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Tribal Land

 Native American Nations | Linguistic Families                    

For convenience of discussion, Indian tribal land may be divided into three classes: First, the land occupied by the villages; second, the land actually employed in agriculture; third, the land claimed by the tribe but not occupied, except as a hunting ground.

Village sites.—The amount of land taken up as village sites varied considerably in different parts of the country. It varied also in the same tribe at different times. As a rule, the North American Indians lived in communal houses of sufficient size to accommodate several families. In such cases the village consisted of a few large structures closely grouped together, so that it covered very little ground. When territory was occupied by warlike tribes, the construction of rude palisades around the villages and the necessities of defense generally tended to compel the grouping of houses, and the permanent village sites of even the more populous tribes covered only a very small area. In the case of confederated tribes and in the time of peace the tendency was for one or more families to establish more or less permanent settlements away from the main village, where a livelihood was more readily obtainable. Hence, in territory which had enjoyed a considerable interval of peace the settlements were in the nature of small agricultural communities, established at short distances from each other and extending in the aggregate over a considerable extent of country. In the case of populous tribes the villages were probably of the character of the Choctaw towns described by Adair.4 “The barrier towns, which are next to the Muskohge and Chikkasah countries, are compactly settled for social defense, according to the general method of other savage nations; but the rest, both in the center and toward the Mississippi, are only scattered plantations, as best suits a separate easy way of living. A stranger might be in the middle of one of their populous, extensive towns without seeing half a dozen houses in the direct course of his path.” More closely grouped settlements are described by Wayne in American State Papers, 1793, in his account of an expedition down the Maumee Valley, where he states that “The margins of the Miamis of the Lake and the Au Glaize appear like one continuous village for a number of miles, nor have I ever beheld such immense fields of corn in any part of America from Canada to Florida.” Such a chain of villages as this was probably highly exceptional; but even under such circumstances the village sites proper formed but a very small part of the total area occupied.

From the foregoing considerations it will be seen that the amount of land occupied as village sites under any circumstances was inconsiderable.

Agricultural land.—It is practically impossible to make an accurate estimate of the relative amount of land devoted to agricultural purposes by any one tribe or by any family of tribes. None of the factors which enter into the problem are known to us with sufficient accuracy to enable reliable estimates to be made of the amount of land tilled or of the products derived from the tillage; and only in few cases have we trustworthy estimates of the population of the tribe or tribes practicing agriculture. Only a rough approximation of the truth can be reached from the scanty data available and from a general knowledge of Indian methods of subsistence.

The practice of agriculture was chiefly limited to the region south of the St. Lawrence and east of the Mississippi. In this region it was far more general and its results were far more important than is commonly supposed. To the west of the Mississippi only comparatively small areas were occupied by agricultural tribes and these lay chiefly in New Mexico and Arizona and along the Arkansas, Platte, and Missouri Rivers. The rest of that region was tenanted by non-agricultural tribes—unless indeed the slight attention paid to the cultivation of tobacco by a few of the west coast tribes, notably the Haida, may be considered agriculture. Within the first mentioned area most of the tribes, perhaps all, practiced agriculture to a greater or less extent, though unquestionably the degree of reliance placed upon it as a means of support differed much with different tribes and localities.

Among many tribes agriculture was relied upon to supply an important—and perhaps in the case of a few tribes, the most important—part of the food supply. The accounts of some of the early explorers in the southern United States, where probably agriculture was more systematized than elsewhere, mention corn fields of great extent, and later knowledge of some northern tribes, as the Iroquois and some of the Ohio Valley tribes, shows that they also raised corn in great quantities. The practice of agriculture to a point where it shall prove the main and constant supply of a people, however, implies a degree of sedentariness to which our Indians as a rule had not attained and an amount of steady labor without immediate return which was peculiarly irksome to them. Moreover, the imperfect methods pursued in clearing, planting, and cultivating sufficiently prove that the Indians, though agriculturists, were in the early stages of development as such—a fact also attested by the imperfect and one-sided division of labor between the sexes, the men as a rule taking but small share of the burdensome tasks of clearing land, planting, and harvesting.

It is certain that by no tribe of the United States was agriculture pursued to such an extent as to free its members from the practice of the hunter’s or fisher’s art. Admitting the most that can be claimed for the Indian as an agriculturist, it may be stated that, whether because of the small population or because of the crude manner in which his operations were carried on, the amount of land devoted to agriculture within the area in question was infinitesimally small as compared with the total. Upon a map colored to show only the village sites and agricultural land, the colors would appear in small spots, while by far the greater part of the map would remain uncolored.

Hunting claims.—The great body of the land within the area mapped which was occupied by agricultural tribes, and all the land outside it, was held as a common hunting ground, and the tribal claim to territory, independent of village sites and corn fields, amounted practically to little else than hunting claims. The community of possession in the tribe to the hunting ground was established and practically enforced by hunting laws, which dealt with the divisions of game among the village, or among the families of the hunters actually taking part in any particular hunt. As a rule, such natural landmarks as rivers, lakes, hills, and mountain chains served to mark with sufficient accuracy the territorial tribal limits. In California, and among the Haida and perhaps other tribes of the northwest coast, the value of certain hunting and fishing claims led to their definition by artificial boundaries, as by sticks or stones.5

Such precautions imply a large population, and in such regions as California the killing of game upon the land of adjoining tribes was rigidly prohibited and sternly punished.

As stated above, every part of the vast area included in the present map is to be regarded as belonging, according to Indian ideas of land title, to one or another of the Indian tribes. To determine the several tribal possessions and to indicate the proper boundary lines between individual tribes and linguistic families is a work of great difficulty. This is due more to the imperfection and scantiness of available data concerning tribal claims than to the absence of claimants or to any ambiguity in the minds of the Indians as to the boundaries of their several possessions.

Not only is precise data wanting respecting the limits of land actually held or claimed by many tribes, but there are other tribes, which disappeared early in the history of our country, the boundaries to whose habitat is to be determined only in the most general way. Concerning some of these, our information is so vague that the very linguistic family they belonged to is in doubt. In the case of probably no one family are the data sufficient in amount and accuracy to determine positively the exact areas definitely claimed or actually held by the tribes. Even in respect of the territory of many of the tribes of the eastern United States, much of whose land was ceded by actual treaty with the Government, doubt exists. The fixation of the boundary points, when these are specifically mentioned in the treaty, as was the rule, is often extremely difficult, owing to the frequent changes of geographic names and the consequent disagreement of present with ancient maps. Moreover, when the Indian’s claim to his land had been admitted by Government, and the latter sought to acquire a title through voluntary cession by actual purchase, land assumed a value to the Indian never attaching to it before.

Under these circumstances, either under plea of immemorial occupancy or of possession by right of conquest, the land was often claimed, and the claims urged with more or less plausibility by several tribes, sometimes of the same linguistic family, sometimes of different families.

It was often found by the Government to be utterly impracticable to decide between conflicting claims, and not infrequently the only way out of the difficulty lay in admitting the claim of both parties, and in paying for the land twice or thrice. It was customary for a number of different tribes to take part in such treaties, and not infrequently several linguistic families were represented. It was the rule for each tribe, through its representatives, to cede its share of a certain territory, the natural boundaries of which as a whole are usually recorded with sufficient accuracy. The main purpose of the Government in treaty-making being to obtain possession of the land, comparatively little attention was bestowed to defining the exact areas occupied by the several tribes taking part in a treaty, except in so far as the matter was pressed upon attention by disputing claimants. Hence the territory claimed by each tribe taking part in the treaty is rarely described, and occasionally not all the tribes interested in the proposed cession are even mentioned categorically. The latter statement applies more particularly to the territory west of the Mississippi, the data for determining ownership to which is much less precise, and the doubt and confusion respecting tribal boundary lines correspondingly greater than in the country east of that river. Under the above circumstances, it will be readily understood that to determine tribal boundaries within accurately drawn lines is in the vast majority of cases quite impossible.

Imperfect and defective as the terms of the treaties frequently are as regards the definition of tribal boundaries, they are by far the most accurate and important of the means at our command for fixing boundary lines upon the present map. By their aid the territorial possessions of a considerable number of tribes have been determined with desirable precision, and such areas definitely established have served as checks upon the boundaries of other tribes, concerning the location and extent of whose possessions little is known.

For establishing the boundaries of such tribes as are not mentioned in treaties, and of those whose territorial possessions are not given with sufficient minuteness, early historical accounts are all important. Such accounts, of course, rarely indicate the territorial possessions of the tribes with great precision. In many cases, however, the sites of villages are accurately given. In others the source of information concerning a tribe is contained in a general statement of the occupancy of certain valleys or mountain ranges or areas at the heads of certain rivers, no limiting lines whatever being assigned. In others, still, the notice of a tribe is limited to a brief mention of the presence in a certain locality of hunting or war parties.

Data of this loose character would of course be worthless in an attempt to fix boundary lines in accordance with the ideas of the modern surveyor. The relative positions of the families and the relative size of the areas occupied by them, however, and not their exact boundaries, are the chief concern in a linguistic map, and for the purpose of establishing these, and, in a rough way, the boundaries of the territory held by the tribes composing them, these data are very important, and when compared with one another and corrected by more definite data, when such are at hand, they have usually been found to be sufficient for the purpose.

Indian Linguistic Families of America North of Mexico, 1891

Linguistic Families


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