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Historical Context

Historical Context and American Policy

  •  Colonial Heritage

At about the same time that Meares was trying to initiate trade with the Makah, a new nation on the other side of the continent was beginning to establish and articulate its ideas about the acquisition of Indian lands. The United States, having only recently broken free from British colonial authority, was developing a series of legal policies that would guide U.S.-Indians relations for the next 200 years.

Those policies relied heavily on the models that evolved after English settlers arrived in North America in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. From the outset, the Europeans and the Indians on the East Coast of North America had different concepts of land ownership. The Indians understood the countryside as having spiritual powers that required the Natives to treat the land with respect or face dire consequences. While Indians recognized that tribes had definable homelands, they did not ordinarily consider that individuals could "own" land, let alone buy it and sell it-something the Europeans who arrived on their shores took for granted. Even then, the situation in North America created questions in European minds about their rights in acquiring lands among the Native Americans. Some Englishmen argued that Europeans had no rights to Indian lands, others that Europeans were entitled to "share" the lands with the Indians because of an innate European superiority, and, as one nineteenth-century historian observed, "The sovereigns of the Old World therefore found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the Natives by bestowing on them the benefits of civilization and Christianity in exchange for control over them and their country." Still other Europeans asserted that, because the "Godless savages" had not heeded the Biblical injunction to "subdue the Earth," Indians had forfeited any right they had to the land. Puritans, in particular, believed they had a divine right to take possession of Indian lands. Moreover, these ideas continued to inform questions about Indian land ownership through the 1800s.

In addition, while few Indians claimed land as private property, families, villages or tribes often recognized rights to use certain lands to plant and gather crops or hunt and fish, and several families or tribes could use the same lands at different times of the year. This created problems for colonists intent on land acquisition. Early on in negotiations between whites and Indians, Native Americans were often agreeable to granting the colonists nonexclusive access to Indian land in transactions that colonists assumed were equivalent to the transfer of title. The result was often a confusing, overlapping profusion of colonial and Indian claims to the same pieces of real estate. It also did not help that-especially in the first few years of European settlement-the colonists and the Indians often did not share a common language and negotiations were carried out through translators and sign language.

Although the English crown had arbitrarily and unilaterally claimed Indian lands by right of "discovery"-reserving the right to parcel the land out as it saw fit and granting Native Americans only possessory and usufructuary rights (the rights to occupy and use the land)-by the middle of the seventeenth century most colonies found that it made sense to establish treaties that extinguished Indian title and ceded lands to the colonies in exchange for some kind of payment. These agreements lessened the initial frictions between Indians and Europeans but also contributed to confusion and misunderstanding as each colony approached the treaty-making process in different ways.

By the middle of the 1700s this patchwork of colonial treaties had led to a growing number of violent conflicts between the colonists and the Indians that threatened to disrupt the growth and stability of colonies. These conflicts increased in intensity as the colonists ignored both imperial policy and Indian boundaries as they continually pressed westward into Indian lands. In 1755 the British took a large step toward removing Indian policy from the individual colonies and centralizing its administration under the crown by appointing the first superintendent of Indian affairs. He was charged with, among other things, protecting the Indians from unscrupulous traders, maintaining amicable relations with the Natives, and establishing the boundaries between Indian land and land open for settlement. Less than a decade later King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763 that, in part, prohibited English settlement beyond the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains and declared that all the lands west of the mountains to the Mississippi River were reserved for the exclusive use of the Indians. By setting up this Indian-only territory, the British hoped to preserve friendly relations with the Indians and maintain order in the colonies by separating the Natives from the whites. In addition, the imperial government sought to regularize relations with the Indians by controlling trade and political intercourse. Although this new system was only partially successful, it was still in place when the American Revolution broke out. While the British eventually lost the war-despite the military aid of numerous Indian allies-the Indian policies the crown had established served as a model for the new nation.

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