Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Private Reservations: Liberal Forms and Indigenous Norms in the Theory and Practice of Property

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Native Studies

Private Reservations: Liberal Forms and Indigenous Norms in the Theory and Practice of Property

Article excerpt

Introduction

Contemporary discourse about Indigenous and western European or liberal conceptions of the nexus between property, culture, and individualism has been characterized by one dominant and one minor alternative sub-theme. The dominant theme has been an emphasis on the dichotomous nature of Indigenous and western paradigms of property. The Indigenous understanding, as it is most usually conventionally presented, is of property - the land particularly so - as a collective good possessed by the group without the interruptions of market exchanges, through time extending both into the past immemorial and, presumably, into the distant future. To this mutualistic understanding is contrasted the western conception of property as individualized and essentially capitalist. Property is perceived in this light as private and fungible, readily and promiscuously alienable in the name of the good of capturing market efficiencies.

The most prevalent departure from the dominant theme of western/ Indigenous dichotomy is found in works critical of the fairly monolithic depiction of pastoral communality in historic Indigenous societies. Harold Demsetz, Martin Bailey, Terry Anderson, Bruce Benson, Tom Flanagan and others have all argued that private and individually held forms of property were considerably more prevalent in historic Indigenous societies than the conventional dichotomized view suggests. The underlying theme of a number of works here seems to be that despite the appeal of cultural mythologies to the contrary, we are all part of a singular human community whose membership is apparently characterized to a considerable degree by the shared trait of individual self-interest maximization.

The identification of private and individualized forms of property in the Indigenous context represents a valuable contribution to the discussion here because it provides a more accurate depiction of reality and a counter-balance to the tendency of the dichotomous perspective to over-emphasize cultural differences. Interestingly, despite the value of these sorts of reconsiderations of the dichotomous perspective, relatively little has been said in the context of this debate about an analogous conceptual possibility which might undercut this idea from a second side. My suggestion here is that a closer examination of forms of property holding in liberal societies suggests that the relatively monolithic association of individualized, privatized, and freely alienable property with western societies is as problematic as the overly comprehensive association of collective property with Indigenous communities. A wide variety of property forms in western societies resemble on one or more dimensions the mutuality associated with their Indigenous counterparts.

In section II, I briefly trace out some of the central ideas associated with Indigenous and western property models by advocates of the dichotomous and alternative perspectives. Those, like Harold Demsetz, who identify and emphasize the existence of private forms of property in Indigenous societies largely contend that such forms arise whenever it makes possible capturing the economic and individualized goods associated with liberal forms of property holding (350). In section III, I make the corollary suggestion that collective and self-delimited forms of property tend to arise in western societies when persons seek to capture the social goods associated with the Indigenous model within the western context. Liberal property theorists emphasize the role of property in achieving moral goods such as individual independence and free self-direction, and economic goods such as efficiency, understood as the maximization of aggregate economic output. Indigenous forms of property, on the other hand, provide goods presumably also of value in human life: distributive equity, collegiality - that is, decision-making which includes all members of a society or group - and the expression and preservation of social or group identity. …

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