What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth. For the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish, and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs to him only?
Massasoit Ousamequin, Wampanoag Nation
In 1689, John Locke sat down to pencil his Two Treatises of Government, one of the foundational documents of the civilization we inhabit. In it, Locke worked out a modern conception of property rights: How could property be legitimately appropriated? And what rights does property confer on its owners? As an investor in the Royal African Company and the Company of Bahamas Adventurers, a member of the British Board of Trade, a secretary of the Council for Trade and Foreign Plantations, and the secretary of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, it was perhaps not surprising that he looked to the Americas and the interaction between European settlers and Native-Americans to develop his theories. His conclusions were clear-cut: Because Native Americans’ land “lay waste,” it could be rightfully taken, and because native peoples had violently resisted European settlement, had, in effect, become a “savage ravenous beast,” they had forgone their natural rights and could be legitimately conquered and enslaved.
The buildings and fences and walls we see everywhere are the physical manifestation of these beliefs, and they are foundational to almost all aspects of the world we occupy. The red tents you see fading into the forest here evoke a memory of a different mode of thinking about appropriation and property, more fluid, overlapping, and deeply rooted in ideas of the balance of well-being between individuals and the larger community, both human and natural. Native Americans, like all peoples, knew of private property, and they had a clear sense of the borders of the territory they inhabited, but they thought of it very differently than Locke. They used the land, putting labor into maintaining and improving it—clearing the underbrush, planting crops, maintaining paths and so on. And they did have a concept of land ownership, as different groups fought with one another over access to land. But these rights were use rights, for example the right to walk a certain trail, the right to hunt or fish or grow crops, not absolute property rights of the kind we know today. These rights were fluid and could overlap—for example one nation might claim they had the exclusive right to trap beaver in a given area, but allow another nation to fish. The idea, so common to us, that individuals can own and fence off a piece of land for their own exclusive use would have been entirely alien to Native Americans. Their interaction with one another, and with nature—the land, its plants and its animals—was very different.
Locke’s idea that property rights included the complete exploitation of a piece of land by an individual would have been entirely alien to the people who inhabited the North American continent. And even though the story we are told about Native-American conceptions of property rights is usually one of modernity overcoming an archaic mode of being, we might consider, for a moment, if there is not actually something that makes these conceptions more contemporary, more future-oriented, more likely to ensure our survival as a society—perhaps even as a species.
David Howe’s work inserts that worldview back into the landscape, contrasting it, symbolically, to Locke’s conceptions. The symbols of Locke’s conception of property rights—unmovable abodes, walls and fences—claim permanence, squatting not only on the built environment but on our historical memory. The tents are a forceful claim to a different memory, one that has been rendered almost invisible but has lost nothing of its relevance. They serve as a powerful reminder of a hidden presence.
In pointing to a past too often forgotten, its artifacts often destroyed—first in bloody encounters and then in history books—David Howe resurrects a possible future rooted in the deep history of the continent we inhabit. He suggests that when we remember the traditions of the land we live on, we should remember not just John Locke, but also Massasoit Ousamequin.
Laird Bell Professor of History
1 As cited in Jered T. Davidson, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is my Land? Why the “Cobell” Settlement will not Resolve Indian Land Fractionation,” American Indian Law Review 35, No. 2 (2010-2011), p. 575.
2 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 389.
A response to David Howe, Tent Field: Contested Territory
A few days ago I went to the 42 Social Club for the second time to see David Howe"s installation of tents, 126 of them, red, miniature in varying sizes, and doorless. You see them scattered around the woods of Jac Lahav and Nora Leech's strawbale house, some time in rows, some time in semi-circles, some time alone. I have always loved tents as places refuge but also for their usefulness from the Bible on down, and in my mind they evoked multiple paradoxes : paradoxes of tents as light and fragile yet strong, tents used for war and peace, tents as functional yet beautiful, tents for camping and tents for parties, and surely many more. But the paradox of tents also brought to my mind a favorite poem of mine, "The Silken Tent" by Robert Frost. In the poem Frost paradoxically compares a tent to a beautiful woman! It works! I am very grateful for the opportunity to see the amazing installation in an idyllic setting and brood on, of all things, little red tents amongst the trees.
Professor of English and American Studies Emeritus, Connecticut College
(First published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1939)
THE SILKEN TENT
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.