Photo by Artem Beliaikin on

Part I

Part II

It is well established at this point that the notion of Native American tribes not observing property rights is a misconception on the part of European settlers. Various tribes throughout continental North America have recognized individual property rights in several diverse ways. Historically, American Tribes have acknowledged an informal version of Tort Law. Signifying that native tribal societies held property in high regard. If a culture did not value personal property, there would not be any (whether centralized or decentralized) institutions requiring restitution for damaged property or bodily harm. That alone dispels the conventional wisdom that all tribes rejected the prospect of material ownership. Reducing this enduring fallacy to nothing more than an erroneous interpretation of Native American History.

Depending on the tribal nation, some subsets of natives had surprisingly sophisticated laws protecting individual property rights. Ranging from mutually acknowledged hunting rights to even intellectual property. None of these protected rights would exist in societies that subscribed to the norms of all ownership being communal. Reinforcing the fact that the common perception that rights such as individual landownership being European invention is nothing more than a myth. A one-dimensional caricature of the true reality of the history and culture of the ingenious tribes of the United States.

Intellectual Property

Some of the tribes residing in the Pacific Northwest and California possessed ownership of intellectual property. This was generally observed among shamans practicing within the northwestern region of the United States. Intangible commodities such as “… songs, dances, stories, legends, and curing ritual…” were owned by individual shamans. Unless these trademarked forms of verbal communication were passed down to an apprentice they typically were no longer used once the shaman had passed away (Bobroff, 2001, P.1590)[9]. The preservation of a right to exclusive use of songs, stories, and performances minors of modern-day entertainers Not to trivialize the religious rites of the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, but the copyright laws protecting songwriters and authors are probably the closets modern analog. One only needs to look back a few decades to the whole Napster controversy to see the parallels [10]. There have also been more recent intellectual property disputes, few as ubiquitous in the mind of the lay public than as the peer-to-peer file sharing fiasco of the late-1990s. Demonstrating precisely how advanced the nature of ownership in the tribes of the pacific northwest. These were societies that not only valued protecting the right to own physical property but also the right to own intangible property.

The intellectual property extended beyond communication-related to religious rights. Individual families possessed ownership of “… carvings, paintings, and crests..” related to their lineage (Bobroff, 2001, P.1590)[9]. Transgressing against these acknowledged property rights resulted in server consequences. Violating the “copyright” ownership of a family symbol was perceived as being equal to engaging in a violent act (Bobroff, 2001, P.1590)[9]. Making it unquestionably evident that preserving intellectual property was of high priority.

Hunting Rights/ Land Tenure

Another form of informal property rights that have been historically acknowledged by native tribes have been hunting rights. In some instances, private hunting grounds. Similar rules were formulated regarding fishing rights. The aim of these “customary rules” was oriented towards preventing resource depletion (Yandle, 1998, p.44) [11]. Decentralized arrangements to manage CPRs are compatible with traditions of strong property rights. However, instances of customs that support exclusive use of hunting grounds provide more substantial evidence of a robust system of property rights. Informal resource management can still be done under a quasi-communalistic basis.

Private hunting rights were best exemplified by the practices of the northern Algonquian tribe. These rights were held for individual families and were generally delineated by salient geographic landmarks. Such as specific thickets of woodlands or bodies of water (Bobroff, 2001, p.1575) [9]. The exclusivity of these territories was transferred by inheritance. Rules were promulgated to enforce punishment for trespassing or collection of furs by “non-owners” water (Bobroff, 2001, p.1575) [9]. Per anthropological research, tribal members would even transfer ownership of land as a gift (Bobroff, 2001, p.1576) [9]. For the coast Algonquian tribe members, their systems of land ownership only became more solidified after contact with European settlers. Due to the circumstances of the flourishing fur trade (Bobroff, 2001, p.1577) [9]. The existence of private hunting grounds gives us a perspective on the Algonquian tribe’s perspective on land tenure. The land is passed down through familial ties isn’t a foreign concept in European law. Paralleling the commonly held tradition in Europe of inheritance serving as a mechanism for transferring property.  

Adjudication of Property Rights

The Yurok tribe of California held property rights in high esteem. Even associated property ownership with social prestige (Benson, 1991, p.50) [7]. It can only be expected that the centers for decision-making within the tribe would strive to protect the property right of its tribal members. The tribe had a system of compensation for damaged property. Paralleling the English Common Law tradition of Tort law. For instance, if an individual used another person’s canoe and damaged it they would be held liable for compensating the owner for the damages (Benson, 1991, p.50) [7]. If a service provider fails to provide a promised service to a patron they were required to pay the customer restitution(Benson, 1991, p.50) [7]. The Yurok people did not settle property disputes with a centralized government but rather with a set of “sweathouses”. Groups of tribal members were tasked with settling disputes. Proceeding against the offender was arranged by the sweathouse and the victim. (Benson, 1991, p.52) [7].The victim did not have the right to seek extrajudicial forms of restitution outside of the group’s judgment. (Benson, 1991, p.52) [7]. The defendant would have the ability to obtain representation against the accuser in the cross-judgment (Benson, 199, p.52) [7].

If damages were due to the plaintiff the defendant was expected to pay back the sum indicated verdict of the proceedings. If the accused could not, they became the “wage-slave” of the accuser (Benson, 199, p.53) [7]. Per the economist Bruce L. Benson the Yurok  “model” for private-law held the below six characteristics:

“… These features are: (1) rules of conduct which emphasized a predominant concern for individual rights and private property; (2) the responsibility of law enforcement falling to the victim backed by reciprocal arrangements for protection and support when evolved to the level described above, but this homogeneity had to develop in conjunction with an evolving process of interaction and reciprocity facilitated by customary law. 15~egalsystems all over the world have, at one time or another, been characterizable in the same way that the Indian systems discussed above were characterized. Some anthropologists and legal scholars distinguish between “stages” of legal development, for instance, and would put such customary systems in one or more of the stages occurring before centralization of political power and formal institutions of government arise (e.g., Malinowski 1926; Diamond 1950). Also see note 14 above in this regard, as well as Benson (1988; 1989a). 56 The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 5, No. 1 a dispute arose; (3) standard adjudicative procedures established to avoid violent forms of dispute resolution; (4) offenses treated as torts punishable by economic payments in restitution; (5)strong incentives to yield to prescribed punishment when guilty of an offense due to the reciprocally established threat of social ostracism which led to physical retribution; and (6) legal change arising through an evolutionary process of developing customs and norms…”( Benson, 1991, p.54-55) [7].


  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.

9. Bobroff, Kenneth H. Retelling Allotment: Indian Property Rights and the Myth of Common Ownership. Vanderbilt Law Review.         Vol 54. Issue 4. (2001).

10. Retrieved 12/21/2020.

11. Yandle, Bruce. Antitrust and the Commons Cooperation or Collusion? The Independent Review. Independent Institute. (1998).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.