One of the biggest lies that settler society loves to tell and repeat as often as they can – especially when the subject of Indigenous land rights or resources comes into question – is that historically, the Indigenous people did not believe in land ownership, or simply that “nobody owned the land”. Nothing could be further from the truth and such thinking has been used to steal Indigenous lands and resources for hundreds of years, and is still a prevailing belief among non-Indigenous people. It is a recurrent theme in movies, school history books, and even in internet memes circulated in Pan-Indian Facebook groups.
So what did “ownership” mean from the standpoint of Indigenous culture? First of all, it cannot and should not ever be equated with the European idea of individual ownership with documents, fees, taxes, or metes and bounds, with the right to lease or sell property. Sure, that is the system that was finally forced upon Indigenous people, but traditionally ownership was vested in a particular group (tribe, band, clan, or family) who owned inherent rights to live, use, and harvest certain places, rivers, lakes, and resources through traditional use and ‘tenure’. Land tenure was understood by others and was perpetual. It could be shared and it could be increased or decreased according to changes in climate, shifts in resources, and other variables. Such tenure could only cease when land and harvest rights were abandoned.
Things like beaver dams could be ‘owned’; sugar camps and maple groves were recognized as belonging to certain families or clans - and no other Indian family would think of making sugar at a place where it infringed on another family’s rights. Cranberry patches, wild rice areas, and hunting territories were regulated by intra-tribal understandings. The same understanding applied to everything on the land, and cumulatively this resulted in large territories that were recognized by the first treaties with the Europeans used to steal these places out from under the original Indigenous owners when they misinterpreted the ceding of certain land uses from the Indigenous people as a cession of complete ownership in totality.
This is why the theft of the land and the forced ideas of European land ownership is such an insult and infringement of law in the eyes of Indigenous people.
Digital Horizons is an online treasure house of thousands of images, documents, video, and oral histories depicting life on the Northern Plains from the late 1800s to today. Here you'll find a fascinating snapshot of the lives, culture, and history of the people who shaped life on the prairies.
Digital Horizons was established in 2007 by a consortium including: Concordia College Archives, Moorhead, Minn.; NDSU Institute for Regional Studies & University Archives, Fargo, N.D.; Prairie Public Broadcasting, Fargo, N.D.; and State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck, N.D. Their growing list of contributors include:
In 1920, the Missionaries at the Rocky Boy Reservation were desperately trying to finish their chapel before winter so that they could hold a Christmas celebration at their new church. Unfortunately, they did not finish in time and it was far too cold to hold the celebration there. Even so, they were able to have a successful Christmas with the help of the entire community. Surprisingly, the celebration even included the incorporation of native drums and songs! The retelling of this Christmas story is as follows:
“The goal, all through autumn had been to complete the chapel and celebrate Christmas within its walls; to have the first of the Gospel story told in a building provided by Christian friends and dedicated to sacred use. The goal was in sight, and then all was altered. The heating stoves could not be installed in time, so another plan [had to] be considered. I asked for the use of the Indian Council Hall, which was readily granted. And a fine celebration we had on Christmas eve.”
“We secured a couple of men to get a large fir tree up in the mountains. A number of young Indian men whitewashed the Council Hall, cut up plenty of wood and put things in shape generally. The matron and her sister helped with the baking and lunches. Some of the half-breed girls aided with the lunches and decorated the tree. Mrs. Burroughs and I found plenty to do, not the least being to get the great number of gifts classified and ready for distribution. The storekeeper brought down a second gasoline lamp and helped with the serving of lunch. A half breed readily interpreted for me as I gave the Christmas story, and something of an account of The National Indian Association and its purposes for this people.”
“Mr. Parker, Government Agent, spoke first and told them that The National Indian Association had put up the Mission buildings, provided this celebration with its many presents, and were interested in helping the Indians in every way possible. He urged them to show the interest they ought in the Mission. The Matron, her sister and five half-breed girls sang a number of Christmas hymns very sweetly, as I played on the ‘baby organ’. I knew the Indians would like a part, so had a number of young men beat the drum and sing in Indian. Some started to smoke during the program and I noticed one or two better informed men successfully request them to desist. Everyone gave good attention and showed interest in the story of Jesus’ birth, and applauded the girls who sang.”
“And they did enjoy the lunch! One old woman shouted and shouted when lunch was announced. There were 276 present, and all had a hearty feed. The lunch consisted of chopped beef sandwiches, cake, coffee and oranges. The children all received candy. Two hundred and seventy-six received presents for themselves and took gifts home for children or old people who could not attend.”
Annual Report of the National Indian Association (1920). New York: NIA.
Christmas is a time for traditions and being with family. It is a special time when we express our love of our culture and our love of our family. Below is a short description of how Christmas was celebrated by the Métis at Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.
This description, from 1936, provides a snapshot into the simple, family-oriented celebration of the holiday:
“The old French and Indian [Métis] spirit of Christmas begins at Christmas Eve with midnight mass. After the services are over we all begin to greet our friends. Then we hurry to get home to the little ones and do our part with Santa Claus.”
“We are awakened in the morning very early, by the sounds of little bugles, trumpets, drums and all sorts of merrymaking toys. The little children with their mouths filled with candy and laughter make all happy and we wish the world a Merry Christmas!”
“When supper was over, individual jigging began. This is a special feature of our dances. The fiddler, with the fiddle casually against his ribs, struck up the Red River jig. One of the best jiggers chose his partner and began...”
Indians at work. (1942). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs.