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The Origins of the Myth

We as humans have the unfortunate propensity for interpreting evidence that in a manner that is congenial to comport with our own beliefs. This problem is particularly rampant in the soft sciences.  In the absence of disciplined restraint and sound methodology, qualitative research is subject to be sullied by our own biases. This serving only to hamper the whole enterprise of conducting an impartial observational analysis. The fields of anthropology and history have not remained immune from the reach of the researcher’s flawed perception. Upon this realization, it becomes woefully evident that our historical perception of Native American culture is inaccurate. Our misconceptions held together with gross misinterpretations of traditional stances on private property and law held by various indigenous tribes.

Often our ideological motives and philosophical ethos skews our understanding of the historical truths of American tribal cultures. One corollary of the erroneous assumption of Native American collectivism has been designating tribal peoples as the “original conservationists” (Anderson, 1996,p. 1) [6]. Typically for political reasons, the pragmatic rationale for many of these historical conservation measures has been understated. Researcher Terry L. Anderson points out the underlying how our skewed image of Native Americans has become politicized. Citation the example of a famous speech given by the Chief of Seattle. In which he stated, “All things are connected like the blood which unites one family”. The speech was not written by the Seattle Chief, but by a script written named Ted Perry. Displaying much of the romanticized imagery that environmentalists wanted to hear (Anderson, 1996, p. 2) [6]. From Anderson’s view, such presentations of Native American culture only served to trivialize “… their rich institutional heritage which encouraged resource conservation..” (Anderson, 1996, p.1) [6].

The myths of highly collectivist property arrangements among Native tribes predates the nascent era of the modern environmentalist movement (late-1960’s/early 1970s). These myths were first promulgated based upon the narrow observations of settlers. Which dates back to the settlers of the great-plain-states who were looking for land that was suitable for agriculture. They extrapolated from their interactions with a few nomadic tribes that all Natives had little regard for property rights due to their lack of interest in “land assets” (GALBRAITH  et al. 2006, p.20) [1]. Generating the fallacy that property rights were a European invention. Completely side-stepping the reciprocal, customary, and informal means of property rights enforcement used by pre-colonial Indians (Benson, 1991, P.45) [7].

The true irony of the mythic image of the collectivistic tribes is that this assumption ignores the communal tendencies of the European settlers in the United States. Pre-colonial American tribes had strongly developed property rights and any communal tendencies were a result of economic necessity (Galbraith et al. 2006, p. 7) [1]. The Plymouth colony of the 1620s experienced declines in productivity brought on by their communal allocation of resources. This free-rider problem was resolved once the colonists began to mimic the “property rights model” of the local natives (Galbraith et al. 2006, p 7) [1im The economic folly of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is seldomly taught in Traditional American history courses. However, this all too often glossed-over the economic reality of colonial Massachusetts was immortalized in the 1959 essay Our First Thanksgiving.

“Our first Thanksgiving should, therefore, be interpreted as an ex­pression of gratitude to God, not so much for the great harvest it­self, as for granting the grateful Pilgrims the perception to grasp and apply the great universal prin­ciple that produced that great har­vest: Each individual is entitled to the fruits of his labor. Prop­erty rights are, therefore, insepa­rable from human rights.” [8].

It is difficult to ascertain whether this obscured fact of history was the result of misinterpretation or ideological motives. It is prudent to not delve too deep into such matters. Nevertheless, it is absurd that property rights are erroneously perceived as a European invention. The utopian ideals of the Puritans did not include the enforcement of property rights. Their quixotic attempt to collectively distribute resources serves as nothing more than a failed forerunner of Communism. Had it not been for the property-oriented values of the indigenous tribes, the pilgrims would not have had much to celebrate.

The popular interpretation of history seems to flat out ignore the communal propensities of the  Massachusetts colonists. This inaccurate depiction of historical fact has provided the substrate for proliferating this fallacy. A fallacy that is deeply embedded in the conventional wisdom of the American psyche. The collectivist propensities of non-Indian settlers were not limited to the pilgrims. For instance, the Spanish Catholic missionaries occupied the southwestern region of the United States in the eighteenth century. These missions were established by the Dominican and Franciscan orders. The missions implement communal economies with an emphasis on “communal behavior and support” (GALBRAITH  et al. 2006, p.7) [1]. The system imposed by the various Catholic mission was at odds with the natives’ property and land ownership rights. The mission system eventually dissolved in the American southwest. After the governor of California decreed in 1834 secularized the mission system, distribution the former mission lands as a private property to the tribes. ” (GALBRAITH  et al. 2006, p.7) [1].

It can be partially assumed that the informal recognition of property rights and law by American tribes has contributed to the false notion of a historical lack of concern for property rights. In most cases, indigenous tribes operated on customary law. Informal law functions on reciprocity and recognition of social norms within the tribe (Benson, 1991, P.44) [7]. Centricity being placed on the focus of compensation for loss of property versus criminal sanctions. Making it more in step with the common law conception of Tort law. Many of these rules were unwritten but acknowledged by tribal members (Benson, 1991, P.45) [7]. Other tactics such as ostracism and banishment of transgressive tribal members also served as informal means of punishment (Benson, 1991, P.50) [7]. More explicitly relevant to the subject of property rights, the informal means under which tribal members historically acquired property is notable. In the absence of formal deeds and title transfer documents, homesteading. This was practiced by agrarian tribes in southern California. An individual takes claim to land through the process of developing it for habitation or production (GALBRAITH  et al. 2006, p.8).


  2. CARPENTER, KRISTEN A. & RILEY, ANGELA R.  Privatizing the Reservation? (2019). The UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO. Pages 13-16, 21.
  3. November 17th, 2020.
  4. CANBY JR., WILLIAM C. American Indian Law: In a Nutshell 2nd edition. (1989). WEST GROUP PUBLISHING. Pages 19-21.
  5. FERNANDES, EDESIO. The Influence of de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital. (2002). LINCOLN INSTITUTE OF LAND POLICY. Page 6.

6.  Anderson, Terry L. Conservation—Native American Style. PERC Policy Series Issue Number PS-6. (1996). PERC. P. 1-2.

7. Benson, Bruce L. An Evolutionary Contractarian View of Primitive Law: The Institutions and Incentives Arising Under Customary Indian Law. The Review of Austrian Economics. Vol. 5. No.1. (1991). Ludwig Von Mises Institute.

8.  retrieved 11/23/2020.

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