Back in October, the Passamaquoddy tribe "acquired" Picture Rock, a ledge near Machias Falls on which the Passamaquoddy have carved over 500 petroglyphs (see photo). Some of them are 5,000 years old.
I put "acquired" in quotes because this story demonstrates just how mutable the ideas of ownership and property rights are. After all, the Passamaquoddy "owned" Picture Rock for 4500 years until European settlement. Even when it was deeded to Europeans, the cultural importance of the rock carvings there made it unlikely that any white owner would do anything to disturb them - which effectively limited the property rights of the rock's colonial and American owners.
Before European contact, most northeastern tribes had little or no concept of private land ownership. Tribes and families used land collectively and moved frequently. In the absence of market economies, staying in one place would have meant starvation: tribes instead used natural resources intensively in certain places, then moved on. William Cronon gives an excellent in-depth description of tribal concepts of property and territory in his book Changes in the Land, an ecological history of colonial New England.
When Europeans arrived, they brought a foreign concept of property that had developed from a very different culture and economy. Unsurprisingly, there were misunderstandings. The famous transaction in which Peter Minuit bought Manhattan for 60 Dutch guilders (which allegely happened in present-day Inwood Hill Park) was probably interpreted by the native Lenape as a sort of long-term lease: the Dutch tribe would use the island for a few years of hunting, oystering, and subsistence farming, and then they would move elsewhere. Similarly, the term "Indian giver" reflects European ignorance of native concepts of property.
There will be a lecture at U Maine Machias next Friday about the history of Passamaquoddy homelands, and how colonial settlement and international boundary conflicts gradually coerced the tribe into the European system of land ownership - thanks to Bo for the tip.
These are important stories to keep in mind as a growing property rights political movement mobilizes. Property rights are not God-given, objective attributes of land and nature. They are cultural inventions, and our culture has the ability to give, take, or change them at our will.
Link: Carved in Stone article from Mainetoday.com (also the source of the above photo).