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.