Student Question

How did Native Americans and Europeans differ in views of property ownership?

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The attitude toward property for Europeans who came to colonize North America was one of acquisition. Laws about ownership, landowning and theft were central to the ways in which European societies organized themselves, particularly because European nation-states had sprung from the amalgamation of smaller feudal societies, which were built on agriculture. For centuries, most Europeans had lived or died based on the success of or failure their harvests, and on their ability to feed whatever domesticated animals they possessed. Therefore, the distinction between public and private land was often a matter of life and death, and disputes over arable land were the bases for many wars.

Europe, unlike the Americas, was and is geographically quite small. More importantly, it was and remains more densely populated. Although some Native American tribes did practice agriculture, and although different tribes fought over territory, the idea of owning a particular patch of earth was a foreign concept. One could not own a mountain or a valley anymore than one could own the Sun; the notion was absurd. One could claim the right to hunt or farm in a particular territory, but because land and resources were plentiful and the human population was relatively small in comparison, permanently settling large swaths of land was impractical and unnecessary. 

So when Europeans came to the New World and asked who owned the land, Native Americans were puzzled by this question. They often would tell European settlers that Mother Earth owned the land, and that no human could do so. Many Europeans incorrectly took this to mean that the Native Americans tribes they encountered made no claim to the land. In fact, Native Americans did believe that they had claims to the land, to hunt, gather and farm it. Yet since they did not build large, permanent settlements, and because Europeans equated land ownership with wealth and power, misunderstandings, disagreements and the Native Americans' growing resentment toward settlers who encroached on their territory, led to horrible bloodshed.

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