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Beyond the 'Mere Property Career:' Changing Attitudes Toward the American Indian in the United States and the Prospects for a New Commons

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Moses, Daniel Noah
Conference: Constituting the Commons: Crafting Sustainable Commons in the New Millennium, the Eighth Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property
Location: Bloomington, Indiana, USA
Conf. Date: May 31-June 4
Date: 2000
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10535/1526
Sector: Land Tenure & Use
Region: North America
Subject(s): IASC
common pool resources
indigenous institutions
Native Americans
land tenure and use
property rights
Abstract: "The white Americans who pushed across the continent in the nineteenth-century brought with them a particular understanding of 'civilization' as a mode of social organization based upon the accumulation of private property. They believed that land, labor, and money were commodities to be bought and sold in an autonomous market and that the wide diffusion of private property ensured the self-reliance required of active citizens and was therefore crucial to the success of the American experiment. Native American societies--organized around communal property--represented the ultimate forces of reaction. Confronting Native Americans forced whites to sharpen their arguments about how property should be defined and distributed. By studying this confrontation, especially as it has been manifested in Federal Indian policy, we can unravel the changing assumptions about property in the United States and the possibilities for a society with a healthy new commons. "Throughout the nineteenth-century, Federal Indian policy was based upon the assumption that communal ownership in indigenous societies discouraged and hindered social progress and that this system had to be dismantled so that Native Americans could share in the success of the American experiment. At the same time, however, whites often expressed a nostalgia for the communal society exemplified for them by the Native American. Anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan incorporated within himself this central tension. The first scholar to delve deeply into how common property provided the foundation of Native American society, his work provided a wildly popular explanation for why these societies were doomed to extinction. But experience in the thick of American business and politics deepened his antagonism to what he called the 'mere property career,' and he looked forward to a future 'revival, in higher form, of the liberty, equality, and fraternity' that he had found in Native American societies. Such sentiments, however, did not lead him to change his opinion about the importance of converting Native Americans into believers in the sanctity of private property. Expressing the optimism of the age, he believed that the distant future could take care of itself. "But in the twentieth-century the success of the original American experiment has become less certain. With the rise of large corporations, private property has become both more concentrated and more dispersed, more accountable to the larger public and yet so difficult to pin down. Interestingly enough, even as white Americans have attempted to come to grips with the new configurations of property in their midst, Federal Indian policy has completely shifted. It now actively encourages the communal property arrangements that it once dismantled. As another millennium hovers on the horizon, Native American nations are part of the effort to create a new commons while their image has become an inspiration for Americans of all backgrounds who have united in this effort."

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