Native American tribes have long been perceived as being historically highly collectivistic and disinterested in the preservation of private property. Few people ever question whether these characterizations of the tribes are even accurate. These perceptions are only perpetuated when North American tribal leaders discuss economic matters at “tribal conferences and congressional hearings” (GALBRAITH et al. 2006, p.19). However, after a more rigorous assessment of the historical facts, it becomes clear that the image of the communal Indians was nothing more than a myth. Not only did many tribe members possess private property rights, but they also had an informal legal system that secured these claims. Making many of the previous claims of collectivism nothing more than a misconception.
The curious reader may question why the veracity of our understanding of the economic history of American indigenous tribes is so important? After all, the poverty that afflicts most of the reservations in the United States is a contemporary problem. How is reflecting upon the past going to be useful in solving the economic woes of the tribes? The problem becomes that many scholars and policy analysts utilize tribal tradition and customs for governing economic policy on the reservations. One particularly salient example is in the controversy surrounding the privatization of tribal lands. Per Carpenter and Riley (2019) the privatization of tribal lands ignores the historical and cultural perspective of tribal members (p.13) . Following us, a policy prescription would impose an economic course of action few tribes have any interest in (p.16). Would only serve to destroy the communal tendencies that are common among American tribes (p.21) . Both authors also suggest that privatization would invite the purchase of native lands by nontribal members (p.15). Only operating to exacerbate the present and past economic struggles of American Indians that resulted from the transfer of lands to non-Indians (p.14). Demonstrating that from the perspective of Carpenter and Riley a policy that deviates from historical collective arrangements will only serve to do more harm than good.
This paper seeks to dispel the myths and fallacies concerning the historical views of Native American property rights. Justifying government intervention in the economic affairs of the tribes based on faulty claims of historical collectivism hold little merit. Beyond the historical accuracy of such claims, there are also profoundly detrimental economic consequences of accepting this false economic history. If we subscribe to Hernando de Soto’s Dead Capital Theory  it becomes evident that the situation facing Native tribes is very similar to that of developing nations. The land in Indian country is not being utilized to its fullest capacity. The determination of the best use of such economic assets is constrained by the guardianship relationship between the tribes and the United States government. The genesis of this land trust dynamic being born out of the Dawes Act of 1887, when the federal government first intervened in the distribution of tribal lands (Canby, 1989, p.19-21) . The waters of Indian land allocation has only become more muddied by subsequent amendments and legislation. Placing restrictions on assets that are already at the disposal of the tribes, creating barriers to extracting “surplus value” from what they should rightfully possess (FERNANDES, 2002, p.6) .
- GALBRAITH, CRAIG S., RODRIGUEZ, CARLOS L., STILES, CURT H. EDITED BY ANDERSON, TERRY L., BENSON, BRUCE L., FLANAGAN, THOMAS G. Self-Determination THE OTHER PATH FOR NATIVE AMERICANS (2006). STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. Page 19.
- CARPENTER, KRISTEN A. & RILEY, ANGELA R. Privatizing the Reservation? (2019). UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO. Pages 13-16, 21.
- https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/mystery-capital. Retrieved November 17th, 2020.
- CANBY JR., WILLIAM C. American Indian Law: In a Nutshell 2nd edition. (1989). WEST GROUP PUBLISHING. Pages 19-21.
- FERNANDES, EDESIO. The Influence of de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital. (2002). LINCOLN INSTITUTE OF LAND POLICY. Page 6.