As Thanksgiving approaches, I figured it would be nice to pay tribute to the many Native American tribes who have called the United States home for thousands of years. Perhaps you are one of many who grew up hearing that Native American tribes had no concept of land ownership prior to the arrival of European settlers. If that is the case, you may be wondering, “What do Native Americans have to do with title?” Well, turns out that is actually a misconception! Many Native American tribes did have complex and well-documented systems of property ownership, transfer, and use. Let’s take a minute to learn about some of the United States’ oldest forms of title-holding in this week’s Title Tidbit!
The misconception that Native Americans did not recognize land ownership can be traced back to British philosopher, John Locke, who argued that Europeans could claim land because they cultivated it, whereas Native Americans, he said, did not. That is another misconception. While the Native Americans with whom colonists first interacted are often thought to be hunter-gatherers, the vast majority of native peoples were actually farmers. In addition to planting and cultivating crops, they would also clear underbrush with controlled fires and change the course of rivers and streams to irrigate the land. While this proves the right of the native peoples to land ownership by Locke’s definition, their practices don’t stop there.
Take the Iroquois nation, for example. Many Iroquois women had ownership of various fields and farmable land. However, the community would work together to farm them. The Iroquois in fact had several major agricultural settlements, and they would periodically move from one to another depending on which had the best game or soil at that point in time. Even in those hunter-gatherer nations, tribes would still recognize hunting grounds as belonging to specific families or individuals.
In addition to land titles, almost every Native American tribe both understood and subscribed to the concept of personal property. While hunting and farming grounds would often be shared with other members of the tribe, Native Americans did not make a habit of sharing their homes, weapons, or even slaves. Many Native American tribes even had a complex social hierarchy with the quantity and quality of one’s horses representing an individual’s status.
Where the misconception arises is in the fact that many Native American tribes recognized land as belonging to the tribe as a whole and food or objects belonging to the individuals. As such, the European concept of land belonging to and being deeded to and from individuals was somewhat foreign (pun intended). However, Native Americans would sell and deed their land. Often, such transactions were dealt with through the Chiefs, who would represent the interests of each tribe. It’s almost as though the tribe as a whole were the buyer or seller, and the Chief was the agent. Author Ryan McMaken sums it up in this sentence from his 2017 article for the Mises Wire, “Communal property is private property, since ownership is restricted to specific groups of people, to the exclusion of others.” Hollywood really took the Lockean concept of the nomadic Native American and ran with it, perpetuating the myth that many of us grew up believing to be fact today. That’s all for this week’s Thanksgiving Title Tidbit! Have a wonderful and safe holiday, and let us all be thankful for the native peoples who aided those first struggling European settlers and who contributed so much vibrant culture and rich history to the land we call home today!