Native Americans and the Colonists

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For the English, land was the basis of liberty. Explain the reasoning behind that concept and how it was markedly different from the Native Americans' conception of land.

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The markedly different understandings of land between the English and Indigenous peoples of America was rooted in completely different ways of living. Prior to the Christian and nation-state domination of European tribes, people from Europe and Indigenous peoples of the Americas had more similar relationships to the land, in that...

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The markedly different understandings of land between the English and Indigenous peoples of America was rooted in completely different ways of living. Prior to the Christian and nation-state domination of European tribes, people from Europe and Indigenous peoples of the Americas had more similar relationships to the land, in that land was treated not as a commodity but as an integral part of the earth's ecosystem. After the indigenous tribes of Europe fell under state and religious control, hierarchies arose that privatized and enclosed land that had previously been public. Land became a resource one could own and control, and only the rich and royal were able to own it. Landless peasants saw the land of the Americas as a ticket to freedom. If they could own the land, they too could be free.

However, this freedom was acquired through the forced displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, who still had mutualistic relationships with the land. Like the earlier tribes of Europe, the Indigenous people of this land often maintained migratory lifestyles and shared land and resources with each other. The land was still understood as something to live with, not something to control and dominate.

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It is important to remember that the English colonists and the Native Americans they encountered were the products of very different and often contrasting worldviews. The English were the inheritors of a feudal system. Although feudalism had mostly unraveled by the seventeenth century, it still had many vestiges in English society. Most land in England was owned by the aristocracy and nobility. Commoners were merely permitted to use the land in exchange for payment in labor, taxes, or a percentage of profits paid to the landlord. Without land of his own, an Englishman could never truly have independence. Many landless Englishmen saw the New World as an opportunity to free themselves from this feudal-like system by claiming and working land that belonged to no lord.

The native peoples of North America saw land very differently. Most indigenous religions are based on concepts of animism, meaning that land belongs not to people, but to the earth itself. They saw themselves not as owners of land, but instead as the land's caretakers and stewards. Its resources were to be shared and used but not exploited. Many native peoples were also migratory. This means that they would make use of a piece of land for a time before moving on to another place. As a result, they saw the land as a collective resource and not the property of a single individual or family.

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The Native Americans and the British had different views regarding land ownership. The British believed that people should be able to own land and develop it. In fact, owning land was viewed as so important that people who owned land had more rights than people who didn’t own land. For example, for a period of time, landowners were able to vote, unlike people who didn’t own land. This was a common practice in many of the British colonies in North America. Owning land gave people a degree of freedom and privilege.

The British believed it was acceptable to use the land. It was proper to take minerals from the land to further economic growth or allow for individual profit. It was acceptable for people to farm their own land and sell the crops. The land could be used for personal gain and profit.

The Native Americans believed that land was collectively owned. They didn’t believe in private ownership of the land. They felt that the land needed to be respected. It was acceptable to use the land for the good of all in the tribe. However, since the Native Americans tended to move from place to place, they believed it was very important to allow all Native American groups to benefit from the land. The Native Americans didn’t see people settling in one place and developing that place, as the Europeans were willing to do.

With these different viewpoints regarding land, there was bound to be conflicts between the Europeans and the Native Americans.

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For the English, land was the basis of freedom and liberty because land allowed people to have control of their own labor.  A person who did not own land was not in control of their labor.  Since they owned no land they would have to work for someone else.  If they worked for someone else, they were essentially under that person’s control.  A person who was controlled by someone else could not truly be free.  This idea came with the English colonists and survived into the time when the United States was independent.  Thomas Jefferson based his economic and political philosophy on the idea that all Americans should own small farms so that they could all be independent and free.

The English concept of land was markedly different from the Indian conception of land.  To the English, land was something to be owned by individuals.  Those individuals were supposed to farm the land, tame it, and use it for their own purposes.  The Indians (historians say) did not see land in this way.  The Indians saw land as something that was not owned by individual people.  They thought that people should own the land collectively.  They were willing to alter the land, farming it or managing it to make it more hospitable for game animals.  However, they did not have the concept that an individual could exclusively own a piece of land in perpetuity.

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