Who Really Owns The United States?

Nowadays, it is common, when introducing an event, to say something along the lines of: “We are grateful to the XYZ Indian Tribe for allowing us to hold this gathering […]

Nowadays, it is common, when introducing an event, to say something along the lines of: “We are grateful to the XYZ Indian Tribe for allowing us to hold this gathering on what is really their land.” Universities, bastions of the left, have been particularly intent upon engaging in this practice. For example, Northwestern University offered this “expression of gratitude and appreciation to those whose territory you reside on, and a way of honoring the Indigenous people who have been living and working on the land from time immemorial.” Here is another instance: “Princeton (University) seeks to build relationships with Native American and Indigenous communities and nations through academic pursuits, partnerships, historical recognitions, community service and enrollment efforts.  These communities and nations include the Lenni-Lenape people, who consider the land on which the University stands part of their ancient homeland.”

Do the American Indians really own the entire country based upon homesteading, mixing their labor with the land? Not at all. There are now some 350 million people in the country, and there are still vast areas of it that have never so much as been touched by human feet, let alone homesteaded as farms, factories or residences. Before the white man came to the continent the best estimate is that there were only 2-3 million native persons in existence (the lowest estimate is less than one million; the highest, 18 million). It is difficult to see how they, alone, could have accomplished any such task.

There is a continuum issue heavily involved in homesteading. How intensively must the land be homesteaded, and for how long, before it can be clearly stated that ownership has been attained? Experts aver that it must be more intense, and less acreage attained for any given amount of effort, east of the Mississippi rather than west of it. Why? This is due to the fact that area off the Atlantic is far more fertile, on average, than in most of the west. Thus, a family of four would rationally invest in the homesteading of less acreage in the east than in the west.

Not only is there a continuum in terms of how intensively must be the homesteading, and the duration thereof in order to attain ownership, but, also, the degree of property rights after the fact. Consider many Indian tribes in the Midwest of the United States. They had a southern encampment which they utilized in the winter, and a northern one, occupied in the summer. Each consisted, say, of 100 square miles. However the two camps were located, perhaps, 1000 miles away from each other. Therefore, of necessity, to get from one to the other, and back again, they had to traverse this larger distance.

So, what property do they own and to what degree? In my view, there are three different statuses. First, they own, fully, the one square mile inside each of their two locations, fully. They had their tents therein, and their crops were grown there. Second, what about the other 99 square miles in each of these two sites? They only hunted there. Thus, they have only semi ownership therein. They may continue to hunt there, but, assuming no chance of over hunting, they cannot object to other tribes hunting there too, especially in the hunting areas they are no longer occupying for six months of the year. Third is the 1000-mile path between their two encampments? Here, there property rights are even less intense. To be sure they would have the right to continue to travel back and forth between those two places, but may not properly prohibit others from also engaging in this practice, provided, only, that there would be no clash between them and anyone else. If there were, then “our” Indian tribe which had first used this avenue would have priority.

There is also more than just a little bit of hypocrisy involved in this left wing land recognition movement. If the native peoples really own it in total, all others should either depart (back to Europe? Back to Africa? Back to Asia?) and/or start paying rent to the rightful owners. Has anything of this sort, on a serious basis, been placed on the table by any of these advocates? If so, not by too many of them; this would hardly be popular. Nor would it be justified, given the paucity of the case in favor of their total ownership of the entire country.


Walter E. Block is Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans and is co-author of the 2015 book Water Capitalism: The Case for Privatizing Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Aquifers. New York City, N.Y.: Lexington Books, Rowman and Littlefield (with Peter Lothian Nelson ).  First published here.

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