Land represents a quintessential issue between Native Americans and Europeans. This has been true since Columbus’ discovery and the era of Spanish exploration, invasion, and settlement. During the latter periods of Native American history we observe how English colonization and then the birth and growth of the United States affects the Indian Nations. During this period we mark how two divergent societies value land differently and the disparities resulting in conflict and Indian subjugation. The English Colonial Settlements initially viewed the land similarly as the aboriginal Indian inhabitants in a particular way.
The land was the provider of sustenance to both. The early English Colonies sought refuge in the land, which was unlike the early Spanish whose North American invasions sought to pillage riches through lands traversed in the name of religious virtue. The original English Colonies had fled their own religious persecution and instead settle lands to build their society within its borders. The initial contention between Indians and the English Colonies grew from the fundamental differences in each civilization’s ideal of a settlement and territory.
Whether an Indian Nations included permanent towns or not the Tribe’s Bands where predominately hunter-gatherers throughout its territory. Furthermore and unlike Europeans these Indian People shared cosmology that identified them as being one with the land. The European view of land was that of property and possession. As English Colonies and the later Americans further coveted Indian land to satisfy expansionism and economic enterprise we observe an unending encroachment on Indian resources.
At first there was an aggressive unfettered Indian land grab and then ongoing assaults on natural resources residing on the ever-dwindling Indian lands. The stereotypes of American Indians as inferior beings with limited intellect, or bloodthirsty warriors, or lacking acceptable morals initially justified Colonial expansionism under pretense of ordained religiosity. Indian resistance to relentless encroachment was often confronted with rebellion and the question of sovereignty was debated.
The establishment of the United States and the subsequent 1823 Supreme Court ruling of Johnson v. McIntosh made clear the government accepted that early Europeans had rights to all Indian lands by having discovered the lands. Having previously defeated the British and securing American independence allowed the victor’s title be transferred to the United States. It is from this point that “Conquest by Law” guides the history of land possession between Native Americans and Americans. This conquest gained popular social acceptance by the mid 19th Century as American society adopted the political decree that it was Manifest Destiny to encompass the continent.
The national conquest gained a legal endorsement to empower government separate Indian Nations from their land as assured in 1831 by the Supreme Court’s Cherokee Nation v. Georgia ruling that minimized Indian sovereignty to that of being a dominated people at best classified as dependents of their United States government guardian. In 1832 the Worcester v. Georgia ruling held that the aforementioned Cherokee treaties and the Trade and Intercourse Acts passed since 1790 did recognize Indian Nations as political entities with authority within its borders.
It now excluded States from having any jurisdictional power over Indian Nations. Though this ruling established Indians as autonomous from States it put in motion what would later become Congressional plenary power and it marks the beginning of federally exercised relocation to feed American land hunger and later efforts to manage “the Indian problem”. The vastly different views regarding land combined with systematic efforts to dismantle Indian culture and pushed towards Indian eradication.
Second to the impact of European introduced disease it would be habitat destruction and alteration to natural Indian environments that battled Indian Nations and drove them close to extinction. More so than overuse of natural resources it was the onset of the land being fenced and parceled which relegated Indian Nations to immobile and economically poor and spiritually bankrupt people faced with generational social disintegration. The series of governmental polices both purposefully and seemingly inadvertently legalized this conquest.
Some of the most damaging and consequential actions include the movement to reservations through the late 1800s. The reservation policy reversal known as the Allotment Act of 1887 pushed to assimilate Indians using land as the vehicle by requiring such parcels provide for the Indians as it did homesteaders without any regard to the traditional Indian land relationship. From the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 through the Termination policy and Relocation programs of the mid 20th Century the importance of Indian land affinity was never validated and to do so would have required literal enforcement and complete adherence to treaties.
The current era of Tribal Self-Determination beginning when the Indian Civil Rights Act enacted in 1968 does acknowledge Euro-American infringement on Indian lands. Government interventions and enforcement, whether or not serving in the best interest of sovereign Indian Nations, has not sought to return these Indian Nations to a state of a being a harmonious civilization that can be described as a confederacy of tribes, bands, and familial clans pursuing their life cycle throughout a vast ecosystem. The Euro-American value of property and possession has prevailed.