Marshall Massey on LANDBACK

As far as archæology can tell, no one actually lived on any of the land within fifty miles of where I, personally, live, until the 1870s, when whites came to use it for transshipment. It was too dry and barren and empty to support people who just lived *here*. There’s a part of the Bighorn River Canyon about 90 miles southeast of me, where very small numbers of people like the Anasazi lived in Anasazi-style cliff dwellings, at about the time of the Anasazi, perhaps 800 or 1200 years ago. They fished the streams, hunted the nearby hills, and probably cultivated small patches of ground. But that was long before horses arrived, and they had no real reason to come the long distance (it would have been a week or more on foot) from where they dwelt to where I live, except perhaps in curiosity about what the land looked like.

By the time the natives of my area had horses, my area, along with most of the broad stretch of land from the Bighorn to the Rocky Mountain Front — 400 miles and more miles across — was an area that the nearest tribes (Crow and Blackfeet) hunted buffalo and other prey on horseback in, but did not settle in, and did not regard as a possession. They rode across it, from their own edge to the other tribe’s edge, to raid the other tribe’s dwellings on the far side, to steal horses and count coup and work revenge. They spoke of this to the European-Americans: “This all belongs to the Great Spirit,” they said, “and the Great Spirit meant us to have the use of it, but not to own it.” If you want an exact quotation, here is Crowfoot, a chief among the Blackfeet, speaking some time around 1885: “We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us.”

We have a similar testimony in the Bible — would you believe it? Funny coincidence. “The earth is YHWH’s,” it says, “and the fullness thereof.” (YHWH is a Hebrew word which some modern scholars believe began as a representation of the great wind that fills all the sky, or the great breath that animates all beings: the great spirit.) You may know this passage: it appears in Deuteronomy 10:14 and Psalm 24:1, and is repeated in I Corinthians 10:26. Not that the Bible matters much to liberal activists any more, though; most of them would much, much rather get the same teaching from some other source, anywhere else but their own tradition. Nonetheless, this teaching in the biblical tradition is why the believers in the early Church held all things in common and committed all their resources to look after one another. How can anyone really own what God has put in place for all, especially in cases where someone else has an unmet need? Deuteronomy and Psalms represent wisdom teachings that date back three thousand years, and were I a betting man, I would bet the wisdom of non-possession goes back to the dawn of thought about such things — millions of years back, to when our ancestors and the ancestors of chimpanzees were one people.

I have begun to think that many modern Americans — including, unfortunately, many modern, Westernized native Americans, and at least equally unfortunately, also many modern Quakers — will never, never let themselves comprehend the idea of non-ownership. Their souls are too far shriveled. Surely the land must have been someone’s property, whenever there was anyone even remotely able to make a claim. But this was the testimony of the natives of that time, and of Friends as well. And I believe it is the truth. You might as well claim that somebody owns the sun.

–Marshall Massey

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