At some point during the Great Sioux War in 1876-77, a bunch of Sioux chieftains, including Crazy Horse, sat down with representatives of the U.S. Army to discuss a treaty that would cede the Black Hills to the United States in return for lands surrounding the Hills to be controlled by the Sioux.
The meeting broke up without any agreement, and when Crazy Horse returned to his camp, some of his braves told him that they had heard he was willing to make a deal with the Army which wasn’t particularly good news.
Crazy Horse denied any such thoughts or behavior and went on to command his warrior band until he was captured on September 4, 1877, stuck into a cell, and killed while attempting to escape the next day.
Years later, when Sitting Bull was interviewed by a reporter while he was appearing in Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, he was asked whether Crazy Horse had really been opposed to making a deal over the Black Hills and here was his response: “Of course Crazy Horse was willing to give up the Black Hills! He’d do anything for a free meal!”
This is an entirely appropriate story to be told and considered on Indigenous Peoples Day. Because while the whole point of this holiday is to remember the non-white populations in North America and elsewhere whose land was taken away from them by three successive invasions carried out by European whites, let’s not forget that in return for losing access to millions upon millions of acres of land, every once in a while some of those indigenous populations may have received a free meal.
Is that such a bad trade, particularly when you consider what the white Europeans brought with them when they showed up over here?
The standard treatments for what the various Indian tribes gained from their loss of land mention metal implements, wheeled vehicles, and guns. What isn’t usually discussed is an invention brought over here by British settlers which is known as private property and had first been developed in England to settle disputes over land which shifted from Saxon to Norman control after William the Conqueror showed up in 1066.
It took several centuries to develop the legal doctrines covering property ownership, but by the 14th Century, British Common Law recognized a doctrine known as ‘writ of possession,’ which meant that a landowner had to produce an actual document which had been given to him or his forebears when the property in question moved into the family’s hands.
Prior to this legal standard, it was assumed that owning land and occupying land was one and the same thing. And this assumption not only existed throughout medieval Europe but was how access to land was defined by indigenous peoples both in North America and elsewhere.
In fact, there were a number of instances in which Indian tribes came into colonial courts and protested the settlement of new settlers on what was considered to be tribal land and had been occupied by a tribe for as far back as anyone knew.
In every single case when indigenous peoples tried to assert primacy of landed access based on traditions and memories, the courts told the plaintiffs to go home and come back with documentary evidence of some kind. Which was all well and good except indigenous populations in North America had never seen the necessity to create the written word.
Imagine what the situation would be like today if private property did not exist or existed only for a privileged few. Believe it or not, this was the situation which existed in the West Bank when it was home for a long-standing indigenous population which did not include Jews. Perhaps as many as half the current 750,000 residents of Gaza are refugees who either left the West Bank on their own accord or were displaced by Jewish settlements constructed by the Jewish state.
Which is the reason I think about Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull today because what is playing out right now between Hamas and Israel is really a replay of what happened in the Western territories during and after Crazy Horse ate his free meal.