Whose Land?

Bill Willers criticizes the sale of what he calls “public lands” and public assets” because this will result in a reallocation of land for the benefit of the wealthy in the “United States.” ((Bill Willers, “On Track to Lose Our Public Lands,” Dissident Voice, 27 May 2011.)) I agree that such a sale is wrong.

However, I wholeheartedly dissent from the language and the implications of the language. I know that Willers is aware of the dispossession and considers it wrong. He is focused on the now and future.

Oren Lyons, elder of the Onondaga Nation said, “Empires are built on language. When we speak their languages, we come under their empire.” ((Quoted from Leroy Little Bear, Menno Boldt, and J. Anthony Long (Eds.), “Spirituality, Equality, and Natural Law,” in Pathways to Self-Determinism: Canadian Indians and the Canadian State (University of Toronto Press, 1985): 7.))

Whether of the past or present, language is important. It is a means of communication to describe the world around us. British writer George Orwell held that language is often used to obscure reality. ((George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Books, 1990). George Owell, “Politics and the English Language” in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. IV: In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950 ed. Sonia Orwell and Tan Angus (London: Sewcker and Warburg, 1968). W.F. Bolton, The Language of 1984: Orwell’s English and Ours (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984): 11-73.))

For colonialists or their progeny to call the lands in the US (or “Canada,” or any other colonized territory) “ours” is morally incorrect.

If land can legitimately be owned, then it belongs to the Original Peoples of Turtle Island. Ergo, to regard or refer to the lands as “ours” is to justify colonialism, imperialism, and dispossession. ((This is something that escapes many critics of Jews who are dispossessing Palestinians in historical Palestine. The citizens of Canada and the US, and other colonized states, are Zionists of a type living in apartheid states wrought by genocide. For criticism of Zionism to have moral legitimacy, that criticism must apply equally, and firstly, to ourselves.))

Acquiring the Land Where Original Peoples Live

The land was acquired by force and the spread of disease from outsiders to Indigenous peoples – often with genocidal intent. ((David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (London: Oxford University Press, 1992). “[B]y focussing almost entirely on disease, by displacing responsibility for the mass killing of invading microbes, contemporary authors increasingly have created the impression that the eradication of those tens of millions of people was inadvertent” xii.)) Out of the genocidal miasma of Turtle Island appeared an entity formed originally from 13 colonies that expanded southwards and westwards to eventually become a hyper-power. Self-bestowed with a manifest destiny, the militaristic power would manipulate the geographic and political destinies of many countries.

Although there was treaty-making, it was of dubious legality, and observance by the White men. ((See Vine Deloria, Jr., Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence (University of Texas Press, 1985.). Robert V. Remini, Andrew Jackson and His Indian Wars (Toronto: Viking, 2001).))

In Canada, treaties west of Ontario were not treaties in strict sense because they were not negotiated; nevertheless, Indigenous land title was held to be extinguished. ((Forrest E. LaViolette, The Struggle for Power: Indian Cultures and the Protestant Ethic in British Columbia (University of Toronto Press, 1978): 7. I will focus primarily on the Pacific Northwest First Nations because that is where I was born, but the similar history and criticism holds pretty much everywhere on Turtle Island.))

The Original Peoples were outnumbered and outgunned at the time of Canadian confederation, and they were not allowed to buy land. ((Ibid, 11.)) The Original Peoples were dispossessed and placed on reserves not big enough to sustain them. In the case of the colony of British Columbia (BC), there was a concerted attempt “to reduce the Indian to a society and land-holding non-entity.” ((Ibid, 142.))

The colonialists were imbued with a sense of racial superiority that no doubt justified for them the usurpation of land where Indigenous people lived. In BC, Scottish-born government agent Gilbert Malcolm Sproat considered the English as “a dominant race” among dominant races. ((Christopher Bracken, The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997): 3. Sproat claims the white skin of Europeans made them superior: 16.))

Sproat knew the Indigenous people of the area did not want to part with their land. Sproat quotes an elder of the Sheshaht:

We do not wish to sell our land nor our water, let your friends stay in their own country…

We do not want the white man. He steals what we have. We wish to live as we are. ((Ibid, 15.))

The acquisition of the Sheshaht land was likeliest underhanded, as there is evidence that Sproat fictionalized the purpose and account of the seizure. ((Ibid, 14.))

This was despite Sproat being aware that “colonization on a large scale … practically means displacing and extinction of the savage native population.” ((Charles Lillard (Ed.), The Nootka: Scenes and studies of savage life (1868) (Victoria: Sono Nis, 1987): 183. Cited in Daniel Wright Clayton, Islands of Truth: The Imperial Fashioning of Vancouver Island (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000): 55.))

In his doctoral dissertation, Daniel Clayton wrote, “Native-Western interaction was circumscribed by the capitalist logic of creative destruction.” ((Ibid, 153.))

“Native ‘depredations’ on colonial land [sic] and life were not tolerated.” Vancouver Island colonial governor James Douglas would subject Indigenous peoples to “summary jurisdiction and military violence that was designed to give them ‘a proper idea of our capacity for inflicting punishment…'” ((Ibid, 230. The Encyclopedia of British Columbia [sic] writes: “Douglas had a strong temper and was not always diplomatic with his FIRST NATIONS customers.” In the capitalist rendering, the Indigenous peoples are described as “customers”! See entry for “James Douglas,” Ed., Daniel Francis, Encyclopedia of British Columbia (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2000).))

Was the colonialist morality a product of the times, a common excuse proffered for sins of one’s ancestors? In 1790, Alexander Dalrymple wrote:

…common sense must evince, Europeans, visiting Countries already inhabited can acquire no right in Such Countries the Good will of the Friendly Inhabitants, or by Conquest of Those who are the Aggressors in Acts of Injury: nor can the right of Conquest be justly extended when Acts of injury, in the Natives, can be construed to proceed from fear of the Strangers, or from mistake: In either case, Both Parties being equally culpable, through no criminality in either; the European is not sufficiently explaining his Peaceable intentions and the native is not readily apprehending those intentions ((Greg Dening, Performances, (1996) 109 cites Alexander Dalrymple, The Spanish Pretensions Fairly Discussed, (1790) 6-89. Cited in Clayton, op. cit., 187.))

Indigenous Perspectives on Land Ownership

Shawnee warrior and renowned orator Tecumseh ((See R. David Edmunds, Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership (Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1984). Edmunds uses some questionable wording; e.g., he calls Tecumseh “anti-American.” What would one expect of an enemy who is dispossessing you and wiping out your people? Carl F. Klinck, (Ed.), Tecumseh: Fact and Fiction in Early Records (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1961). Quotes Governor Harrison: “I wish I could say the Indians were treated with justice and propriety on all occasions by our citizens; but it is far otherwise. They are often abused and maltreated; and it is very rare that they obtain any satisfaction for the most unprovoked wrongs.”)) argued,

No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers…. Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn’t the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? ((Theodore Steinberg, Slide Mountain: Or, The Folly of Owning Nature (University of California Press, 1996).))

Historically, warrior-nations who wield preponderant force have determined borders. In modern history, European states through much warring came to develop “advanced” war technology. Advanced weaponry combined with masterly divide-and-conquer tactics against designated enemies, allowed Europeans and their progeny to determine many of the borders of much of the present-day world.

The French anarchist Pierre Joseph Proudhon argued compellingly in his classical treatise — What is Property? — that property was theft. Proprietorship of property, according to Proudhon, was anathema to equality because it established an inequality in conditions. To the assertion that inequality is a necessary evil, Proudhon responded that so then must be isolation since society and isolation are contradictory. ((Pierre Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government (Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library): 60-61.))

Proudhon averred that there must always be an equal right to land:

One hundred thousand men settle in a large country like France with no inhabitants; each man has a right to 1/100,000 of the land. If the number of possessors increases, each one’s portion diminishes in consequence. ((Ibid, 67.))

Ownership of land is a recent capitalist invention. The famed late Renaissance Dutch jurist and philosopher Hugo Grotius said: “Originally, all things were common and undivided; they were the property of all.” ((Ibid, 55.)) The scholar Karl Polanyi elaborated much more on the original commonality of land and resources in early cultures and also argued that land could not be a commodity. ((Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957).))

Ongoing Battles for Land

Near the town of Caledonia in Ontario, Canada, warriors of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy have been occupying land since February 2006 that they claim the Canadian government, contrary to treaty, has stolen and sold for real estate development. ((Hillary Bain Lindsay, “Home On Native Land,” The Dominion, 19 April 2006. See Backgrounder on Six Nations Solidarity.))

The invaders’ courts have been a biased arena in which to pursue nation-to-nation border grievances. ((Bruce Clark, Justice in Paradise (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999).))

What do the Haudenosaunee and other Original Peoples want? The Haudenosaunee state:

Land is envisioned as Sewatokwa’tshera’t, (the Dish with One Spoon); this means that we can all take from the land what we need to feed, house and care for our families, but we also must assure that the land remains healthy enough to provide for the coming generations. Land is meant to be shared among and by the people and with the other parts of the web of life. It is not for personal empire building.

… Second, according to our law [Kaianerekowa (Great Law of Peace)], the land is not private property that can be owned by any individual. In our view, land is a collective right. It is held in common, for the benefit of all. The land is actually a sacred trust, placed in our care for the sake of the coming generations. We must protect the land.

… We want the land that is ours. We are not interested in approving fraudulent dispossessions of the past. We are not interested in selling the land. We want the Crown to keep its obligations to treaties, and ensure all governments — federal, provincial and municipal — are partners in those obligations. We want an honorable relationship with Canada.

That relationship, however, must be based on the principles that were set in place when our original relationship with the Crown was created. That is the rule of law. ((The Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, Grand River Territory “Haudenosaunee Confederacy Land Rights Statement,” Six Nations Land reclamation information, As adopted in council 4 November 2006.))

The Haudenosaunee consider themselves a confederacy of nations. Treaties with European colonizing states recognize this nationhood. The Haudenosaunee use their own passports for international travel. Their special national status is exemplified by Article III in the Jay Treaty that grants (what is a natural right of) Original Peoples unimpeded passage across the border between Canada and the US.


Land is common. Few people enjoy border delays and checks when visiting other lands. While security and economic concerns are usually cited as reasons for passports and border controls, in a stateless and, therefore, borderless world, equality of conditions through equitable sharing of wealth would obviate security fears. There is nothing to be gained from violence or terrorism in an egalitarian world except by a gang of thieves seeking to reimpose property and statehood so that the thieving class can luxuriate through re-enslavement or wage-enslavement of others in society.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.