April 1991

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Indian Land Claims


Robert G. Koch

Land—and its uses—meant quite different things to American Indians and to white settlers and governments. Still at issue are counterclaims to vast tracts about which there are radically different perceptions about the very nature of land and about a history of tangled treaties, forced resettlement, and drawn-out court cases. In Upstate New York several such instances bedevil the relationship between the Iroquois nations, their neighbors, and the State and Federal governments.

In western New York the Senecas held sway as the Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, and Mohawks did further east. Around 1600, these territories stretched north and south from Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence to the Southern Tier and Catskills. Hunting, warfare, and trade often took Iroquois parties beyond these approximate boundaries, sometimes well beyond them, for example into present-day Ontario, Canada, especially as the fur trade became a factor in their lives.

But the core territories were essentially ecological niches—sometimes overlapping—within which their agriculture centered on corn, beans, and squash, the stable "Three Sisters" of their diet, and was supplemented by the gathering and cultivation of various fruits, and by hunting and fishing. Sometimes weather, crop losses, or other hazards of drawing sustenance from a given area forced movements within or beyond these confines. Territories also needed to be defensible. Villages were strategically placed and stockaded. Waterways and trails crisscrossed the areas and helped tie together the five—later six—Indian nations associated within the Iroquois confederacy.

These Indian nations used the land in common rather than owned it, even as communities. It was never privately "owned." These societies felt a highly emotional attachment to the living Earth, as did all American Indian peoples. In a sense they did not live on it, but in and through it, were part of it, as were their ancestral dead.

In 1852 Chief Seattle, in what is present-day Washington State, spoke of it persuasively. He is quoted in the Turtle Quarterly, published by the Native American Center in Niagara Falls. "…The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

These kinds of views and habits of land use had some adherents among European settlers, but for the most part they contrasted sharply with prevailing European views of land ownership. In European law "…land (i.e. real estate or territory) is allocated through strict economic modes of transfer; for example, conveyances such as sale, lease, assignment, mortgage, deed, and contract…[that] require the establishment of clear, inflexible and demarked boundaries," as pointed out by William A. Starna in a conference on IROQUOIS LAND CLAIMS. Land surveyors were overworked measuring, marking, and mapping marketable parcels.

Starna continues, "Also explicit in the European concept of land use is the recognition of ownership. In short, land is a commodity that is parceled out through conveyances, for a specified value in money or its equivalent, and then regarded as 'owned' or property by an individual, groups of individuals, or some other sociopolitical or economic unit. Essentially, it is property that can be purchased, sold, or otherwise transferred."

As we have already seen, for the Iroquois and other American Indians, "[Land] is not property, personal or public…[I]ndividuals or groups…have rights to use or extract resources from and within a given territory, although there is no direct ownership of the territory. Instead, the land is held communally, with benefits and burdens shared by all in the society."

Fundamental misunderstanding about these matters shows up in local histories, in accounts in which Indians, used to a code of open hospitality and communal sharing, unsettled the settlers by entering their cabins in search of warmth or food. And a recent town history recalls a family story: "Once an Indian brave came to the cabin and motioned [the man] to follow him. He expected to be killed, but the Indian took him to where he had freshly killed venison and gave some to [him]."

So among the Indian nations who could convey what to the settlers and their governments? Military force could, and did, obviate or badly skew negotiations. Extreme discrepancy in the value of goods traded between negotiating parties also complicated questions of equity. Alcohol and self-interested advisers further clouded decision-making. Then, too, there were fundamental questions of legitimacy for the participants in such negotiations and not only on the Indian side. Complications that are still being pursued in the American courts arose from the participation, or lack of it, of the new Federal government, of former colonies that were now States within a federal system, and the relationships between these governments and private developers.

Too briefly sketched, these are a few of the factors involved in the Cayuga land claims, the Salamanca leases, the St. Regis claim, and the Oneida case which the Supreme Court recently refused to review, and, many, many others from New England to the Pacific. The edges of cultural borders have always been difficult places to make long-ranging life and death decisions.

© 1991, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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