Native Americans and private property

Seems like their concept of private property (more accurately, lack of same) was at the root of their downfall and that it was just a matter of time.

To start, I don’t know if other cultures on other continents held the same beliefs and were “allowed” to occupy the land/live accordingly. Nor am I familiar with the eastern tribes. I’m thinking specifically in terms of the west.

Collective ownership of land… a relatively few occupied an enormous area and fought amongst themselves to control it. Its not surprising that the white people would expect a piece of it and also fight over it.

Private (personal) property… basically no such thing. If an Indian thought that he needed something more that the owner he thought nothing of taking it for his own use.


A bit of a hi-jack, since I don’t think the book directly addresses property rights, but this - Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History is quite a read. Be warned that it is not for the faint of heart. Some of the atrocities of… everyone… is just well…

So Native Americans should take over all the collectively owned property in this country? All the roads, parks, and any other public property right? Obviously we should expect that.

And we don’t ever take someone’s private property to make better use of it than they do. That would be absurd. We’d have to call it Eminent Domain or something stupid like that if we started doing it.

What makes you think that there was no personal property?
Some of the reasons for the downfall could be:

Population fell after contact with Europeans.
Native Americans didn’t have the capacity to fight like Europeans.
Inter-tribal conflicts were used by different colonial powers.

Personal property did matter, it was how people showed status. Of course blanket statements should not be meant to cover all Native Americans.

Wow. Thread derail in 2.

I believe the OP wants to learns something about communitarian-type primitive cultures. And also to get feedback on whether his conception of NA culture at that time is accurate.

Sadly I don’t have any good info on topic to impart.

To be fair, the OP is a little enigmatic.

Property ownership didn’t make much difference. Plenty of Cherokee owned land back east. It made no difference when the soldiers showed up to force them onto the Trail of Tears.

I think that upon inspection, their views on private property were pretty parallel to the Europeans’; however, we view and inspect their cultures/beliefs/etc… collectively, and it’s been fashionable to be ‘the rebel’ and piss on the Europeans, so, we have to build a new, and erroneous, sociological perspective for the American Indians.

I just finished a pretty comprehensive course on aboriginal history and law in Canada, and some of the concepts transfer over. I’m by no means an expert, but one of the key things we learned was that yes, there was no concept of land ownership (they certainly did understand personal property ownership). They didn’t grasp that land and what grew on it could be taken/sold; to them it was just provided by Mother Earth (or whatever) for hunting and gathering.

As the OP implies, it’s complicated.

I once researched the case of an 18th century sachem (chief) who (I had been told, wrongly as it turned out, had lived in my home town) was put on trial for killing his English neighbor over what was essentially a land dispute. According to one account, the land was purchased from some other Indians in the tribe, who arguably didn’t have the right to sell, since Europeans transacted land deals with sachems (according to another version, the neighbor got this sachem drunk, and got him to sign away the land before he sobered up). Did the other indians have the right to sell land? One could make the case that they could, since many things were held in common. Furthermore, as an Iroquois chief told me, a sachem was expected to give a member of his tribe anything he asked for. (Indian society kept obsessive grabbing of property at bay by an ethos of not doing that kind of thing, and publicly shaming offenders)
But it’s not right to say they had no concept of private property. You wouldn’t be viewed kindly if you tried to appropriate someone else’s clothes or weapons or household items. And I’ve been told that families sort of laid claim to hunting areas. They didn’t exactly “own” them, but you’d be asked why you were someplace you shouldn’t be.

So it’s complex. It certainly added to the other cultural differences between Europeans and Indians, but I suspect it provided more of an excuse than the original problem – there were a lot of Europeans, they were expanding westward, and they weren’t going to be denied the land. One Lenape chief dealt with the problem of a drunken indian signing away land by essentially staging a sit-down strike in the Governor’s office until the deed was brought out and torn to pieces in his sight. That took guts and determination, and shows a definite opinion that the tribe, and not an English settler who obtained the deed by deceit, ought to control the land. Nevertheless, the Lenape literally sold all remaining rights to New Jersey lands before the end of the 19th century. They recognized the inevitable, and made a cash settlement for what remained.

Yes, that’s totally different. Not at all like ranchers who insist their cattle should graze for free on public land.

I think this is generally correct for most Native American groups. Families, clans, or tribes essentially had the right to use particular areas for farming, hunting, harvesting shellfish, etc. People owned their own personal effects: clothes, tools, horses, but there was little concept of ownership of land, any more than there would be of water. It wasn’t so much that there was collective “ownership” of land, but that groups had their own recognized territories. These territories could be protected fiercely.

This led to misunderstandings when the Europeans arrived and tried to obtain land. In the view of the Indians, they were purchasing the right to use the area, while the Europeans believed they were buying the physical land itself.

But as has been said, this was not the “root of their downfall.” Colonists and settlers learned to exploit the Indian system to claim ownership of large areas by dealing with a few chiefs. But that just accelerated the process. Even in cases where Indians might have had title to land, they were often forced off.

This is completely ridiculous. Indian societies were not anarchy. If someone from the same tribe tried to farm land that was allocated to another family, he would soon find himself before the chief or tribal council. If someone from a neighboring tribe was found hunting in an area where he wasn’t supposed to, he would also be taken before the leaders (if relations with that tribe were friendly) or just killed (if they were hostile).

Having concepts of land ownership didn’t help the Aztec, Maya, or Inca against Europeans. They still got ground up by outnumbered invading forces. Just because other native groups North of them didn’t have the concepts and could have individuals bamboozled into signing over collective rights doesn’t make the lack of property law necessary for their defeat.

Holy cow, relax. It’s a simple question, no need to sidetrack the thread by posting your blatantly prejudiced opinion all over the place.

As a fellow October2007er, I must say I am embarrassed. (Not to mention, Native American).

No, the root of their downfall was the lack of resistance to introduced Eurasian diseases. And other things like not having gunpowder and horses, but primarily it was the lack of disease resistance that caused their utter and total collapse.

If the lack of private property made you militarily vulnerable, the North Vietnamese would never have beaten the South.

Sounds reasonably similar to the Australian Aborigines.

re private personal property…

Completely ridiculous? I didn’t make it up…perhaps the person who wrote what I read (and I couldn’t find it now if I wanted to) was totally wrong…or maybe there is really a little something to the point he was trying to make.

Thanks for the recommendation! I was at Palo Duro Canyon last week and really enjoyed it.

Another thing that I recently read was that the Comanche stood out as being quite adept at torturing their foe. I wonder if there is anything to that one?

No normal society on Earth has ever worked that way. Even criminal organizations have certain rules and norms that they follow. Such a characterization can only come from almost complete ignorance about Native American societies. If you read such a thing, it can’t have been from any kind of reliable source - or else you are not accurately remembering what you read.