Native Americans and the Colonists

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How did Native Americans' view of land use differ from that of European colonists?

Native Americans viewed land as a connection to ancestry, a spiritual foundation, and a nurturant source, whereas European colonists viewed land as a currency of power and as potential material wealth.

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Coming from a feudal society, Europeans had long-held beliefs that land equaled power. To control land was to control the resources and the people on it. Land could be bought and sold, exploited or left fallow. Wars could be fought over the right to land. Those who did not own...

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Coming from a feudal society, Europeans had long-held beliefs that land equaled power. To control land was to control the resources and the people on it. Land could be bought and sold, exploited or left fallow. Wars could be fought over the right to land. Those who did not own land were essentially powerless.

When they first arrived in the Americas, Europeans were confronted with a seemingly endless amount of land that they felt was ripe for the taking. Part of this belief in land ownership came from Judeo-Christian values that impart the idea that land is given to humans by God for their use. The English, for instance, developed a policy known as vacuum domicilium, which meant that if they felt that a piece of land was not being used in a way they saw fit or appeared empty, they could occupy and develop it, without concern for the other people there.

Native Americans, on the other hand, usually did not believe that land could be owned in the same sense as Europeans did. They had territories but did not feel that they had any claims of ownership over them. Rather, land had ancestral importance and was central to a particular tribe's identity. Most Native Americans practiced animist religions. Animism is the belief that all natural objects, including the land itself, have a soul or divine element. Therefore, they cannot be owned. Resources of the land can still be used, but they are seen as something given by the land, not something taken from it.

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There was a massive difference in the way Native Americans viewed land rights as opposed to the European settlers. The Native Americans didn’t believe land could—or should—be owned. Originally migratory and nomadic in nature, most Native American tribes saw the land as a resource to preserve, instead of occupy and overcome. They traveled to whatever land they could live on, particularly as it became necessary to travel to follow buffalo and other large mammals.

The European settlers brought Europe’s views of land ownership and property rights—that individuals could lay claim to a plot of land, and would therefore have the exclusive right to it, even if they were absent. Because none of the land was “claimed” when they arrived, these settlers took the opportunity to claim or purchase the land as they saw fit. For instance, the island that would eventually become Manhattan was purchased from a group of Native Americans who didn’t quite understand that they would be giving up the rights to ancestral land altogether for a very paltry sum.

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The idea of land use differed between Native Americans and Europeans. Europeans saw land as a valuable asset that could be owned, controlled, and utilized (often with the goal of profiting). Native Americans saw land as something that could be utilized as a source of life but didn’t necessarily feel it could be owned. Natives felt that land was provided and could be used by those who needed to use it.

The differing views between Europeans and Native Americans led to conflict, as European (and later American) settlers began enclosing their lands and defending them when Native Americans entered them. This occurred not only in the early colonial days, but also as the United States expanded westward when many Americans hoped to establish homesteads on cheap, unsettled western land.

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Native Americans had different views about land than the Europeans had. The Europeans believed that land could be owned. They believed that people should develop the land to provide for personal and economic growth. According to the European perspective, it was acceptable to extract minerals from the land in order to make money. Land could be bought and sold, and it could be used for any purpose. If a person wanted to sell land to a company to build a railroad, the Europeans believed this would be considered an acceptable use of the land.

The Native Americans didn’t believe in personal land ownership. They believed that people could live off of the land. However, because many of the Native Americans were somewhat nomadic before being placed on reservations, they felt the land was present for all to use. The Native Americans believed that the land was sacred and should be treated with respect.

These differences in opinion often led to clashes with the Europeans over land. The Native Americans lost many of these clashes and were eventually put on reservations.

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Basically, Native Americans viewed land as something that was to be used communally by all the members of a tribe.  There was no idea among the Indians that land was something to be divided up, sold, and owned by individuals.

This view of land ownership can be seen in a speech given by the Indian leader Tecumseh, in which he is addressing William Henry Harrison, who would later be President of the United States.  Tecumseh is quoted as saying that Indians needed to

...unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now -- for it was never divided, but belongs to all.


By saying this, Tecumseh is laying out a much different understanding of land use than we have now.  He sees the land as a communal resource that is to be used by all.  He does not see it as Europeans saw it (and as we see it now), as a resource that could and should be owned by individuals who could keep it as their own and exclude others from using it.

This tension between Native American and European views of land use and ownership was a major source of conflict between Natives and Europeans for much of the history of what is now the United States.

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