Monday, September 10, 2012

Aboriginal Private Property

The Conservative government announced last month that it will introduce legislation that would allow first nations members living on reserves to own their property, something the current Indian Act prohibits.

Despite economically illiterate fear mongering that this bill "has the potential to destroy First Nation communities," and that private property will lead to "greater exploitation," this is one initiative that the Harper government might be doing right.

Granted, it's intellectually dishonest to believe that an organization based on the violation of private property could ever realistically protect private property, yet the First Nation Property Ownership Act is definitely an improvement from the status quo.

This is a topic I'll probably return to in future posts. For today, I'd like to address the absurd notion that aboriginal people lived without private property in some sort of "primitive communism" utopia.

There is absolutely no basis for this.

One does not need to be a Rothbardian or believe in natural law to accept the notion of private property. To own yourself and to own property is a basic human characteristic. For what is property other than an extension of yourself? You own the clothes you wear, but are they not in some way "you" as well? Richard Dawkins, famous for coining the term "selfish gene" developed the idea of an "extended phenotype," where birds can't be defined as just birds, their nests must be included as well. And how beavers can't really be defined without taking their dams into account. This idea can be extended to human beings as well. Since hunter-gatherer times we have used scarce resources to - as Mises put it - remove or alleviate "uneasiness

Regardless of the theoretical underpinnings, history is full of examples of aboriginal peoples owning property[1] and even owning slaves. How could societies develop slavery without any concept of property?

Early Spanish observers noted the similarity between the Aztec system of property and European feudalism. Across the United States and in Canada, farming tribes owned land as individual family units; predefined gender roles decided on each individual's ownership responsibility. Aboriginals in California exercised individual ownership of fruit and nut trees while hunting grounds were marked by a tribal signatures to indicate private property.

Robert J. Smith, writing for the Cato Institute[2], has this to say about property rights in the forest; a practice that increased when Europeans arrived and the demand for furs increased,

"It was a highly sophisticated system. The Montaignais blazed trees with their family crests to delineate their hunting grounds, practised retaliation against poachers and trespassers, developed a seasonal allotment system, and marked beaver houses."

Property rights for fishing far surpassed anything of European value. While the Maritime provinces and the BC coast have suffered from a tragedy of the commons since European arrival, prior to this was a robust system of private property. The predictability of salmon runs generated landownership over specific sites, just as weirs and traps belonged to individuals or families. These rights could be transferred by exchange or gift. West Coast aboriginals owned streams and banks; this in turn improved spawning beds and initiated the idea to transfer eggs from one site to another thus maintaining fish populations.

Even among the buffalo herders, property existed. Even though the plains and buffalo were too vast and plentiful to be considered scarce, the wealth that arose from a buffalo carcass introduced goods that were scarce and thus economized and allocated to private ownership.

Aboriginal property rights are never static. They evolve as needed and become more elaborate as land and resources became scarcer relative to populations. Perhaps the idea of property-less aboriginals originated as a European justification to the theft of already owned land. After 145 years of centrally planning through the Indian Act perhaps it's time to allow aboriginals on reserve land to own what's rightfully theirs.


[1] - Flanagan, Tom, Christopher Alcantara and André Le Dressay. Beyond the Indian Act: Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2010. Print.

[2] - Smith, Robert J. "Resolving the Tragedy of the Commons by Creating Private Property in Wildlife," The Cato Journal I (1981): 452.

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