Land. Land yields life. All living creatures depend on the land. No land, no life. We fight wars to determine who has the right to dwell on and drill or dig into the land. We harvest natural resources for shelter, food, and fuel. We go to court to determine whose rights will prevail in property disputes.
Our modern ways of managing the land are based on assumptions imported to this continent by early European colonists. We need to reconsider these assumptions. Two cultures, with two drastically different understandings about land, started clashing the day Christopher Columbus first sighted land on his epic 1492 voyage. The conflicts continue to the present day.
Doctrine of Christian Discovery
Ever hear of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery? It is a series of documents from the 1400s when European monarchs raced to claim territories far removed from their thrones. It began in 1452 when Pope Nicholas V issued a Papal Bull stating European monarchs had the right to “discover” and claim new land for the Church anywhere not yet occupied by Christians. It essentially declared war against all non-Christian areas, authorizing the conquest of those nations and territories.
The doctrine evolved from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries Crusades and efforts to claim control of the Holy Land. The Church’s Doctrine of Christian Discovery authorized Christian monarchs to claim and conquer other lands, enslaving people already living there. According to this doctrine, if Christians weren’t living in an area it was unoccupied. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Church arbitrated land claims among Christian monarchs, providing religious and legal grounds to seize and occupy foreign lands, labeling Indigenous people “savages, heathens and infidels.”
Long Chain of Events
That doctrine set in motion a tragic chain of events still playing out today. Modern land disputes are a continuation of earlier cultural clashes. The North American Indigenous people considered land a community resource, available to all, for the benefit of all. The new immigrants operated under the principle of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. I suppose they thought they were being gracious by offering to trade with Indigenous people as opposed to simply killing them or enslaving them, though history documents generous quantities of that as well as trade deals.
In the European system, a few wealthy monarchs and clergy owned the majority of the land everyone else worked for the benefit of society, especially the ruling elite. They considered land a commodity to be traded, bought and sold, or leased.
When Indigenous people made agreements with European colonists about access to land, they believed they were granting strangers use of the land. They understood these newcomers also depended on the land to survive. They considered the things the Europeans gave them gifts of appreciation, not payments. People couldn’t own land any more than they could own the ocean or the air.
However, the European settlers thought of this as their chance to become landowners in an exotic and exciting new place. Of course, people could own land. They had for centuries back home. For the colonists the issue was who would own land in this new-to-them world.
New Christian Colony
When the Pilgrims settled in modern-day Plymouth, they did so with a charter to establish a new Christian colony for King James. In addition to different assumptions about land, the two cultures also clashed in their thinking about the roles of men and women in society. In English culture men made the decisions and women deferred to them. If a woman did own any property or other assets, they became her husband’s property when she married.
In Pokanoket culture women managed the land because the land produced food, which sustained life. Nurturing life was women’s work. Men were warriors and hunters, roles that took life, albeit in order to save or preserve life. The English men kept trying to negotiate with the Native men and the Native men kept sending them to talk to the woman.
The situation, though confusing and tense, was relatively manageable when there were dozens of English settlers in an area occupied by thousands of Indigenous people. However, as more and more settlers arrived, land became an increasingly conflicted issue. The Pequot War of 1636/37 was about who would control the lucrative beaver trade and the Pilgrim’s plans for expansion. The King Philip’s War of 1675/76 started after Massasoit Ousa Mequin, the Pokanoket grand leader of the region, died. He’d initiated the 1621 treaty with the Plymouth settlers, which both parties honored until his death. His son, Metacom, also known as King Philip, became increasingly concerned as more and more English arrived, all wanting land. Tensions escalated into a war that left more people dead per capita than the Civil War two centuries later.
Modern Land Management Principles
In the four hundred years since that bloody conflict, policies around land usage have generally put profits ahead of all other considerations. Treaties are made only to be broken. Whole populations of Indigenous people were forced to migrate, ending up on reservations, where previously granted rights are ignored in pursuit of the next source of revenue.
Forests have been clear cut; water ways and air polluted; the earth turned upside down in search of fuel and then left behind as barren waste lands. Today we’re contending with a land use emergency on two fronts. First, our current use and abuse of the natural world is not sustainable. Secondly, our neglect, betrayal, and abuse of Indigenous people, and others who work the land on our behalf, calls for a radical rethinking about how we manage land and who determines the policies.
This is why I did a happy dance when I learned that our new Secretary of the Interior is a Native American woman! It’s been four-hundred years, but at long last we will give the Indigenous methods of land management a chance. I’ll write more about Deb Haaland, member of the New Mexico Laguna Pueblo, next week.
For now, I think I hear Mother Nature letting out a long sigh of relief. Perhaps we will now realize the Genesis mandate “to have dominion over all the earth” actually means we’re called to care for the planet as we care for our own personal domiciles. I hope so.
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Read more about the early encounters between the Pilgrim settlers and the Pokanokets in my historical novel Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures. Available now in paperback Ebook and audio.
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