Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Can Papa Pilgrim Help Us Understand the Nevada Cattle Ranger?

If we glean out the facts from this LA Times piece we learn:

  • "The Bureau of Land Management say Bundy is illegally running hundreds of head of cattle in the 600,000-acre Gold Butte area, habitat of the federally protected desert tortoise."
  • "Bundy, 68, has refused to pay BLM grazing fees since 1993, arguing in court filings that his Mormon ancestors worked the land long before the BLM was formed, giving him rights that predate federal involvement."
  • "Federal officials moved in to remove the animals, but called off the roundup nine days ago, saying they wanted to avoid violence. . ."
  • " dozens of supporters - many armed with rifles and automatic weapons - gathered at the Bundy ranch 90 miles north of Las Vegas."
Nevada's two US Senators see the event from two different ideological frameworks.  Democrat Harry Reid calls Bundy "a domestic terrorist."

Republican Dean Heller calls him "a patriot."

How do we know which is the accurate portrayal of what's going on?  Or if either of them are accurate?  It's just the sort of question that's perfect for this blog and its underlying question of "how do we know what we know?"

We're at that stage were the facts are slowly emerging and the media are trying to figure out which of their stock story lines this story fits.  

Is Bundy the disgruntled individualist illegally using public land and refusing to pay his fair share?  Or is the government unfairly treating a good American citizen?  Or will the media get more traction on this story if they frame it as the poster event that highlights the conservative-liberal ideological split in the US?

I suggest that people tentatively try out different possible explanations.  Lay them out as possible interpretations of the facts, all the while remembering we don't really know all the facts.  We just know the facts that the media have presented.  Why have they presented these particular facts?  Because they fit their preconceived story?  Are the facts even accurate?  What other facts haven't been mentioned yet?

As part of this exercise, I'd offer the story of Papa Pilgrim as told by Tom Kizzia in his book Pilgrim's Wilderness.
It's a similar story that played out in Alaska a dozen years ago.  A large family (17 kids I think) living on private land within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  They had bulldozed a road through Park land without permits, crossing a number of streams.  Their buildings seemed to encroach of Park land.

The challenged individual Park employees who came to talk to them about their road and the encroachments.  It was at a time when new legislation had created a number of National Parks on US government owned land in Alaska - land that a number of folks around the state had been living on.  There was a movement of such folks to fight the Federal government's 'takeover' of the land and to enforce their own rights to stay put.  These folks embraced the Pilgrim family as a symbol of true Americans being harassed by the federal government for trying to live the American dream.

This story unfolded on the pages of the local newspapers - covered in depth by one Anchorage Daily News reporter, Tom Kizzia, who had a cabin in McCarthy, a small town inside Wrangell- St. Elias National Park and near to where the Pilgrim family had settled. Here's a post I did on McCarthy in 2008.

Eventually he wrote the book, Pilgrim's Wilderness, which filled in a lot of information that hadn't been available as events were unfolding.  It turned out that Papa Pilgrim (Robert Hale) had been a wealthy teenager in Texas who was dating John Connally's daughter.   The same John Connally who was wounded along with John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  The University of Texas, Texas Politics website mentions, in its bio of Connally:
Their eldest, Kathleen, eloped in 1958 at age sixteen and the same year died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
 Kizzia also writes about this event in Pilgrim's Wilderness  Papa Pilgrim, back in 1958 was in the motel room with her when she died.  He claimed her death was an accident, though others believe he killed her.

Later he takes to studying the Bible and over the years interpreting it more and more bizarre ways.  He later marries another 16 year old, when he is older and they have child after child as they wander to New Mexico and eventually to Alaska.

Kizzia finds in police documents - Papa Pilgrim eventually got a plea deal so none of the story was played out publicly in the courtroom - that Papa Pilgrim had been abusing his eldest daughter sexually and many of the other children and his wife physically.

I offer this story, not to say that the Nevada story is the same.  I don't know that.  But there are a lot of similarities.  A family claiming a right to use federal land with a federal agency questioning that right and saying they were trying to enforce the law.  In both situations the feds acted carefully, fearing a violent confrontation.  In both cases, local anti-government activists used the families as symbols of their cause against the government.

There are some differences too.  Bundy's family has been using the land since 1993 at least and claims an even longer family use of it.  The Pilgrim family was only in their Wrangell-St. Elias home a couple of years and in Alaska a little longer.   The Pilgrim family began to alienate their McCarthy neighbors and there was no armed standoff to support them against the feds. 

When my book club discussed Pilgrim's Wilderness last month, most of us had been reluctant to take up the book thinking we already knew the story, yet we were quickly drawn into Kizzia's telling of the story and all the background information about the Pilgrim's that gave much more depth and explanation for what all happened.

We will learn more about what's happening in Nevada, but whether there will be a writer who will eventually dig deeper and fill in the missing facts as Kizzia has, we don't know.  So, for now, I offer Pilgrim's Wilderness as a gripping account of a (at least superficially) similar event in Alaska.  Only time will tell if Bundy will also turn out to be a tyrannical patriarch who uses religion to justify his unjustifiable actions or something more sympathetic, even a hero.    


  1. Imagine if we had a news agency that was more concerned with actual investigative journalism and less about info-tainment, the Pilgrim's wouldn't have gotten the national coverage they did and Mr. Clive here, would be paying his taxes or sitting in a jail.

  2. How does someone know what the real story is? Look at the source.

    If it's Fox News or some similar hack organization, it's storyline is bunk.

    If it's a source that abides by journalistic ethics, it's evidence based reality.

    There isn't any real question here in the Bundy case, it's loons on one side and the reality based community on the other.

    What do we know, or what should we know? That's easy.

    Bundy, his myth and his supporters and their myths are all illegitimate.

    You do a dis-service to your readers to posit that there might be some legitimacy in Bundy's argument.

  3. Steve, this ‘rancher vs government’ scenario with violence threatened might be likened to the Ukraine vs Russia borders conflict. Media trying to sell their ‘paper’ is a given in 24/7 internet marketplace. It is often info-entertainment that pushes story as so many readers today are watching video ‘feeds’ for news.

    Yes the facts with a rancher in Nevada and millions of ethnic Russian-speaking people in Ukraine are different. Yet as I finally find good journalists rushing to explain the situation in Ukraine, I see the posturing, the ideological strains around the conflict in eastern Europe just as JB sees news-source loyalties in the USA. So I’ll join in what many do in times like these: simplify complexity.

    Information gathering when battle lines are marked out has always been difficult. It was Aeschylus (5th c BCE) who wrote “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Acting is easily warranted as self-preservation. We take decisions now, regrets can come later.

    Our mutual trouble with your Bundys and Ukraine’s Putins is that both likely have the tactical advantage of planning. Assuming for a moment that we can unearth Pilgrim-like evidence, the dangerous hope rises that conflict could be averted. The protagonist would suffer headline failure that would seize the popular story line and turn back the march toward violence.

    Perhaps. To illustrate I can look at what may be unfolding in the UK. A major right-wing politician (who is gaining support for UK withdrawal from the EU, ‘preserving our borders’ against immigrants) has such a personal boil on his political posterior. His current wife is a German national. He hired her as personal assistant paid by tax revenues. He says he couldn’t find someone with her skill-set to work for so little in so many unsocial (non-regular) hours.

    Media reaction to his defence has been, to put it very lightly, sceptical. Then yesterday, a paper reported that a personnel recruitment firm, having placed a bogus ad for a personal assistant to a ‘top European politician’, had received over 600 UK-national applicants in 12 hours. The top 25 applicants were sent to him.

    We’ll see what happens to his popularity and his party as a result of this development. Like Papa Pilgrim, the issue and the man are very much inseparable. Bundy and Putin have formed a cult of personality as well.

    All in all, I must say I am much more concerned about Ukraine’s conflict. As with you live there, I can only hope there is a derailing story here.

  4. There is no tenable analogy between Bundy's myth making and the crisis in the Ukraine.

    1. My point with you, dear fellow reader, is that this reader in London believes Steve should be heard out here. As to the Ukraine, it's complicated; perhaps as Americans too frequently prove themselves, the situation in Nevada is not.

      Now, do insults improve the conversation? I think not and that is my objection to the style of some of your contributions, rather than their substance.

      I enjoy your thinking but not, when it occurs, your attacks.

  5. As I said, there is no analogy between Bundy's myth making and the crisis in the Ukraine.

    And Steve isn't in any danger whatsoever of being prevented from being heard.

    No one should entertain any notion that Bundy's story is legitimate, it's already been proven to be simply what's become expected within the range of loony right wing myth making.

  6. With the facts available concerning Bundy's myth making, I suspect someone should address the following being the last sentence of Steve's post:

    "Only time will tell if Bundy will also turn out to be a tyrannical patriarch who uses religion to justify his unjustifiable actions or something more sympathetic, even a hero. "

    Even a hero? Clive Bundy a 'hero'? Only time will tell if he's a hero?

    This sort of supposition or perpetuation of myth doesn't fall anywhere within the bounds of ethical journalism.


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