The June issue of the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) magazine, PERC Reports ("The Magazine of Free Market Environmentalism") is devoted to American Indians and property rights.
The PERC authors explore the role of property rights in historical American Indian life, and the implications of a property rights and local perspective for modern policy debates.
The papers are short. The authors didn't get the space to pile on the details that would make their arugments really strong. But the papers are still interesting and suggestive.
Carlos Rodriguez, Craig Galbraith, and Curt Stiles argue that, in many cases, historical American Indians had well developed systems of property rights:
In the past, most if not all North American indigenous peoples had a strong belief in individual property rights and ownership. Frederick Hodge (1910) noted that individual private ownership was “the norm” for North American tribes. Likewise, Julian Steward (1938, 253) asserted that among Native Americans communal property was limited, and Frances Densmore (1939) concluded that the Makah tribe in the Pacific Northwest had property rights similar to Europeans.’
But gradually, they claim, a different and inaccurate perception evolved:
These early twentieth-century historians and anthropologists had the advantage of actually interviewing tribal members who had lived in pre-reservation Indian society. By the late 1940s, however, these original and firsthand sources of information had died, and false myths and historical distortions began to take dominant shape. By the mid–1960s, the tone in many college history books, history-inspired films and novels, and even speeches had completely changed (Mika 1995). A typical historical distortion, for example, is found in Baldwin and Kelley’s best-selling 1965 college textbook, The Stream of American History, where they write, “Indians had little comprehension of the value of money, the ownership of land . . . and so land sharks and grog sellers found it easy to mulct them of their property”(208). These myths were further fueled by popular books such as Jacobs’ (1972) Dispossessing the American Indian, which suggested that Native Americans felt that land (and other property) was “a gift from the gods”
and as such not subject to private ownership. Gradually more and more people started to honestly believe that the indigenous people of North America had been historically communal, non-property oriented, and romantic followers of an economic system more harmonious with nature.
How did modern perceptions become so divorced from historical reality?
Terry Anderson (1995) attributes the beginning of the myth to settlers seeking farm land in the Great Plains, who interacted only with nomadic tribes that did not view land as an important asset. These settlers mistakenly generalized the lack of interest in land to infer a lack of property rights among all tribes. We argue that this fiction was further propagated in the nineteenth century by a virtual army of East Coast newspaper journalists, dime novelists, and Washington politicians who, in spite of writing about Native Americans, often had little contact with tribal groups. Reported, retold, and unchallenged, these incorrect perceptions ended up as the basis for later laws and institutional codification.
This myth has had important consequences, as it's become incorporated into the land tenure system of the modern reservation:
Compounding the problem was the land tenure system of the modern reservation. The system institutionalized and codified the legends, with dramatic and unfortunate consequences for indigenous entrepreneurship and economic development.
Bruce Benson explores "The 19th Century Comanche" and their "Legal System Based on Individual Rights."
Despite the lack of formal legal authorities, there was a clear, widely held set of rules of conduct reflecting individual rights to private property. Indeed, among the Comanche, “the individual is supreme in all things,” wrote Hoebel (1954, 131). It is true that the Comanche, like other Plains Indians, did not recognize private land holdings. But property rights develop only after the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs (Demsetz 1967). The nomadic hunting and gathering lifestyle of the Plains Indians, particularly after the introduction of horses, meant that rights to specific tracts of land were worth little. Furthermore, land was still so abundant that individual property rights were largely unnecessary.
For other resources, however, private property rights did evolve. Private ownership was firmly established for such things as horses, tools for hunting and gathering, food, weapons, materials used in the construction of mobile shelters, clothing, and various kinds of body ornaments that were used for religious ceremonies and other activities.
Cooperative production (such as group raids to take horses from enemy tribes or group hunts) did not imply communal ownership. The product of such cooperative activities was divided among participants according to their contributed effort. Individuals might share such things as food at times, but they did so out of generosity.
George Catlin - Camanchees Lancing a Buffalo Bull - National Gallery (there is a large collection of Catlin paintings from the National Gallery, here: George Catlin .
Correction, July 7 - the post originally called PERC the "Political Economy Research Center," instead of its correct name, "Property and Environment Research Center."