The spiritual and family connections among people and land in Dakota and Ojibwe traditions stand in stark contrast to the role of private property in the U.S. economic and political system. The expansion of the U.S. was, at its most basic level, the spread of the idea that land – the basis of indigenous spirituality – could be seen primarily as a commodity to own, buy, and sell.

Spiritual Connection to Land

Traditional Land Use

Land and Language

19th Century U.S. politicians saw private property as the basis of civilization; any society not based on private property was seen as “uncivilized.” This belief led to dire consequences for Ojibwe and Dakota communities, which for centuries had maintained sophisticated cultures based on their own relationships to land.

In land cession treaties, American Indians were removed from the lands in which their familial, economic, political and spiritual, connections to the world originated. But in spite of the force of U.S. expansion, Dakota, Ojibwe, and other American Indian groups were often able to retain a (greatly reduced) land base. When American Indians kept their land, the U.S. attempted to destroy their traditional relationship to the land.

One of the most direct assaults on this relationship was allotment, which assigned land to individual tribal members. This method was increasingly used in treaties as U.S.-Indian relations evolved. (In 1851 treaties, for instance, Dakota reservations were “to be held by them as Indian lands are held.” By the 1858 treaties, Dakota land was “allotted in severalty to each head of a family.

Allotment was intended to make traditional American Indian land use impossible, to be replaced by farming. In most of the land cession treaties, at least part of the compensation for selling land was provided in assistance for farming: “breaking the soil” at U.S. expense, seeds and implements, farming consultants. An important side affect of this development was that individuals could be defrauded of their land more easily than entire communities could be.

Because the traditional Ojibwe and Dakota relationship with the land was essentially a spiritual one, the U.S. also expended time and money on replacing traditional spiritual practices with Christianity. In the treaties, missionaries were given the option to buy reservation land cheaply, and by the late 1860s a “board of visitors” of Christian missionaries was empowered to determine which Ojibwe individuals would receive annuity payments, based on their “moral deportment.”