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Land Tenure and Use in Native American Culture
Written by Mary Arnold   
Native Americans believe they are closely linked with the land and everything that grows on the land or lives on the land. Because of this belief, the idea of "owning" land did not exist among the Native Americans. They lived off the land, but did not consider that they owned it.
This 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).

The Native 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 over.

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 into farmers.

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.

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Bibliography

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

Mary Arnold is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/ which is a site for Writers

Her writing portfolio may be viewed at http://www.Writing.com/authors/ja77521

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Image with two authentic tipis, build by Cree craftsmen, in Northwestern Saskatchewan. Foto by Beaver River Media.

 

 

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