Fifty Shades of Capital: Indigenous land

There are many facets of our social reality influenced by global capitalism; this series serves to highlight the ever-expanding market’s effect on our daily lives. From Bon-App to the environment, capitalism has generated numerous negative consequences around the world.

Foundational to the capitalist mode of production is private property. Much of U.S. land is privatized, although there is still plenty of public and common property in existence. When we discuss property, it is essential to ponder who is excluded by the propertied relations in our society. Since the beginning of U.S. colonialism, there have been  conflicts between European settlers and indigenous groups across the continent; it is this ongoing struggle that illuminates the nature of private property.

Before we delve into the history of indigenous-European land conflicts, it is important to understand what  exactly we mean by property in its many forms. Private property began with the enclosure of agricultural lands in England, which were owned commonly by peasant farmers. The land was owned by the people who lived there and so they managed it throughout every step of the production process. Then, wealthy merchants and capitalists steadily bought land and passed laws to appropriate this land for increased monetary gain. Private property took form in order to consolidate land into the hands of capitalists, thereby robbing the masses of their means of producing goods (e.g. food, clothing, crafts, materials, etc.). As written in my last article on labor, most people now needed to sell their labor to participate in the production process; this is directly connected to the development of private property. 

Public property in the present day is still capital and engages in ownership relations, but it has restricted definitions of “public ownership” that depend on which “public” we are referring to. Citizens and taxpayers may have access to certain governmental services, but various groups are often denied this form or property by the state apparatus. Common property transcends these two other forms in that it signifies a collective society wherein objects, land and the means of production themselves are shared. This form of ownership manifests in cooperatives, wherein anyone in the cooperative can utilize its resources (i.e. cooking utensils, furniture, ingredients, etc.). Of course, the broader implication of common property is that it is extended to society as a whole. There are also open-access resources like the air, oceans and outer-space, which belong to no one, not yet at least. 

As Europeans colonized what we currently label as the U.S., they introduced their economic system and propertied relations as well. The encroachment of white settlers, accompanied by crimes of genocide, on indigenous land restructured the continent to suit a capitalist mode of production. Pre-contact land was widely communally owned, with the exception of city-states such as those of the Inca, Maya and Aztec cultures, where it was publicly owned. Many groups traversed between different areas based on environmental, social and historical contexts. Land did not necessarily belong to a specific individual or group but existed for communal production. Of course, very few generalizations can be drawn here because indigenous groups are myriad and diverse, but the main distinction here is that private property was nonexistent. Private property is essential to a capitalist system, so the pre-contact, pre-capitalist indigenous land did not conform to a capitalist logic.

After waves of colonizers invaded and stole indigenous land, the U.S. nation-state formed and consolidated the land under its authority. According to the Menominee governmental website, “At the start of the Treaty Era in the early 1800s, the Menominee occupied a land base estimated at 10 million acres; however, through a series of seven treaties entered into with the United States Government […] the Tribe witnessed its land base erode to little more than 235,000 acres today.” Thus, we have “public” property, appropriated for a specific citizenry that became increasingly privatized over time. Such land is primarily owned by companies or the U.S. government for private use, such as the industrial farms that make up the U.S. agribusiness industry. Even the reservation system, which places comparatively small tracts of land in the hands of one or several indigenous groups, is a form of public, not communal, property. Although access to it is restricted to a certain “public,” indigenous sovereignty is constantly challenged by U.S. homogeneity.

Foundational to U.S. colonialism, these challenges continuously reinforce the ongoing inequalities faced by indigenous people for the past five hundred years. The capitalist system constantly rears its ugly head as industry and state collude to expand markets; private property is no exception. For the Menominee, “The Tribe experienced further setbacks in the 1950s with the U.S. Congress’ passage of the Menominee Termination Act, which removed federal recognition over the Tribe and threatened to deprive Menominee people of their cultural identity. Fortunately, the tribe won back its federal recognition in 1973 through a long and difficult grassroots movement that culminated with the passage of the Menominee Restoration Act, Public Law 93-197, on December 22, 1973.” It is only through long term political activism that these capitalist forces can be resisted, as evidenced here. Indigenous people are always in contestation with economic expansions that seek to infringe on their lands.

The Akimel O’otham, who live in what we call Arizona, are another case of capital infringing on indigenous land. Their culture centers on rivers that fuel their longstanding agricultural systems. However, alongside U.S. western expansion came irrigation and upstream dam projects that redirected river flow and consequently disrupted the Akimel O’otham lifestyle. A century of legal battles settled this issue in favor of Akimel O’otham water rights, though generational inequalities still highlight the effects of these indigenous rights abuses. The Akimel O’otham exhibit much higher rates of type 2 diabetes than non-native Americans as a result of processed foods, disrupted agriculture and structural poverty.

More recently, the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline have illuminated the conflicts between indigenous land rights, the state and capitalists. Energy Transfer Partners’ plans to build the pipeline were a clear pursuit of profit that overrode any claims that the Standing Rock and surrounding indigenous communities had to the land. Not only did the company threaten their water supply, but sacred ground and cultural sites as well. How did the U.S. respond? By sending authoritarian police forces wielding water cannons, attack dogs and riot gear. Grassroots organizations pushed back, eventually making some gains towards delaying the pipeline’s development. Although Trump undid all of Obama’s appeasements, Obama took over half a year to act on this pressing issue. Such complacency is the status quo under a capitalist state that continuously disrespects indigenous land rights and imposes its logic of private property.