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  • “Trespassingin Sovereign Territory”Place, Patriarchy, and the Ideology of Public Lands in Longmire
  • Luke Morgan (bio)

Jane Tompkins suggests in West of Everything that Westerns are essentially about “men’s fear of losing their mastery, and hence their identity” and that the genre “tirelessly reinvents” this paradigm (45). The TV series Longmire both reifies and challenges this tendency as it follows the titular sheriff and his deputies in their law enforcement work in rural Wyoming. In a plot arc in later seasons, producers seem to respond to the rise in rhetorical and physical violence of white patriarchy reemergent in American culture during the 2016 presidential election. This essay explores how the show responds to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon from January 2 to February 11, 2016, and the white patriarchal ideology advanced by occupiers led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy.1 In this plot line Longmire seeks to convict, rather than justify, both its own fictional Bundy archetype, Chance Gilbert, and the white patriarchal violence this figure allegorizes. While the series does not engage public lands as geographic or physical places, it is germane to the subject of this special issue because it is concerned, like the Bundys themselves, with the ways in which moral, religious, and ethical epistemologies attempt to legitimize the private ownership of public lands and a subordination of public interest to private (white, male) ownership. Specifically, Longmire exposes the function of land in Bundyite discourse as an allegorical extension of patriarchal authority, a site where control over the domestic can be mapped and physically marked. I argue that this part of the series interrogates and ultimately seeks to undermine patriarchal ideology and its expressions in land policy by depicting a resolution to [End Page 19] the Malheur narrative that combats white male exclusivity in the ideological production of public and private spaces.

Longmire Responds to Malheur

The happenings of the Malheur occupation are well documented, and two years distant from its events, so are the critiques of its logic and methods. Political and legal scholars, as well as scholars of Western American history, have linked the occupation to precedents, including the Sagebrush Rebellion (Blumm and Jamin 784–85). Malheur was an extension of the radical interpretation of Constitutional law on which Cliven Bundy based his initial rejection of federal authority and which has since proliferated various brands of conservative Western politics. Occupiers drew on this vision in their stated goals: to dislodge federal oversight of the refuge and return its governance to what they argued was the constitutionally prescribed jurisdiction of county governance (Zaitz, “Militia”). In the process, occupiers left physical scars on the landscape. Malheur was not only a federally protected wildlife sanctuary but also a sacred place for the Paiute peoples who still live nearby (Irons 488). Occupiers worked quickly during their brief annexation of the territory to physically transform the land to match their patriarchal vision of a “productive” ranch, digging trenches and altering the landscape. Such physical changes threatened burial sites and the preservation of Paiute artifacts (Peacher, “Tribe”). Their physical impact, however, was less significant than their ideological goals. Michael Blumm and Oliver Jamin suggest that the occupation’s primary purpose was to attain a platform from which to articulate their case for state and local control of public lands to a captive national audience—and note that in this goal they were largely successful (875). While the occupation was brief, it left significant marks on national discourse on public lands.

It is also clear in retrospect that the Bundyite claims on which the occupation was predicated were constitutionally unsound but politically and culturally resonant. Most legal scholars agree that the Bundys’ interpretation of constitutional language governing limits to public lands is unfounded or, as Blumm and Jamin state, “wholly inconsistent with a long line of Supreme Court interpretations [End Page 20] of the plenary federal power to manage federal public lands under the Property Clause” (781). Despite personal success in avoiding federal conviction, the Bundys’ larger legal claims have not prompted the radical shift they seem to hope for. Instead, the Malheur Occupation was most successful in taking advantage of a national movement toward an...


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