Native American and European Land Ownership

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Native American and European Land Ownership
Under English law, discoveries were made in the name of the king and all lands belonged to the king. Royal favorites also received territories to be distributed as they saw fit. However, these lands that had been "discovered" and distributed by the English had been occupied for centuries by various Indian nations. In time, the Indians and the Europeans discovered that each had quite different ideas about land ownership—a cultural difference that had a profound effect on the history of the United States.

There were a great many Indian tribes in the Americas, and each understood itself to be a nation, with a different language and culture than all others. "Indian" is nothing more than a vague catch-all name (first used by Columbus, who mistakenly thought he had landed in India). Native Americans had their own names, their nations, and each name usually translated as, simply, "The People." However, although Indian cultures were quite varied, most shared a similar understanding of the meaning and the stewardship of land.

Long before the first European settlers came to America, Indians had developed an advanced economy. Indian tribes traded extensively with each other, and many had some form of money. None, however, had any institution like the "land title" of the Europeans. Many thought that this showed Indian social development to be more primitive than that of the Europeans, but the Native Americans had developed sophisticated legal systems that incorporated treaties, explained people’s rights and stated ways to resolve disputes.

A great many treasures of art and oral literature have been passed down. Indian cultures and religions were closely involved with nature, for they felt themselves one with the universe. Mother Earth and Father Sky represented the Indians' very being. Land, a part of the universe, belonged to all, particularly the tribe. Individual land ownership did not exist, since all were entitled to the fruits of nature. Users' rights were protected and specified in various traditions, but there was no such things as land "ownership". Generally, individuals could clear as much land as needed for farming; this land would remain in a family's possession as long as they continued to use it. Once it was abandoned, anyone else could use it.

Indians readily understood and entered into treaties concerning rights to land use, but the idea of land sales was unknown to them—and it is likely that, because of difficulties in translation of each others' languages, neither the natives nor the settlers understood this vital difference, at first.

Unavoidably, as settlements grew and the desire for further expansion increased, the cultures of these Native Americans and of Europeans came into conflict. Treaty after treaty relocated the Indians, moving them farther west and robbing them of their habitat. Corrupt and deceitful means were used to force them to forfeit their lands. In many cases, the Indians had little idea of what the settlers meant in denying them access to their lands. Lacking the technology and weapons of the Europeans, the Indians were eventually relocated and forced to subsist in a total area of only 200,000 square miles, in a continent of over six million square miles which they had once wholly occupied.

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Comprehension Questions:

  1. Where and how did the term “Indian” originate?

  2. Identify three aspects of the Native Americans’ legal systems before the arrival of Europeans.

  3. Explain the Native Americans’ understanding of land use and ownership.

  4. How did the Native Americans’ understanding of land use differ from that of the Europeans’?

  5. What was the end result of conflict over land for the Native Americans?

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