Private Property vs. Tribal Commons amongst the (U.S.) Native Americans

David Bollier reports on a controversy launched in Forbes blaming the poverty of Northern American Native Americans to their communal property.

Here we feature the responses against the call for more privatized property:

“Thank God for the interactive Internet, because the commenters on Koppisch’s article had a field day tearing apart his ahistorical, ideologically driven arguments. A major point of contention was whether collective tribal management can make the lives of Native Americans better, or whether that can only come by securing private property rights and market competition so that people can “develop” – a supposedly universal imperative and rule.

The commenter self-identified as dbartecchi had one of the most informed and astute responses:

Writing as a European settler who works alongside Native Americans on land tenure issues, I find Mr. Koppisch’s article raises awareness of some of the current challenges in the way of Native Americans from benefiting from their resources, but feel it is an overly simplistic, ahistorical analysis of poverty on reservations today. In fact, it is based on the same ethnocentric premise that was behind the creation of the Dawes Act in the first place. Namely, that all people are individual selfish utility-maximizers and the biggest thing in the way to “progress” for Native Americans is their collective utilization of natural resources. Thus, the problem, from Mr. Koppisch’s perspective, is that there hasn’t been ENOUGH privatization.

Dbartecchi goes on to ask:

Were Native American’s victims of their own communal use of natural resources, a self-created tragedy of the commons? While we can always find instances of resource destruction and conflict in the Archaeological record, but the fact remains, Native American’s thrived on this continent for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European settlers. And believe it not, this happened without privatization, individual allotments, and a centralized state to create laws and enforce contracts. Now, it would be equally false to assume that Native American’s, by definition, are communal and anti-capitalist, that’s just not true, in fact, the Lakota and other tribes were renowned for their role in the fur trade, controlling and manipulating markets around the globe. And in fact, there were internal struggles among Native American leaders over what direction to take. Lakota Chief Red Cloud believed that there was no stopping the influx of settlers and so tried to convince his people to assimilate. Crazy Horse, on the other hand, sought to protect the traditional way of life that extended beyond the boundaries of the Reservations. The point here is that the history of Native American’s extends thousands of years prior to the creation of Reservations. Pretty much none of that history included privatization. Rather, they were forced onto Reservations by an invading colonial army and were forced to participate in a western system of land tenure and agricultural production. But, history doesn’t end there. It’s not as if they were forced onto reservations, and then became equal participants in American society.

After the period of European settlement in North America between 1492-1887, Native Americans were left with reservations consisting of only 150 million acres. Recognized through treaties as sovereign nations, these lands were largely unpartitioned and communally managed, a practice considered by the U.S. Government to be a non-productive and irrational use of resources. The Government’s solution was the General Allotment Act (GAA) of 1887, also known as the Dawes Severalty Act. The act partitioned reservation lands into 160 acre parcels for each head of family, 80 acre parcels to orphans, and 40 acres parcels to each child. After all the allotments were issued, the remaining reservation lands in the West was transferred to the Government who then made it available to white settlers free of charge as part of the Homestead Act. This amounted to a loss of over 60,000,000 acres, nearly 2/3rds of all Indian lands. Beyond the significant loss of lands, the GAA also created several challenges for the use and inheritance of the remaining lands that would have profound implications for future generations of Native Americans.

– It broke apart communally managed lands into individually owned parcels, destroying the ability of many communities to be self sufficient on already limited and marginal lands.

– It disrupted traditional residency patterns, forcing people to live on allotments sometimes far from their relatives, eroding traditional kinship practices across many reservations.

– It destroyed communal control of lands, making it easier for private and government interests to gain access to the vast coal, oil, natural gas, agricultural, and grazing resources on Native American Reservations. This was done primarily through forced leases. Leased which, to this day, the government has failed to fully pay. in fact, according to Judge Robertson of the District Court of Columbia, Native American’s were shorted roughly 47 billion dollars in income collected by the government over the last 120 years.

– The GAA never established an adequate system for how lands would be transferred from generation to generation. Since the practice of creating a Last Will and Testament before death was not common and in some cases was outright offensive to the traditional inheritance practices of some Native American cultures, these lands passed from one generation to the next without clear divisions of who owned what. Today, lands have become so fractionated that it is common to have several hundred or even thousands of landowners on one piece land. This has created a severe obstacle today for individuals and families wanting to utilize their lands as they need to get permission from the other land owners on decisions related to the land. With limited resources to deal with this situation, the only option for most families is to lease their undivided fractionated lands out – often times to non-natives.

– Forced Fee Patenting, introduced with the 1906 Burke Act, amended the GAA to give the secretary of the interior the power to issue Indian Allottees determined to be “competent,” fee patents making their lands subject to taxation and sale. In other words, the government privatized indigenous lands….

– The unequal land-use patterns seen on reservations today is a direct outcome of discriminatory lending practices, land fractionation and specifically, Federal policies over the last century that have excluded native land owners from the ability to utilize their lands while at the same time opening it up to non-native farmers and ranchers. Discriminatory lending practices, as argued in court cases such as the pending Keepseagle vs. Vilsack, claim that Native Americans have been denied roughly 3 billion in credit.

With the above facts in mind, is it really accurate to say that the poverty on Native American reservations is a result of “not enough privatization” or should we also consider the 120+ years of discrimination and abuse by the United States Government?

Koppische lamely responds:

I disagree with the notion that private property is somehow ethnocentric. There is no other basis for lasting prosperity, whether you’re white, black, Asian or Indian. Improving private property rights is not some “Western” notion of progress, but a universal notion that is necessary for progress anywhere. No one is saying the Indians have to develop better private property rights, but what’s clear is that if Indians on the reservations are ever to escape the cycle of poverty, property rights must be part of the answer, along with improved legal structures….

And yes, there’s a long and sordid history that’s led to the situation we have today. But rehashing that history does nothing to help Indians now. It just adds to the sense of victimhood that holds Indians back.

Two other replies to Koppische are notable in exposing the fallacies of his arguments. Bethanyberger wrote:

“Before the General Allotment Act was passed, its architects noted that the Cherokee Nation had no paupers, that no one was homeless, and that the tribe had built its own schools and hospitals, but claimed that the tribe could not develop because it lacked private property. The answer: individual allotments of common lands. The result: poverty and land loss. In the 1950s we saw the same reasoning, with the same result. The Menominee ran a timber company resulting in almost full employment in the tribe; they provided health care through their own clinics and hospitals; they ran a utility company. But again policymakers said private property was necessary and made the tribal land private property owned by a corporation under state jurisdiction. Within ten years, there was no hospital, no utility company, and massive welfare dependence.”

Another commenter, markhalfmoon, puts the whole debate in a nice perspective:

“Why is it that this society wants to be able to commit mass murders while engaged in grand theft, then engage in enormous scale kidnapping, captivity and forced labor, become extremely wealthy from it, pay nothing for it whatsoever, get off scot free, and then tell the victims of its crimes to stop bitching and whining about it and chastise them for not being responsible enough?”

1 Comment Private Property vs. Tribal Commons amongst the (U.S.) Native Americans

  1. david ronfeldtdavid ronfeldt

    i’m grateful for this informative post. last year i stumbled upon a fox tv program by john stossel abt the tragedy of the commons. thanks to boliier’s post i now understand the background to stossel’s biased take, and better yet, see the corrective comments above.

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