Native North American Land Loss and a Tragedy of the Commons.

This essay will explore the reasons the Native Americans lost their land, and then consider the likelihood that their economies suffered from a ‘tragedy of the commons’. Focusing on the roles of violence, treaties, and specific harmful pieces of legislation, we will come to see the role of European settlers in the demise of the indigenous population. This extends to the arguments surrounding the tragedy of the commons, and how this may have affected the way of life and economic development of the Native Americans.

The Native North Americans originally emigrated, via the Bering Strait, from Siberia to Alaska as early as 13,000 BCE (Snow, 1996). Originally a deeply fragmented mass of individuals, over time there came to be increasing levels of social organisation that resulted in the formation of ‘nations’ and ‘confederacies’ (Trigger and Swagerty, 1996). By 1492 and Columbus’ arrival, distinct tribes and nations had emerged, with the most significant including the Apaches, Iroquois, Wampanoag, and Cherokee, amongst many others. Initially there was little knowledge of metallurgy, and so the Native Americans were mostly hunter-gatherers, with some instances of plant cultivation and productive farming methods coming to fruition over time (Snow, 1996). During the 19th and 20th centuries Native Americans were more frequently assigned to designated areas known as reservations, becoming increasingly under the control of federal governments. This had marked consequences for the population and their control over land, as well as their relationship with their European neighbours.

One of the most important reasons behind Native American land loss is the use of violence against populations by European settlers. This behaviour was ubiquitous in Anglo-Native American relations and help to explain the smaller-scale tactics that were employed by settlers, leading to a great deal of land loss for the Natives. One key example of this behaviour is the 1622 murder of a native man Nemattanew. It sparked a conflict between the English settlers and Powhatan Americans; the result was a land gain for the settlers of some 300,000 acres of land (Salisbury, 1996), as a diminished population was not able to maintain its position in the territory. This was not an isolated event and would reoccur countless times across the land prospective settlers sought. Well into the 1700s and the revolutionary war of 1776 these tactics would be employed: a 1777 treaty signed by Cherokee leaders brought an end to devastating attacks on the Cherokees from Carolinian and Virginian armies, at the cost of a vast amount of land east of the Blue Ridge (Green, 1996). Whilst much of the violence committed against the Native American peoples was retaliatory in nature, it was often far out of proportion to the proprietary act. It is for this reason that justice and restitution would appear to be secondary considerations for settlers. Treaties that put an end to conflict seldom favoured the Natives in terms of the redistribution of land, and diminishing populations made taking control of territories a great deal easier. This use of treaties requires understanding, as it provides insight into how the Natives lost land at the hands of government forces.

It is possible that a change in the sovereignty of Native American organisations as viewed by US government led to a significant loss of land for the Natives, as this meant a change in the way land was transacted. From 1763 onwards, land transactions began to take place between sovereign entities, rather than private individuals; this shift is often attributed to the change in emphasis from contracts to treaties (Banner, 2005). Banner argues this had a significant impact on land transactions. Firstly, the government now had the power to grant land to individuals in return for their military enlistment, providing a powerful incentive to individuals and simultaneously increasing the military power of the federal government. This military could then be used in the enforcement on treaties imposed by settlers. Spirling (2012) notes that some 2 million square miles were ceded by the Natives over the course of 600 treaties proposed by the United States government. The most significant treaties included the likes of the 1835 Echota Treaty, involving the transaction of nearly 11 thousand square miles of Cherokee land for $5 million; land transactions of this size were a stark contrast with the gradual cession of land that occurred prior to the 1763 edict. This was complementary to the violence perpetrated against the natives, with the diminishing populations being in a weakened diplomatic position. Whether these land values were considered appropriate is hard to ascertain given the lack of land markets among Native Americans; had there been markets, Indians may have been able to value land appropriately. This could, perhaps, have altered the landscape of transactions.

Another significant reason for the significant land loss experienced by the Native Americans was due to the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Having previously looked at the general behaviour of the settlers in terms of violence towards the Natives and the Government’s use of treaties, this a salient but disturbing act that provides insight into the nature of land transactions towards the end of the 19th century. The act aimed to provide land for ‘white settlement’, which meant trading land east of the Mississippi River for land west of it (Carlson and Roberts, 2006). This was seen as an attempt by the government to acquire land cheaply, as well as opening up greater amounts of land for settlement by constituents of the United States. Many see the act as more than a mere acquisition of land: it is often viewed as an attack on the Native way of life accompanied by violence against the Natives themselves (Bowes, 2014). The natives, left with little choice but to recognise the constitution and its enforcers, had little input into the decision as debates raged within congress in an insulated way; debates occurred internally but with little to no representation on behalf of the native people. Included in the 1830 removal act were the previously mentioned Echota Treaty, as well as myriad others that saw the acquisition of significant volumes of land; Natives were left with no choice as to whether to accept or not. This would commence the infamous ‘trail of tears’ and bring about the beginning of the end for densely populated nations and tribes (Ehle, 2011), making it all the clearer how important the retaining of ancestral land was for the survival of the Natives.

In addition to examining some of the important reasons behind native American land loss, this essay will evaluate the likelihood that Native Americans suffered from a ‘tragedy of the commons’, and whether this damaged their economy. The notion of a ‘tragedy of the commons’ was first conceptualised by Garrett Hardin in 1968; it is defined as the overexploitation of a common-access resource by multiple parties, who act in an unsustainable and irresponsible way (Hardin, 1968). In order to understand the extent to which the Natives experienced this, the nature and composition of Native American economies must be understood. Given the diverse range of lifestyle approaches adopted by different nations and tribes of the Native American population, it can be hard to generalise without stylising these ways of living into unrealistic depictions. Bearing this in mind, we can advance whilst being cautious of the diverse range of lifestyles that fall outside the scope of this essay.

Three staples of the Native American economies were bison/buffalo, beavers, and fish (Moore, 2001, Salisbury, 1996, Smith, 1996). All these animals grazed openly on what was considered common-source land, designated by each tribe as areas that were accessible to all. Natives held deeply animistic beliefs, believing in the ‘spirit’ of every living thing, which would result in what was considered a mutually respectful relationship between animal and human (Forbes, 2001). There was, however, a fatal flaw in this approach. It did not account for the intervention from those who did not share such animistic beliefs, in this case the European and, most importantly, overwhelmingly Christian settlers. A monotheistic belief system in the form of Christianity did not stress the same symbiotic relationship be kept sacred, and instead incentivised the pursual of game for personal advancement (Miller, 2011). As little legislation or communal policing was in place to dissuade settlers, it is likely that their rapacious behaviour led to a tragedy of the commons in the form of depleted beaver, bison, and fish populations. This lack of legislation and policing is perhaps attributable to the native system of land allocation (Anderson and Lueck, 1992), with greater emphasis on a mutual understanding that the resources would not be exploited beyond what was necessary for the subsistence of the nation.

This had stark impacts on the Native Americans and their economies, which benefited from trade with settlers before relations eventually turned sour. The Hudson’s Bay Company, for example, were known to trade with the Natives pelts in return for the Western goods possessed by the Company (Douthit, 1992). The depletion of beaver populations may have created another positive feedback loop, whereby the availability of fewer pelts resulted in less trade, with Natives consequently missing out on the goods they could not otherwise obtain. Given the inability of the Natives to produce their own technologically sophisticated goods, this trade was critical to the sustenance of the economies (Trigger and Swagerty, 1996). This would suggest that the Natives did indeed suffer from a tragedy of the commons, and that they were deeply harmed by it. It is necessary, however, to consider the likelihood that these tragedies were simply part of an economic progression and development. Rostow’s model of economic development would suggest that this extractive behaviour was laying the table for a more advanced economy that was able to manufacture and engage in frequent trade (Rostow, 1959); the fact that this did not materialise is arguably more explainable by examining relations with settlers and reference to aforementioned reasons for land loss.

It can also be argued that the Natives did not experience a tragedy of the commons in a significant way, and that the depletion of animal populations amongst other things were a series of small and contained events. Rostow’s model of economic development provides a meaningful explanation as to how these exploitations occur: the model argues that extractive behaviour is a central characteristic of developing economies (Rostow, 1959). It is a necessary undertaking that allows for the expansion of population that drives innovation in the sciences, with improvements in agriculture allowing further economic and technological advances. The extraction of beaver pelts by the Natives for trade with the Europeans should have provided the economic groundwork for population expansion and a drive for greater improvement, but this did not materialise. To this extent it may be more useful to examine the relations between settlers and natives as a relationship involving the curbing of access to fertile land and the consequent prevention of sustained economic growth.

This essay has explored the reasons behind Native American land loss, presenting evidence that a significant proportion of the loss came at the hands of alien settlers on their ancestral lands. Understanding the roles of violence, treaties, and specific legislations is central to examining how this occurred, and the ramifications for Natives. Furthermore, evaluating the likelihood that the Native economies suffered from a tragedy of the commons helps further illuminate the plight of the tribes, although economic theory provides a convincing rebuke in that so-called tragedies may merely be a waypoint on the trajectory of economic development. There is, again, the spectre of settlers haunting the Natives and their way of life, as Native Removal significantly reduced the amount of land that could be used to cultivate and create a sustainable food source without reliance on extraction. If this was different, the exploitation of natural resources by the Natives might be viewed through a different lens: one that understands the necessary pre-conditions for economic growth that would give the Natives the ability to dispute the impositions of the settlers.


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