Indian lands are seen in 1784 in blue, and now in red. Is it possible to keep communal land in a market-based country?

Is Keeping Communal Land Possible?

Duane Champagne

Is it possible to keep communal indigenous land within a market-based world? Land is an essential economic resource and symbolic entity for tribal communities. Many distribute land according to rules of use. A family, clan or village may have access to recognized hunting, gathering, and farming locations. Other tribal members respect those rights, and as long as the land is appropriately used, other tribal members do not interfere. If a group of tribal members stop using land for a period, a few years, then other tribal members may use the land.

This method of distributing land resources worked for many indigenous nations for thousands of years. The tribal entities manage the land collectively. However, there are rules that uphold the rights of tribal sub-groups for access to land sufficient for their livelihood. The land is held not only for gathering food and resources, but tribal members have an obligation to maintain the land in good use for future generations. Since the families, clans or villages that use land expect to live in the same area for many future generations, the tribal members have a vested interest in maintaining the ecological and cultural soundness of their allocations.

It may well be the case that hostile or migrating nations interrupted the usual patterns of land use and allocations among local tribal nations. Such encounters may erupt into conflict over long periods of times, and movement by some groups to new locations. Nevertheless, we do not get the sense that there were land shortages for Indian nations. Tribal members took from the land only the resources that were necessary for their healthy and well being, enough for ceremonial purposes, and some trade to acquire items not found in their local region. Indigenous Peoples before colonization invested in and maintained their land holdings with the view that the land was an essential asset that had to be preserved.

Markets and private land ownership patterns of colonies and contemporary nation states severely limited indigenous access to land. In many cases—especially since the 1880s in the United States—treaties and allotments shifted the bulk of the land out of indigenous control, and supported individual private ownership of land allotments on many Indian reservations at the expense of tribal communal rules and management. Private indigenous ownership resulted in mass losses of land in the United States, Hawaii, New Zealand, Mexico and among other groups around the world.

After the Mexican Revolution of the 1920s, many Indian communities were affirmed in collective land rights that were allocated among tribal kinship groups. However, the passing of generations and the rise in population led to subdivision of joint ownership land allocations and too many people living off a constant amount of land. This led to massive movement of Indigenous Peoples off the land to live on the margins of urban centers. The pattern of urbanization is seen clearly in the United States, Mexico and Canada, where the large majority of Indigenous Peoples now live in urban areas, and away from their tribal territories and communities.

Indigenous nations are confronted with small and often shrinking land bases that do not provide the necessities of food and resources for growing populations. Privatization of land takes land and resources out of collective tribal management. It is difficult to reclaim privatized land allotments once tribal members are granted them, usually by government policies.

How can contemporary tribal nations use their communal land resources to supply their economic needs and support communal land rights and environmental philosophies? Perhaps one place to look are gaming communities with tribal management that have been successful in maintaining collective assets and control over profits. The dilemmas of porting a collective indigenous market model into agriculture, resources, and other forms of business, while preserving sustainability of land and community, is currently a major issue for indigenous nations around the world.

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