Monday, December 28, 2009

Pocohontas Retold

Spoiler alert: I discuss the movie Avatar below.

When I read the Pocohontas story to my kids (we have the Disney version), we usually have a little discussion when we get to the page where Pocohontas attempts to dissuade her father (the local Indian chief) from starting a war with the settlers. The kids are interested in the idea that both people are trying to do the right thing, but they have completely different ideas about what the right thing is.

For those of you not familiar with the story, Pocohontas has fallen in love with a mercenary on the voyage (John Smith), and the two of them want to establish peace between the settlers and the natives. The book suggests that peace involves the settlers staying in North America. Powhatan, her father, is assembling a war party to drive the settlers away.

We can look back in history to better understand who was "right".
  • As the book makes clear, a war between the settlers and the Indians is going to lead to many Indian casualties, since the settlers have guns and the Indians do not. Furthermore, most of the settlers are not intending to do harm to the Indians, as they've been told they are settling land that has no ownership yet. Pocohontas' efforts end up saving many well-intentioned people's lives.
  • These same settlers would probably understand that, had they landed anywhere in England and built a village where they landed, they would be summarily evicted by whomever owned the land they were on. The racism here is lightly touched on in the book, but it's helpful because it's pretty easy for the kids to see how convenient it is for the settlers to suppose that nobody in North America owns anything yet.
  • I usually tell the kids what little I know of the Mauri, the indigenous people of New Zealand. As I understand it, they immediately made war with white folks who arrived. I suspect that the Mauri were territorial in a way that worked better with the White conception of property, and because of that Mauri today have a significant representation in the New Zealand constitution and legislature, and own very large amounts of New Zealand's real estate. I expect many Native Americans would prefer the Mauri outcome to their own.
I recently went to see Avatar. It's basically the Pocohontas story, but the ending has changed and the natives switch from the Pocohontas to the Mauri approach. The change comes from two differences:
  1. The Na'vi are territorial. They have a few specific high-value trees. My understanding is that most of the North American natives had a much less specific sense of property.
  2. The movie has the natives resisting under human leadership, which is interesting to think about. It seems a bit condescending (especially the bit where the human, after 3 months of training, is outperforming the best of the natives), but historically North American natives really did not grasp the nature of the European threat fast enough to organize a massive resistance in time, and it seems at least possible that a charismatic European might have communicated the continent-level consequences of the European idea of property to enough of them to organize a resistance.
Although the movie doesn't make it clear enough, guns are a big advantage, but a multi-year supply line is an even bigger disadvantage. Although some of the dialog is a bit trite, I think the story is probably going to be a useful place to start interesting discussions. Hopefully they'll have some story books out at some point, because the PG-13 movie is far too violent for my kids to watch.

I once asked a friend who is a lawyer if all property rights, at least in North America, trace back to peace treaties of some kind, or if some (particular the French claim to the center of the continent that was then sold as the Louisiana Purchase) are based on bald assertions of authority without even a war. I never did get a decent answer.

If, in reading this post, anyone is wondering if I'm willing to cede my house to a Native American, the answer is no.


  1. Hi Iain, happy new year. I think, in a nutshell, most property rights in NA are based on who got there first, unless they were later dislodged militarily. The French actually had people up in the Missouri territory before anyone else. Canada too, but they did lose that in a war; I forget what the legal basis was for that, if any. An instructive example is water rights in the West: the literal basis is "first in time, first in right." Another example is Oklahoma, where the Feds just gave away the land to whoever could set foot on it first.

    Property rights are actually pretty interesting (hereby branding myself a true nerd). In grad school I wrote a paper on the different conceptions of land rights in civil and common law, and how these affected the impact of the French and the British in different parts of Africa, where land is (or was) governed by customary law, under which generally the land "belonged" to the community, and different groups had different rights. Farmers usufruct, nomads rights of passage and water, etc. The British eventually sort of figured this out since they had similar categories (eg mortgage, remainder, leasehold), the French had a harder time.

    PS: native Hawaiians have pretty decent set asides too, and as far as I know they didn't have to fight a war to get them.

  2. There were indigenous people almost entirely across North America before the Europeans arrived, in particular in the Missouri territory. So it sounds like the property rights were established by the French by claim, then transferred to the US, then transferred to settlers, and at about the same time the US Army pushed the indigenous out of the way to support those property rights. Maybe not a war but definitely a military operation.