On the Other Hand...

The Indians' Tragic Mistake

by Jim Davies

Often, in this column, I make the point that it's fine by me to hold any belief at all, provided only that no attempt is made to force someone else share it; but although I certainly extol tolerance in that sense, I don't mean to imply that all beliefs, all religions, are equally good. On the contrary, it's clear that beliefs have consequences, and that some of those consequences are "better", by popular standards and perhaps objective ones, than others.

And Native Americans (the folk my boyhood friends called "Red Indians") have a very fine set of cultural beliefs, but one of them, alas, is dead wrong.

Don't mis-read me, please; I'm not anti-Indian. I too have enjoyed and admired "Dances with Wolves." I too have read Dee Brown's "Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee", and mourned at the savagery done to the native Americans by armed agents of the US Government, acting with the consent of voters in those terrible days. And I, too, have seen the movie "Last of the Mohicans" - and more: I have met, and conversed with, and supported, one of its principal actors, Russell Means. I admired his bid for the US Presidency, in 1988. I laughed with him at his promise to abolish, if elected, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and (tongue in cheek) to establish in its place a "Bureau of Caucasian Affairs."

More yet: I deeply grieve at the continuing oppression of Native Americans, done with such subtlety by paying them money to stay in their reservations, out of our way; to preserve them in these United States as the most perfect, the most brutal examples of Socialism in action. And I recognize in those reservations of hopelessness a forerunner of what this proud and free people will all become in the future, if we go on allowing government to control us. But for all that, the Native Americans did get one thing entirely wrong.


They believe, so I understand, that individuals cannot and should not own land. To them, the land (the Earth) is loaned to mankind by the gods; that we are all tenants, travellers passing through; that we have group-rights to use the land, but not to make it "ours"; that when we die, the land should be left healthy for the use of future generations. It's an idea that is attractive, to a point, and that is not wholly divorced from true truth; and until the Europeans came here, thousands of years after they did, it had served them well.

Land had been their prime resource, for all those millenia. They grew to know it, and the plants and creatures it supported, far better than we ever have, or will. Land was the source of life, and so it became sacred, and so, their culture holds, it's entirely improper for anyone to "own" it; it belongs in common to all of mankind. That is, I gather, their earnest belief; and I've seen something similar on the bumpersticker of a White Anglo Saxon Liberal.

While the nomadic Nations failed to learn fixed cultivation, it was too a very useful belief. In order to survive, they had to make use of far more land than they would have needed with modern farming techniques. So it made sense to "share" it. For all that time, it served them well.

Or, did it? For all those thousands of years, they made no progress. They got to know the natural world profoundly, yet they never had the imperative, the need, to do things better. Necessity, we're told, is the mother of invention; by using the ample land and then moving on, the necessity to get smart, and use it more intensively, never arose. Hence, no invention!

The Colonists

The Europeans, in contrast, had enjoyed no such luxury of abundant land; over hundreds of years, they had learned that expertese in making land productive went hand in hand with private ownership. When you owned a parcel of land (in contrast just to tilling it for someone else) you found out ways to squeeze the most out of it, for the more successfully you did so, the richer you got. There was (and is, just) a direct and powerful personal incentive to produce more per acre. Such incentive had never bothered the Indians, and that was their big mistake, their big failure. Their cultural belief had crowded out clear thinking, so they never did discover what the colonists had; that private ownership leads directly to prosperity because the motivation is right. So naturally, the colonists fenced off their parcels of land and farmed them far more productively than it had ever been farmed before - but in so doing, the common land of the Indians was progressively reduced to the point that it hurt - to the point that their very wasteful farming tradition simply would not produce enough for them to eat. The solution was obvious: they should have corrected their error and embraced the newcomers' methods; but alas! their culture was so strong as effectively to forbid that common-sense solution. The disaster of the Indian Wars, and of the hopeless, socialist Indian Reservations today, is the sad result. They have become basket cases in their own territory; and so shall we, unless we learn from their mistake.

The danger we face is that the socialists who infest almost all areas of government are busy embracing - and promulgating - the very error that was the Indians' great undoing; they are using all their resources to teach us that land belongs in common to all mankind, that private property ownership is conditional, subject to the will of the majority (and, of course to themselves as its elected representatives!) and that we must not be selfish, but respectful of all creatures, including desert rats and snail darters. Things are in immediate peril of coming full circle; the eco-freaks from Al Gore to Town Hall are trying their darndest to take away the very source of America's unique prosperity - to turn us all, in effect, to reservation Indians.

Do they do so because of a sadistic desire to make us suffer, to weave poverty out of whole cloth? - no, I doubt it's so. They do it rather for two reasons: (1) they lack the intellectual skill to understand why free, private ownership is a prerequisite for prosperity and (2) they're on a power trip. Well, their intellects may be past help, but we sure can terminate their power trip.

© Copyright Jim Davies 1999

Jim Davies lives in New Hampshire,
and enjoys contemplating which way is up.

The above is Edition # 138

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