Generalizing about Native Americans is difficult because when the Europeans landed in North America and began to establish colonies, there were hundreds of different tribes. Many were nomadic; that is, they had no fixed dwelling place, but moved from camp to camp according to the food supplies available in the various seasons. Others, such as the Pueblo Indians of the southwestern area of what is now the United States, a group that the Spanish encountered early on, lived in more fixed villages and practiced agriculture. In general, however, Native Americans did not practice individual ownership of land. In fact, though they lived off the land and had territorial rights from tribe to tribe, the idea of land ownership was alien to them. If they had a concept of ownership at all, they believed that the land was owned by the entire tribe and administered by the chiefs of the tribe.
The differing concepts of ownership became a problem when the Europeans wanted to purchase and take over land from the Indians. Chiefs were able to represent tribal interests and negotiate the sale of land, but Europeans would often buy land from Indians who were not chiefs, so the sales had no validity. Additionally, because the Native American concept of land ownership differed so profoundly from the European model, Europeans were able to deceive the Indians into signing away their land without the Indians realizing what they were doing. The Europeans would then often violently force the Indians off the land that they had obtained by trickery.
Later, the United States government manipulated Native Americans into losing a large portion of their reservation lands through the Dawes Act, also known as the General Allotment Act, and other similar laws. This divided up reservation lands into individual allotments for private ownership. It was a deliberate attempt to abolish the Native American practice of communal land ownership so that white settlers could take most of their land.