Steven Newcomb: Tricking Indians out of land
"In an article published in “The Journal of Libertarian Studies” in 1983, Carl Watner examined the subject of American Indian land rights. He began with a quote from Rosalie Nichols, a fan of Ayn Rand. When asked “if the Indians had ever had a title deed to North America,” Nichols replied: “Who should have issued them one, I don’t know, unless it was the buffalo.”

Nichols’ response used ridicule as an effective and skillful technique for dehumanizing American Indians. This was accomplished by creating a red herring, or false issue: the impossibility of the buffalo having ever given a paper title deed to the Indians.

The comment also was no doubt intended to evoke the issue of literacy and the observation that most American Indian nations did not use a written language system prior to the Europeans arriving. The underlying assumption is that “intelligent” people (i.e., Europeans) use a written language, and since American Indian cultures in North America did not use a written language they were not “intelligent.”

By focusing the reader’s attention on the image of a title deed, a very specific kind of written document unknown to American Indian cultures, Watner skillfully avoided a much more general question: Did the Indians have an original right to the lands of North America? By not posing this question, Watner left a void where the question would have been.

If Watner had asked in a straightforward manner whether the American Indians had a right to the lands in North America where they had been living for thousands of years, the common sense answer would be an unequivocal “yes.”

But once that question had been answered, the answer would create a firm presumption that would need to be explained away before European land claims to the continent could make any sense."

Get the Story:
Steven Newcomb: Buffalo deeds and semantic trickery (Indian Country Today 8/24)

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