"David A. Chang teaches history at the University of Minnesota and is the author of The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929, out now from the University of North Carolina Press.
PA: As your title suggests, the question of land is really at the center of the narrative you are telling, which seems to naturally raise the question of how property is defined and distributed and so on. The Creek Indian nation defined land in a very different manner than we are used to in the 20th and 21st century. Could you explain?
DAVID CHANG: You’re right, land is absolutely at the center of the book, and I think that has to be an important theme in U.S. history. We forget how rural a nation this country was for a long time, and of course land is a central part of the history of wealth. It is not only a form of wealth; it is also much more than that. It is also the place where we live, the place that we identify as our homeland.
But if we start to think about land as property, a good place to start is actually to think about what we mean by our contemporary sense of property. Lawyers and legal scholars talk about our current U.S. American property system as being mostly a fee-simple property system. That is, to own a piece of land is to own a title to it, and that title brings us a whole bundle of rights, the right to own, the right to build, the right to extract, the right to resell. So that’s the system we work with today.
The Creek system was not a system in which property was unknown. Property was known but it was a very different type. The fundamental thing is that first of all property was understood in terms of community property. A town owned its town lands, and when those towns ended up allying and creating a confederation called the Creek Nation, the Creek Nation owned the national domain together. So there is a sense of property there.
Beyond that, there is also a sense of individual property in terms of being generated out of a property of rights over use. Sometimes these are called usufruct rights. I prefer the simpler term “use rights.” That means that these lands belong to our town, let’s say to Tuskegee town – these are Tuskegee town lands. But some of those lands are not currently being exploited by anyone on an ongoing basis, so if a member of the town chooses to go and clear a field, plant that field, build a home there, that field and that home are the person’s property, but the land underneath them is not. So this was the way property and land ownership was expressed, not only among Creek Indian people, but also by many other people."
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U.S. Colonial Policies and Native Americans, Int. with David Chang
(Political Affairs 8/12)