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Disowned by the Ownership Society: How Native Americans Lost Their Land


  • I thank Robert Venables for encouragement to write this article and insights on how to improve it. Anonymous review comments were invaluable, as was the support provided by Cornell University's American Indian Program for my research in North Dakota.


Over the past five centuries, Europeans have enclosed the global commons and, in the process, incorporated whole continents of aboriginal land. Some scholars argue that Indians in North America were spared the ravages of compulsory enclosure, having sold their land to non-Indians through willing-seller transactions and benefited from federal government trust and treaty policies. Moreover, where enclosure existed, it is widely believed to have ended as Indians converted to agriculture, thereby internalizing hard work, sedentary life styles, and allotted ownership. This study disputes such historical accounts and suggests a wave of new enclosures in accordance with recent U.S. Department of Agricultural minority lending policies. By discriminating against Native American farmers and ranchers, the federal government has enabled the erasure of title, livelihood opportunities, and cultural identity among Indian farming and ranching communities. Evidence from the Fort Berthold Reservation of North Dakota reveals the complex complicity of the federal government in Indian land erasure and points to a changing reservation geography that, even now, makes castaways of agrarian Indians.