book and American history.

The book in question, Sotille explained, is the Nay Book: a collection of scripture from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with speeches from church leaders Cliven Bundy and his neighbor Keith Nay collected over the years.

Bundy and Nay wanted to answer the question of what is the obligation of the member of the Church to uphold the Constitution.

However, Sotille said Mormon experts she talked with said the book and the beliefs outlined in it are outside of the Mormon mainstream.

"It reads as a fringe interpretation of Mormon scripture," she said. "It’s something at the center of their movement, and why they have done what they’ve done," she said.

The book puts a lot of weight on an obscure prophecy by the founder of the Mormon faith Joseph Smith, referred to as the "White Horse Prophecy." 

In it, Smith says the Constitution would be "hanging by a thread and the LDS people would be the ones to fix that," Sotille said.

However, the church in Salt Lake City does not see it as acknowledged doctrine. The Bundys, on the other hand, see it as a core belief. 

"It gives them justification for what they’ve done," Haas said.

He said the Bundys feel it is a calling to protect -- and even save -- the Constitution from a corrupting government.

It wasn't just the Nay Book that became a foundation for rebelling against the government, but the history of the federal government in Southern Nevada -- namely nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site.

Cliven Bundy knew people impacted by the testing, commonly known as downwinders. The fallout from the testing came directly to Bunkerville and St. George, Utah.

Sotille believes the incidents informed Cliven Bundy's feelings about the federal government.

"There was a bitterness there that they were just left […] as a victim to the government’s whims, I guess," she said.

Sotille likened the Bundys beliefs to a nesting doll: one layer is nuclear testing; another is the persecution of Mormons in the 1880s forcing them to leave communities in Missouri and Illinois to flee west to Utah; yet another layer is a lingering feeling by some ranchers the Bureau of Land Management goes too far.

The Bundys are far from the first people to accuse the government of overreach. But their message reached more people and, unlike situations like Ruby Ridge in Idaho and the Branch Davidians in Texas, people outside the family came to their aid during their 2014 standoff.

Some came armed, even pointing weapons at federal agents. 

Sotille said the difference was most likely social media and the internet. The Bundys were able to get their message out to the "patriot community," which she says is generally looking for a fight with the federal government.

"I think that he just became this embodiment of all the things that the government would do to someone to bulldoze over them and get their land, or get their rights, or whatever it is," she said.

But Haas points out most of the people who came to Cliven Bundy's aid had little to do with land management in the West, and were more concerned about other issues, like gun rights and conspiracy theories.

One thing Sotille and Haas wanted most was to talk directly to the Bundys about their beliefs. The two drove to Bunkerville to talk with Cliven and his sons. 

"It was important for us in this story to try to understand -- even though you don’t agree with the Bundy family -- to really try and understand how they got to the beliefs that they currently hold," Haas said.

But Sotille said they worked to steer clear of some of the same talking points the Bundys use, and instead focus on what they had to say about their beliefs and their efforts.

In the end, however, both journalists gave a scathing review of the Bundys and their trials and tribulations.

"You realize they were lying in a lot of ways," Sotille said. "They were telling us a story. They were telling us the same story they tell their followers to recruit them to their cause."

However, Haas pointed out the Bundys weren't the only people lying. The government also lied and, according to a federal judge in Las Vegas presiding over trial, withheld evidence. 

Haas felt from the beginning of their reporting, they were the ones who had to come to a conclusion.

"If we’re going to spend all the time on this story, we should be the ones who can give folks a definitive takeaway from this story," he said.

One of his takeaways was the "Bundys are out for the Bundys." Haas pointed out that people have gone to jail for this cause and one person died because of it.

"I don’t think personally they have a lot of remorse because of that," he said. "They feel they’re still justified, and they never did anything wrong."


Leah Sotille, Longreads;  Ryan Haas, Oregon Public Broadcasting

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Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)