Thursday, August 5, 2010

OPINION: Native – U.S. History Can Inform Modern Attitudes on Property

The Pencil Warrior
By Dave Wheelock

On our first hike into Waterdog Lake in the Uncompahgre National Forest, Joanne and I missed the small sign designating the makeshift parking area near the trailhead on the outskirts of Lake City, Colorado. Some parked cars obscured the sign and we ended up having to turn around in the paved driveway of the expensive home carved into the top of the hill where the trail actually begins. This prompted the emergence onto the balcony of an older woman who took a distinctly hostile approach, as if we were barbarians coming to invade her sacred space.
To my question of where we should park, the woman roared, “This is ALL private property, all the way down to the bottom. PRIVATE PROPERTY.” I got the message right away and prepared to leave, but she continued her rant.
I generally avoid confrontation, yet this woman’s behavior not only went way beyond what was required for the situation, but also betrayed a type of arrogance I find abhorrently common in too many contemporary Americans. My response was to call back, loudly enough for her to hear over her ongoing monologue: “This land was stolen from the Indians. Think about it!”
That touched a nerve. After calling me an A-- h--- and once again invoking the supremacy of private property she stormed back past the American flag waving from the balcony to call the deputy (who turned out to be much more courteous; he’d been through this before).
Along the long and difficult trail I thought about the woman’s attitude, and about my own reaction. I considered that while most US citizens are on record as having a poor sense of history in general, non-indigenous residents have an especially abysmal grasp of the stories, and therefore the true nature, of their surroundings.
I’m fairly certain the white lady on the balcony doesn’t know the beautiful mountains that have attracted people like her were, for many times longer than the period of European-American settlement, inhabited by small bands of a people with far different attitudes about the land she now occupies. For that matter, I wonder how many people know the Uncompahgre National Forest that preserves these lands from rampant development is named for a subgroup of these people? I’ll admit I didn’t; one has to dig through the layers of a conquering civilization to learn such things. Now known generally as Utes, these folks moved cyclically from mountain to valley to take advantage of what the seasons offered, from the plentiful game which once populated the mountains, to the roots, berries, and fruits which grew wild, to crops they planted themselves.
Others came to covet these lands. As in so many other areas of what became the Western United States, the discovery of a limited amount of gold was hyped into a bubble by greedy profiteers, causing mass waves of would-be miners to swarm into the mountain valleys, stripping, polluting, and bullying everywhere they went. By terms of an 1849 treaty (a legal term used to legitimate coercion) “signed” by a few designated Utes these invasions were illegal. But rather than enforce the law in the face of ever-escalating encroachments, the official choice was to “renegotiate” terms through a string of subsequent treaties that slashed lands available to the Utes in Colorado from 15 million acres in 1949 to complete removal to Utah or southwest Colorado of most of the bands by 1880. The official term “removal” is also used to describe what one does with garbage.
All along the way, “solemn vows” were made to the effect that “this time we really mean it.” Yet as honest students of U.S. history know, when the spirit of the law encountered expediency, the former gave way. Thus was perpetuated the long tradition of abrogation by the United States of treaties, all the way to the present (as with the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia, scrapped by George W Bush in 2002).
This part of the story is not news, yet it bears repeating in mainstream media precisely because it is usually ignored. This kind of willful ignorance enables the self-centered sense of entitlement displayed our flag-waving lady on the balcony, a class-based attitude dangerously out of tune with the requirements of a healthy, shared society.
Beyond questions of fidelity to their own legal framework with regard to other peoples are European-American traditions of property. Should private ownership continue to bestow unaccountable rights to destroy and divide?
I am reminded of a sign I encountered at the boundary of a farm containing a wonderfully fertile spring creek outside Bozeman, Montana. The wording read to the effect: “Please sign the register. If you are a landowner who does not permit access onto your property, you are not welcome to fish here.”
My purpose here is not to advance wholesale abandonment of our laws on property, but rather to encourage evaluation of our attitudes about them. I wonder: if we give it some serious consideration, could we do better than a system which institutionalizes exclusion, destruction, and class distinctions?

Dave Wheelock, a member of the Oneida Nation, is a collegiate sports administrator and coach. His history degree is from the University of New Mexico. Reach him at Mr. Wheelock's views do not necessarily represent those of the Mountain Mail.

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