We’re celebrating Native American Heritage Month by highlighting books written by Native American authors. The following is an excerpt from Seeing Red: Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America by Michael John Witgen (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe), Finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in History.
Seeing Red is published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and UNC Press.
The State of Nature
Jefferson’s vision for the Republic and the continent was linked to a particular understanding of the relationship between Native peoples and the land. From his viewpoint, Native peoples could claim a title to their homelands, but they did not own that land as private property. Jefferson assumed a natural law legal perspective, derived from social contract theory, that Natives could claim aboriginal title, or right of occupancy, on their territory, but they did not exercise dominion over it. European powers, and later the United States, made this claim because they asserted that Native peoples lived in a state of nature—that is, they were not part of the civilized world. North America was terra nullius, a legal concept dating back to the Roman Empire designating territory as vacant or unoccupied. Declaring North America terra nullius implied that the land had never been properly cultivated or truly settled. It remained, in effect, in a state of nature, the condition in which it existed at the beginning of time.
As early as the seventeenth century, these ideas about natural law and the state of nature informed Anglo-American understandings of private property. At the beginning of time, all the world was a commons whose resources were available to everyone. When human beings applied their labor to the things derived from this commons, the effort resulted in the creation of private property. A tree could be transformed into a table and chairs, making these items the possessions solely of their creator. A plot of land, similarly, could be transformed into a farm—with built structures, plowed fields and planted crops, and fenced enclosures—and entailed as private property. The cultivation of land thus carved out parcels of this shared landscape as private property, transforming the commons into a built or improved environment, a process accelerated by the creation and circulation of currency. In this increasingly complex setting, men and women were compelled to leave the state of nature and enter into civil society in order to protect their property. This was the social contract articulated most clearly by the English philosopher John Locke. Individuals gave up a portion of their rights, creating a government or sovereign designated to act on behalf of all members of society to ensure the rule of law and to protect the individual right to property and the pursuit thereof. In forming civil society, humanity left the state of nature and entered a world of laws and civil institutions designed to protect their rights in property. Appropriating the resources of the commons, men, particularly male heads of household, created civilization.
From his viewpoint, Native peoples could claim a title to their homelands, but they did not own that land as private property.
With this rhetorical sleight of hand, European powers claimed possession of North America by right of discovery. Existing in a state of nature, the continent was an uncultivated wilderness and therefore an unsettled land. Using the same legal logic, European powers established dominion over their new possessions by converting land and resources into private property that, in turn, became part of colonial settlements, effectively establishing sovereign governments where supposedly none had previously existed. From the European perspective, immigrant communities in North America represented civilization and human progress. Native communities represented the uncivilized; they were a primitive form of humanity that had failed to advance beyond the state of nature. North America was thus imagined as the New World, an uncivilized continent waiting to be settled, and colonial settlers saw themselves as bringing civilization to that world. The people of the United States envisioned the newly formed Republic to be the successor of this colonial project. American citizens and government officials uniformly regarded western expansion as the spreading of civilization across a New World wilderness.
This cultural and legal logic informed Jefferson’s actions and made the Louisiana Purchase possible, at least from the point of view of the United States and France. When the colonists arrived in North America, they found nothing that they recognized as private property. Of course, they encountered Native peoples with their own system of territoriality, distinct land-use practices, and political and social organization. By recognizing only concepts of property, property rights, and political self-determination specific to western Europe, however, they believed that North America remained in a state of nature. Part of this conceptual leap required that the colonizers see Indigenous peoples as less than fully human. They had not evolved socially and politically into a civilized people but instead remained in a state of nature where they lived as primitive social beings, or, in the language of the era of discovery, “savages.” By their very nature, the savage peoples of North America would be subordinate to the civilized peoples of Europe.
From the European perspective, immigrant communities in North America represented civilization and human progress. Native communities represented the uncivilized; they were a primitive form of humanity that had failed to advance beyond the state of nature.
The contention that Native peoples were uncivilized and therefore inferior or subordinate to peoples of European descent was thus based, not on empirical evidence, but on an ontology or political imaginary that assumed non-European peoples to be less than fully human while simultaneously presuming that European peoples represented the apex of humanity, civilization. To be of European descent and, more important, to live according to the social, political, and economic mores and traditions of western Europe was to be civilized. This reasoning constituted the ideology that shaped the political formation of the United States. For decades after its creation, the Republic, founded on the idea that all men were created equal, pursued policies predicated on the assumption that Native peoples were uncivilized savages. Their land was terra nullius, empty land, an unsettled wilderness. U.S. government officials, Indian agents, and countless settlers felt compelled to settle this land, to colonize it, to transform Native homelands into American homesteads—in fact, the identity of the United States as a political body depended on it.
Michael John Witgen (Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe) is professor in the Department of History and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University.