Dan-El Padilla Peralta | Property is Theft! The Settler-Colonialist Script

By Dan-El Padilla-Peralta

For our convening, I offer for consideration a figure who occupies a marginal and possibly spectral position in the writings of Marx and Du Bois – the Native American – because of a process that, though targeted for critique by both authors, becomes inescapably bound up with their respective commitments to theory and praxis: settler-colonialism. In the case of Marx, John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Hannah Holleman have recently set out the coordinates for a fuller rapprochement between historical materialism and “contemporary indigenous struggles and perspectives”[1] – persuasively enough, it seems to me, though I still find it hard to shake out of my head the primitivization of the American Indian in works such as Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Marx’s fascination with the scholarship of Lewis Morgan, whose Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery Through Barbarism to Civilization (1877) envisioned human society’s first steps in a stateless world where relations were organized around gentilician structures and communal property, is keyed to a 19th-century ethnographic and historical discourse that lined up Native American communities alongside the archaic, clan-centered communities of the ancient Mediterranean – such as the early Rome of Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. What these cultural formations were believed to have held in common was the absence of private property, and in this respect the figure of the American Indian becomes a method for the archaeological extraction of a past before property.

For different although not entirely dissimilar reasons, the figure of the American Indian shadows the peripheries of W.E.B. Du Bois’ work. Even if, in connection with the University of London’s Universal Races Congress of 1911, we can locate Du Bois in the same milieu as the Santee Dakota physician and author of The Soul of the Indian Charles A. Eastman – a proximity that encouraged Kyle Mays to frame the congress as a staging ground for “transnational Blackness and transnational Indigeneity”[2] – Du Bois’ own investments in building up a durable coalitionary association of Blackness and Indigeneity were not extensive. Early on in his writings, he incidentally notes their place in slavery’s formative stages in the Americas, with references to the regulation of the importation of “Negroes and Indians” in Suppression of the Slave Trade. And in his 1890 baccalaureate address at Harvard, Du Bois names as one of Jefferson Davis’ perverse attributes as “Teutonic hero” the “murdering [of] Indians” – in a crescendo that culminates with “the crowning absurdity” of Davis’ career, “the peculiar champion of a people fighting to be free in order that another people should not be free”. More transparently indicative of the Native American’s standing in Du Bois’ in mind is the parenthetical remark in “The Negro in Literature and Art” (1913): “The only real American music is that of the Negro American, except the meagre contribution of the Indian” (emphasis mine).

Courting the risk of oversimplification, let me submit that the marginality of the Native American in Du Bois has one specific affinity with the Native American’s marginality in Marx: the presumption that the Native American exists outside of the private property relation. This is not to say that the two thinkers are ignorant of the violence of colonial expropriation by which property is taken from Indigenous communities. But it is to say that for them the Native American is posited to exist outside the temporality that is constituted by the emergence and entrenchment of private property as the dominant structure of North Atlantic hegemony. For the Du Bois who wrote in “The Conservation of Races” (1897) that “The English nation stood for constitutional liberty and commercial freedom”, “nomadic tribes” precede the processes of urbanization and political formation that in giving rise to nations also usher in “the present division of races as indicated by physical researches.” In other words, nomadic tribes existed before the racial logics that define the modern historical juncture – one of whose characteristic features is the commercial freedom underpinned by private property.

As with any of Du Bois’ conceptual tools, this assumption has a transatlantic genealogy. We might cite, as a charter document for the notion that the Native American exists in a vexed relationship to the property function, Henry Knox’s letter to George Washington on 7 July 1789: “… it has been conceived to be impracticable to civilize the Indians of North America–This opinion is probably more convenient than Just. That the civilization of the Indians would be an operation of complicated difficulty. That it would require the highest knowledge of the human character … cannot be doubted. […] While it is contended that the object is practicable under a proper system, it is admitted in the fullest force to be impracticable according to the ordinary course of things, and that it could not be effected in a short period. Were it possible to introduce among the Indian tribes a love for exclusive property it would be a happy commencement of the business.”[3] But we would do well to reach back a century before Knox’s letter, to a text whose influence on the early American Republic and its conceptions of Indigeneity is richly documented: John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689). Chapter 5 (“Of Property”) unrolls a scheme for articulating property that depends, vitally if at times incoherently, on property’s interaction to cultivation and improvement – both of which call for labor that the Native American is presumed not to expend.[4]

§26. God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life and convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And though all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature, and nobody has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state; yet, being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. The fruit or venison which nourishes the wild Indian, who knows no enclosure, and is still a tenant in common, must be his, and so his (i.e. a part of him) that another can no longer have any right to it, before it can do him any good for the support of his life.

§27. Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough and as god left in common for others.

§28. He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated to himself. Nobody can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, When did they begin to be his? […] And ’tis plain if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common. That added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right. […]

§34. God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw to from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational (and labour was to be his title to it); not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious. […]

§41. There cannot be a clearer demonstration of anything than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people with the materials of plenty, i.e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance what might serve for food, raiment, and delight, yet, for want of improving it by labour, have not one-hundredth part of the conveniences we enjoy; and a king of a large and fruitful territory there feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England.

The place of property in Locke’s political theory, and the degree to which his theory of property’s origins and obligations shuttles between a vindication of private property and a more encompassing account of individual rights, is a well-trod subject.[5] My interest for today’s discussion is narrower: to identify a genealogy of property that reads its transformation into one of the cornerstones of Anglo-American hegemonic and counter-hegemonic projects of liberation as a direct reflex of settler-colonialism. Locke’s definition of property obviously fits settler-colonialism hand in glove. Any account of the abolition of property should, therefore, look to property’s collusions with settler-colonialism – and to the repatriative work that awareness of those collusions bids us undertake. It cannot be denied that, as Laurelyn Whitt has noted, “[t]he cultural bias embedded in this account of ‘improvement’ discounted the labor and skills of indigenous North America in pursuing an ecologically sustainable way of life”, or that “it also, conveniently, declared most of the continent a wasteland or wilderness, a vacuum domicilium awaiting occupation.”[6]

In their now-classic 2012 article on decolonization, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang explain why proponents of abolition – and specifically the abolition of the carceral state – should be attentive to the history of settler-colonialism’s theorization of the Native as not deserving of their land:

The abolition of slavery often presumes the expansion of settlers who own Native land and life via inclusion of emancipated slaves and prisoners into the settler nation-state. As we have noted, it is no accident that the US government promised 40 acres of Indian land as reparations for plantation slavery. Likewise, indentured European laborers were often awarded tracts of ‘unsettled’ Indigenous land as payment at the end of their service (McCoy, forthcoming). Communal ownership of land has figured centrally in various movements for autonomous, self-determined communities. “The land belongs to those who work it,” disturbingly parrots Lockean justifications for seizing Native land as property, ‘earned’ through one’s labor in clearing and cultivating ‘virgin’ land. For writers on the prison industrial complex, il/legality, and other forms of slavery, we urge you to consider how enslavement is a twofold procedure: removal from land and the creation of property (land and bodies). Thus, abolition is likewise twofold, requiring the repatriation of land and the abolition of property (land and bodies). Abolition means self-possession but not object-posession, repatriation but not reparation…[7]

First Sylvia Wynter and more recently Julietta Singh have located in the overrepresentation of Man as the subject of early modern and modern political thought an irreppressible drive to mastery over things. In Singh’s reading of Locke, “[Man] is not thinkable without this practice of mastery that inaugurates him as ‘proprietor’ of himself, who as Man becomes master of himself as property. This would mean that before ‘Man’ can mark himself out and become master/proprietor of himself, there has to be something (‘himself’) more primary, more diffuse, that enables the mastering but cannot be reduced to it. For Locke, then, Man as the masterful modern subject is a privatization and appropriation of something else, something that precedes and perhaps always escapes or exceeds mastery – something within and around Man that, in fact, Man has to ‘master’ in order to become himself, which is to say, in order to become free.”[8] (Singh 2018: 13). But to deliver on the promise of what Dylan Rodríguez has termed insurgent abolitionist futurity – “a collective, vulnerable, experimental, and speculative imagination/performance/practice of liberation from carceral-Civilizational violence”[9] – would therefore require undoing the property-Man nexus. And such an undoing requires, at a minimum, the unthinking and decoupling of the figure of the Native American from the bloody warrant to privatize property.


[1] “Marx and the Indigenous”: https://monthlyreview.org/2020/02/01/marx-and-the-indigenous/.

[2] See K.T. Mays, “Transnational progressivism: African Americans, Native Americans, and the Universal Races Congress of 1911,” American Indian Quarterly 37.3: 243-61.

[3] Emphasis mine. For the full text of the letter see https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-03-02-006.

[4] All quotations taken from the Hackett edition (Political Writings ed. Wootton 2003).

[5] See J. Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his Adversaries (Cambridge 1980).

[6] Science, Colonialism, and Indigenous Peoples: The Cultural Politics of Law and Knowledge (Cambridge 2009), 26.

[7] “Decolonization is Not A Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1.1 (2012): 1-40, at pp. 29-30.

[8] Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Durham 2018), 13.

[9] “Abolition as Praxis of Human Being: A Foreword,” HLR 132 (2019): 1575-1612, at 1607.