Between the late 1700s and the late 1800s, the buffalo population on the Great Plains of the United States dropped from 30-70 million to less than 100. Stunning as this fact is, it raises a question that provides some useful insight into the significant differences between the European and Tribal cultures: Who actually owned the buffalo?
To approach the question, we first need to look at how the land on which buffalo roamed was “owned” under Tribal and European theories of land ownership.
To the Tribes, land was not owned by individuals, but by the Earth itself, with title and rights governed by tradition and treaties. The Tribes had well established systems for resolving disputes regarding reasonable use of land and territory, but perhaps most important, the Tribes did not have a fixed sense of boundaries. Tribal members were all welcome to use and harvest from the commons. This worked well with relatively small populations in a situation where resources were plentiful.
To Europeans, land ownership started with the King. In the 15th Century, when Columbus was roaming the seas as a representative of the Spanish King, an explorer could claim land for his King by the European Doctrine of Discovery.
This Doctrine flowed from Papal Bulls of the era stating that explorers could claim land for their Christian King if those lands were not inhabited by Christians. If the “discovered” lands were inhabited by pagan natives, those natives could be converted to Christianity and spared, but if they refused to convert, they could, by law, be enslaved or simply killed.
The territory of the United States was owned by several European Kings. For the U.S. to become a nation, those several territories had to be acquired by war or purchase, and they were, and the U.S. established a land ownership system modeled after the King-based granting of allodial (“meaning: free from feudal control) title to baronial estates. The U.S. government granting of land patents was in fact similar to the King’s granting baronial estates.
A patent granted by the U.S. government to a piece of land granted absolute individual ownership, and purged all claims by others. There was nothing like this in Tribal cultures, which put the emphasis on the commons.
This difference derived in large part from the Christian-based European system in which humans are believed to have been tossed out of the Garden of Eden and must toil to improve their lot in life, which is better served by individual ownership of resources. Tribes, on the other hand, saw themselves as, essentially, in the Garden of Eden, in a world that was made exactly right for them, so they looked at resources as common elements needing no improvement.
As to who owned the buffalo, the European, King-based land ownership system in the U.S. gave ownership of all the wild game to the underlying private land owner, just as when the King gave out baronial estates, the wild game belonged to the grantee of the estate.
Because massive, wild, roaming buffalo herds were incompatible with an orderly and surveyed development of the High Plains — with a rail system, graded roads, homesteads and towns, reservoirs and irrigation ditches — the European system of land ownership allowed the slaughter of the buffalo as wild game that belonged to the underlying landowner, be that landowner the U.S. government, or a homesteader. It became unanimous: the buffalo had to go. ❖
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