What The Malheur Occupation Teaches Us About Masculinity

A man standing guard pushes the media aside after members of the "3% of Idaho" group along with several other organizations a
A man standing guard pushes the media aside after members of the "3% of Idaho" group along with several other organizations arrived at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, near Burns, Ore. A small, armed group has been occupying a remote national wildlife refuge in Oregon for a week to protest federal land use policies. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

While the folks who illegally occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge claimed to want to overthrow the tyranny of the federal government, they seemed quite willing to leave the tyranny of patriarchy unquestioned. Their actions and organization can teach us a lot about how patriarchy works.

From the beginning, the men who occupied the refuge engaged in macho posturing with their display of guns and their blatant disregard for the law, the environment and the communities around the refuge. These are not successful men as traditional masculinity requires them to be. Many of them don't hold down regular jobs. Several have declared bankruptcy. Many have criminal records, from felony driving with a suspended license to second degree murder. Most left their families elsewhere in order to parade around with guns and wreak havoc on a remote wildlife refuge. They have felt powerless in their struggles with the federal government.


" Apparently, running around with guns and keeping the feds at bay made them feel tough; they felt like real men."

To feel powerless is to fail at masculinity. To be regulated, constrained, fined and jailed is to face challenges to masculinity. And often when men don't feel like "real men," they have to dominate something or someone to reassert their masculinity. In other words, "real men" are not dominated; they dominate. And so, to re-establish their masculinity, these men took up weapons, threatened federal agents, and destroyed federal property. Apparently, running around with guns and keeping the feds at bay made them feel tough; they felt like real men.

Of course, their sense of masculinity was also propped up by their intersecting white privilege and its attendant sense of entitlement. As white men they expect that ownership, power and success are their birthright. They expect to be heard. They believe that they have the right to demand what they want, even if it is over the law and over the wishes of the people of the region.

They demanded that federal lands be returned to "the people." But by "the people" they meant themselves and other white people like them. They certainly didn't mean the Burns Paiute whose land the refuge originally was and who asked them to leave. They didn't mean the people who live in Burns; they also asked the occupiers to leave. They didn't even mean the vast diverse majority of Americans who are free to enjoy the opportunities afforded by the refuge. Somehow, all of these other Americans are not "the people."

These occupiers also counted on their white privilege to protect them from federal assault. After all, we've witnessed the willingness of law enforcement to break up, often by force, the protests of Black and Native peoples. Yet, day after day passed, and the water and electricity stayed on, supplies still came in, and the occupiers continued to destroy the refuge and threaten Burns Paiute artifacts while the federal government tried to wait them out, despite pleas from the Oregon Governor and local officials to end the occupation.

Even at the end, law enforcement found a way to avoid a great deal of violence in apprehending the occupiers, and the only one who died did so because he reached for a gun in his pocket as he was surrounded by agents and state troopers.

Not surprisingly, even as we watched this toxic white masculinity play out in public, women were in the background of the occupation taking on the gendered roles assigned to them within patriarchy.

A recent story by Oregon Public Broadcasting went behind the scenes with the few women at the refuge. They were cooking, cleaning, organizing supplies and doing laundry. They served the roles women often do in conflict -- they created normalcy and offered emotional support so the men could convince themselves that what they were doing was all in a day's work, even as they committed unlawful acts, threatened violence, and defiled a public refuge. Not that some of these women didn't share the radical ideology of the men, but they defined their role in the occupation as helpers and supporters.

Informed by a fundamentalist Christian theology, these women believed they were enacting the roles God assigned them. One of them told the OPB reporter: "... 'I'm a nobody,' she said. She said she will stay at the refuge as a cook, 'for as long as it takes. We women, we are helpers ... That's how we are created, and that's what we do here.'"


"Their sense of masculinity was also propped up by their intersecting white privilege and its attendant sense of entitlement. As white men, they expect that ownership, power and success are their birthright."

In many ways, the refuge itself became feminized in the occupation. Women and nature are often equated as resources to be utilized or wildness to be tamed and domesticated. The occupiers wanted to assert their dominance over the natural resources at Malheur and so violated the refuge with machines that created roads where there should have been none and destroyed fences that protected the land from encroachment by cattle.

The illegal occupation of the refuge was about much more than federal regulation. It was also about maintaining gender. It was about reinforcing a masculinity that is tough, defiant and violent, and a femininity that is supportive and submissive. It was about reinforcing men's sense of self as powerful, dominant and self-determining, and keeping women and nature in their place -- serving men's needs and being the helpers in the background.

Even in the waning hours of the conflict, the four remaining occupiers are still trying to assert control. They say they want to leave the refuge but only on the condition that none of them is arrested. Other militants have issued calls for thousands to show up and protest to ensure we are not left with the image of an impotent movement that accomplished little.

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