is not to say that they shared the land with other tribes, because they
did establish territorial rights to certain parts of America among the
many tribes. Intrusion into another tribe's territory was considered an
invasion and was often met with warfare.
Before contact with Europeans, most of the Native Americans lived in
hunter/gatherer communities composed of small populations of people. A
few tribes had settled into farming communities before the coming of
Europeans, but these were rare. The Native Americans set up their
community with an equal division of labor between men and women. Women
controlled the use of the land and men controlled the distribution of
goods from the land. Goods were considered community property with the
whole tribe sharing in equal parts.
Before contact with Europeans, land tenure and use favored women.
Inheritance passed through the maternal side and women controlled the
use of the land. The Iroquois women also controlled the community's
store of goods, in addition to farming in female cooperatives. The
Northwest Tlingit women handled any money in the tribe, as men were
thought to be foolish in their spending habits. The Tlingit women also
controlled any fur transactions. In nomadic tribes, such as the Plains
Indians, women owned and distributed all the domestic goods, while men
controlled all items relating to hunting and warfare.
When the Europeans arrived in America, they were shocked by the Native
Americans' matriarchal and matrilineal system. The European conquerors
began to chain the Native Americans to the land through farming. As
with the Twa tribe, many Native American tribes were subjected to the
Spanish system of encomienda,
which remained in effect in New Mexico between 1600 and 1680. This
Spanish system "provided for the involuntary seizure of a percentage of
each Pueblo farmer's crop every year to support Spanish missionary,
military, and civil institutions" (Folsom 14).
Americans in California territory were also induced into forced labor.
The Spanish, and later the Mexicans, occupying this territory
established legislation that authorized the arrest of any Indian for
drunkenness, or even just loitering, upon the complaint of any citizen.
Once the Indian was arrested, he or she must pay a fine or be sold to
the highest bidder as a labor hand for a certain period of time,
usually a week. At the end of the week, the Indian would be paid in
alcohol, would be arrested again on Monday, and the cycle would start
Another strategy used by the Europeans to acquire land was by
purchasing it from the Native Americans. Whether through devious
actions or ignorance of Indian ways, the Europeans would get a few
tribal members to sell the land, which caused conflict within the
tribe. For example, Tecumseh, a Shawnee, protested the sell of his
tribal lands in the following way:
The white people have no right to take the land from the Indians,
because they had it first; it is theirs. They may sell, but all must
join. Any sale not made by all is not valid. The late sale is bad. It
was made by a part only. Part do not know how to sell. It requires all
to make a bargain for all (Hurtado, 171).
Another land issue that caused conflict within the Native American
peoples was the policy of removing Indians from their traditional
homelands onto reservations. A good example of this is the removal of
the Cherokee Indians from Georgia into present-day Oklahoma. The
Cherokee newspaperman Elias Boudinot, although initially opposing
removal, came "to believe that removal was necessary to save the
Cherokee nation" (Hurtado 207). After the Cherokees had been removed to
Oklahoma, opponents of the removal "killed Boudinot and other Indians
who had signed the removal treaty" (Hurtado 207).
After all the Native Americans had been removed unto reservations, the
federal government passed the Dawes Act of 1887. This law divided the
reservation lands into sections for private ownership, thus destroying
the concept of sharing lands communally. Because of the Dawes Act, the
Indians lost two of every three acres held before 1887. The purpose of
this law was to halt the Indians' nomadic lifestyle by turning them
Since Native American peoples had no concept of land ownership, the
European invaders considered the land to be up for grabs. The Europeans
used a variety of ways to gain control of the land. They used deception
on Montezuma. They ignored Indian political practices by having a few
Indians sell the lands. And when all else failed, the federal
government passed laws to relocate the Indians and resorted to warfare
if they resisted.
Folsom, Franklin. Indian Uprising on the Rio Grande. University of Mexico Press, 1996.
Hurtado, Albert, Peter Iverson, and Thomas Paterson, editors. Major Problems in American Indian History: Documents and Essays. Houghton Mifflin Company Collegiate Division, 2000.
About the Author
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Image with two authentic tipis, build by Cree craftsmen, in Northwestern Saskatchewan. Foto by Beaver River Media.