During MSNBC’s Town Hall last Thursday featuring Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, a tall Paiute man, William Anderson addressed Sanders from the audience: “There are those who oppose the American people's ownership of public lands, and would see those lands sold to private interest. As president, how would you ensure that our public lands remain in public hands, and preserve our heritage and lives by stopping corporations from destroying Mother Earth?”
Anderson, a former Moapa Paiute tribal chairman, told ICTMN that his question had been carefully vetted by the NBC producers, but he did for a moment consider asking whatever he wanted. “This is live TV and they can’t edit what I say. I’ll say what I have to say regarding Gold Butte.”
Sanders replied by calling Native American treatment by the U.S. government a “disgrace” and reminding the audience of his “Keep It In the Ground” act he co-sponsored to “not extract fossil fuels in the future from any public lands” and promising to “do everything I can” to “work with the Native American community in preserving their heritage, and their way of life.”
Sanders has also formed a Native American policy committee and promised to convene a climate change summit in the first 100 days of his presidency that will include Native representation. He is also the co-sponsor of the 2013 Violence Against Women Act which expanded Native American jurisdiction over non-Indians in cases involving domestic violence on Native lands for the first time in over four decades. Sanders has promised to further increase tribal jurisdiction in the next authorization of the bill.
Mah'ha-gah-doo (Gold Butte) in Clark County, Nevada, the traditional homeland of the southern Paiute people, encompasses some 360,000 acres of mountains and Joshua tree and Mojave yucca forests. The highest peaks contain ponderosa pine and white fir and at lower elevations, forests of pinyon and juniper. Ancient petroglyphs and archaeological sites abound.
Gold Butte located east of Lake Mead on the Arizona border has been designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) by the Bureau of Land Management to protect critical habitat for desert tortoise and 77 plant and animal species. However, there is very little enforcement of protections offered by this designation.
A well-known opponent of protection of Gold Butte is Cliven Bundy, the infamous “welfare rancher” who led an armed standoff against the BLM in 2014. He had grazed his cattle on these public lands but refuses to pay $1 million in grazing fees in protest of federal land management practices claiming measures to protect the environment and the cultural heritage of tribes is illegal under the constitution.
Anderson told ICTMN that the first part of his question: “There are those who oppose the American people's ownership of public lands,” refers obliquely to Cliven Bundy. Bundy and his family have publicly participated in attacks on Indigenous archaeological sites. In 2015, his son Ryan Bundy was arrested for taking part in an ATV ride through a culturally-sensitive site in Utah and, locally, the Bundy family have been suspected of shooting up petroglyphs in Gold Butte. This week, the FBI reported a latrine was dug near a Paiute archaeological site during an armed, 41-day occupation led by his sons, Ammon and Ryan at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
“Finally, justice worked the way it’s supposed to be working,” Anderson said in response to Cliven Bundy’s recent arrest in Portland, Oregon. “People can’t treat tribes with no respect at all and be allowed to mess with our artifacts. We were glad to hear the law was applied to protect the Paiute tribe up north. The Southern Paiute offer them our support. Our tribes are right there to stand with you.”
According to an NPR report in January, “Gold Butte, roughly the size of Los Angeles County, is basically lawless right now. Trash is dumped here and there. Some of the BLM's route markers are torn down. Illegal off-road tracks from ATVs lead into the desert. Some pioneer gravesites were even dug up, bones scattered everywhere.”
Scientists under contract with the BLM were shot at last summer and quickly left. Local community members blame Cliven Bundy and the atmosphere of intimidation he has created.
Anderson was glad to get a chance to speak on the national stage about issues important to him and his people.
“Petroglyphs won’t get shot up and removal of graves, baskets, pottery. Our history our culture our heritage being disrespected.”
Anderson plans to travel to Washington, D.C. next month to press for the co-management of Gold Butte with his tribe and other Paiute tribes. Failing that, he would like to see Gold Butte be given national monument status.
He went into the Town Hall on Thursday not yet knowing which candidate, Hillary or Bernie, that he was going to vote for. However, he was put off by the Clinton campaign brushing off his suggestion that they visit tribal communities. “They had a different way to do their campaigning, doing phone calls, etc. They said we have our own way and never called me back.”
The Sanders campaign, Anderson says, understood how important that it is to have the Native American vote.
At the Town Hall, however, he wasn’t entirely happy with Sander’s response, “[He] didn’t answer questions the way I thought he would, but he still gave an answer as to how he can help Native American tribes. For him to talk like that really needs to be followed up on.”
The New York Times reported that Sanders “has 12 offices across the state, more than any other political candidate, with outposts in remote areas like Winnemucca, home to the Northern Paiute Tribe, and Fernley, outside Reno.”
Myron Dewey, of DigitalSmokeSignals.com, and member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, spent Thursday taking Julia Jones, an actress who stars in the Twilight Saga films, to visit some of the 27 Native American tribes in Nevada. Jones, speaking for Bernie Sanders, is of African American and Choctaw and Chickasaw descent.
Jones spoke to students about continuing their education and following their dreams. She is herself a graduate of Columbia University and her father a civil rights attorney known for his work in the Black community in Boston.
The Bernie Sanders campaign sponsored a lunch at the Walker River Paiute tribe and a dinner at Pyramid Lake.
“All the tribes honored her and the volunteers for their work,” Dewey told ICTMN. “Beautiful to hear elders say a blessing for Bernie and his family.”
Dewey had been on the fence at first like Anderson. Clinton supporters had been calling him but when he asked about Clinton’s past policies to protect tribal sovereignty he says he got, “No word. No one knew anything about tribes.”
Then he attended a Bernie Sanders event held at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“What I witnessed there, the treatment and listening to tribal people I saw. [Bernie] not only had them on stage but he actually answered their questions.”
It was that that won Dewey’s vote. A candidate who was, “Answering our questions and picking up where Obama left off. Not recreating the wheel but adding to it.”