Who Does the Land Belong To?

The question “who owns the land?” underlies many conflicts. Students explore issues surrounding land, place, and belonging – especially as they affect Native Americans and African Americans.

To the Teacher:

In this two-part lesson, we’ll ask questions that challenge students to think about the root causes of some of our nation’s longstanding issues, particularly issues around land and land rights, place and belonging.

The question “who owns the land” or “who does the land belong to” underlies so many conflicts, both in the U.S. and globally.

Here in North America, referred to as Turtle Island by some in Native American communities, we’ve had many disputes over land. Communities have been forcibly removed from “their” lands, and people have been murdered because others wanted them gone from the land or gone from cities they inhabited and were thriving in (Tulsa, Oklahoma; Rosewood, Florida; Wilmington, North Carolina).

In this lesson, students will explore issues surrounding land, place and belonging – especially as they affect Native Americans and African Americans in the United States. Students will be presented with introductory information. Once they’ve digested that information, they’ll be tasked, not to come up with answers, but rather to compose questions that will lead them into a deeper study of how America came to be the country it is today. 

NOTE: Like many African Americans (farmers in particular), Japanese American farmers had their land taken from them. Although this history is not covered in this lesson, let students know that the U.S. government passed laws – including the California Alien Land Law of 1913 – that stripped land from Japanese farmers or limited their ability to profit from it. During the Japanese incarceration of the 1940s, many hastily sold their land not knowing how long they’d be gone or what the future held. Estimates are that land lost during the war was worth between $2 and $5 billion dollars (2017 estimates).

Native Americans
By 1912, the approximate date of this photo, the U.S. had seized more than 1.5 billion acres of land from indigenous peoples. Photo by Roland Reed, Library of Congress.



Introduction (3 minutes)

To begin the inquiry, pose two questions to students in the large group.

  1. What was the United States of America called before it came to be called America?
  2. Did it even have a name?

Give students a few minutes to ponder and discuss the answers to the two questions.

Next tell them that we’re going to spend the next two days answering an essential question about the U.S. and in particular about the land Americans live on and call home.

The essential question: “Who Does the Land Belong To?”

The Taking of the Land (2 minutes)

Tell students: Between 1776 and 1887, the United States seized more than 1.5 billion acres of land from America’s indigenous people by treaty and executive order. We’re going to look at some maps that help us visualize what happened.


Next tell students that there are more than 1000 Native American tribal nations and in the small amount of time we have to ponder the essential question, “Who does the land belong to?” we’ll examine a tiny fraction of their story by looking at their interactions with the U.S. government over land ownership rights.

We’ll also examine a few stories of people in the African American community and their interactions with the U.S. government over land ownership rights. Let students know that an understanding of the full history of what took place requires far more than two days of inquiry and reflection.

Understanding Treaties (10 minutes)

Next students will popcorn read an excerpt from an essay titled, “Understanding Treaties” (See below.) 

Before students begin reading, discuss with them the meaning of two words: diplomacy and consensus.

Diplomacy. This involves negotiating or brokering a deal between two parties who are at odds. An example of diplomacy is when a president sits down to talk to the president of another country to try to resolve a tense situation.

Consensus. Consensus is a decision-making process in which the group sits down and comes up with a solution EVERYONE is okay with (rather than simply voting for something and having a majority of the people in the group get their way). In a consensus process, the solution the group thinks is the most positive gets chosen – unless a member of the group finds that choice unacceptable. Consensus involves compromise and the ability to find common ground. Consensus decision-making gives everyone the power to have their voice heard. 

Understanding Treaties

The following is excerpted, with permission, from materials in Central Michigan University’s Clark Historical Library.


In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the People of the Three Fires, the Chippewa, Odawa, and Potawatomi, collectively known as the Anishinaabeg, negotiated a series of treaties with representatives of the United States government. These treaties continue to have force today. They affect the rights and privileges of both Indians and Euro-Americans.

Cultural Experiences and Concepts

One of the most fundamental differences separating Indians and Euro-Americans was in how they thought about land ownership. For the Anishinaabeg land was something "owned" by no one particular person. Like the air breathed by Indians or the water in which a canoe floated, the land was simply there to be used. Basil Johnston, a contemporary teller of traditional Ojibway stories, in his book, Ojibway Ceremonies, tells this story called "The Council" wherein a speech was made by Chief Mishi-Waub-Kaikaik. The Council had been called to discuss whether or not to sign treaties with the Whites. Mishi-Waub-Kaikaik told his fellow chiefs:

To control and possess the land as the White Man wishes does not make sense. Can man possess a gust of the North Wind or a measure of flowing water? Can he control a mass of clouds or a herd of moose?

No. Do not mistake the truth. It is not man who owns the land; it is the land that owns man. And we, the Anishnabeg, were placed on this land. From beginning to end it nourishes us; it quenches our thirst, it shelters us, and we follow the order of its seasons. It give us freedom to come and go according to its nature and its extent--great freedom when the extent is large, less freedom when it is small. And when we die we are buried within the land that outlives us all. We belong to the land by birth, by need, and by affection. And no man may presume to own the land. Only the tribe can do that."

[Basil Johnston, Ojibway Ceremonies, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982); 1990 edition, p.169-170]

The story goes on to say that most of the chiefs gathered at the Council ultimately ignored Mishi-Waub-Kaik's plea and chose to sign treaties. The decision had profound and disastrous results for the Anishinaabeg who ultimately lost their land to white settlers and consequently much of their way of life.

…It is very clear that Indians and Euro-Americans had very different ideas about using the land. The two communities also brought to the negotiating table different ideas about diplomacy. Anishinaabeg diplomacy focused on a careful understanding of the past and a full airing of all the issues so they could develop a consensus. The hope was that by fully understanding the past and carefully deliberating the matter at hand with each person's views well explained, the final decision would take into consideration everyone's needs and thus would be welcomed by all. The process tended to be slow, and it allowed for virtually everyone to speak in order to build as broad a consensus as possible.

American representatives tended toward a more time-driven approach toward negotiations. The Americans came to the table hoping to sign a treaty in a specified and usually fairly short period of time. Their bargainers were empowered to "cut a deal" and had little or no need to consult before coming to an agreement. American negotiators were to bring a signed treaty back to Washington, not a series of questions for further discussion. So not only was there a difference over the concept of land ownership, but also on how an agreement should be reached.

Context of Negotiations

In general, the negotiations held between Indians and the United States government were not conducted on a level playing field. The most obvious difference was that negotiations frequently followed a military defeat of the Indians or took place within a framework in which the Indians understood that, if necessary, the United States government would resort to military force. For example, The Battle of Fallen Timbers, which occurred in northern Ohio in 1794 represented a major military setback for the Indian tribes of the Great Lakes. It preceded and set the tone for the Treaty of Fort Greenville in 1795.

Despite the fact that superior military force usually rested with the United States government, the federal government was often reluctant to resort to war. Wars were bloody, unpredictable, expensive, delayed settlement, and were often politically unpopular in the East. Far better, from the government's view, was a negotiated settlement that offered the Indians modest concessions and considerations, such as small amounts of land set aside for continued Indian use, cash annuities, or goods and services such as agricultural equipment or the services of a blacksmith, doctor, or teacher, in return for both peace and the land.

When negotiations began, the Indian representatives often realized that they would likely have to agree to keep the peace and give up land or face an unwinnable war. Knowing from experience, however that the "great white father" in Washington would declare war only as a last resort, the Indians sought to get the greatest possible concessions from the government for agreeing to not go to war. The charge to government negotiators was to obtain both peace and the land without resorting to force and granting such concessions as was necessary to obtain these ends.

To obtain their goals both sides resorted to familiar strategies. For example, the Anishnaabeg sometimes used their traditional consultative decision-making process as a bargaining tool. They could not agree to what the government's representatives wished, they would say, until they returned home and discussed the matter. To the time driven Americans this was an unacceptable answer that was frequently met with additional concessions if the treaty were signed now. The United States' negotiators used a different set of strategies. They would emphasize the hard times that had fallen upon the Indians and offer immediate aid. Sometimes they played upon greed, or desperation, offering choice land or special cash annuities to signers or their immediate families. The future faced by Anishnaabeg children was often brought up, with promises that a signed treaty would greatly increase their prospects. Government negotiators were also engaged in "saber rattling," threatening either directly or obliquely to use military force if a treaty were not signed.


The legal interpretations shared in this section come largely from David H. Getches and Charles F. Wilkinson, Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law (second edition) (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1986). Also used was Robert Doherty, Disputed Waters: Native Americans & the Great Lakes Fishery (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990) and an unpublished paper written by Dr. Benjamin Ramirez-shkwegnaabi on the topic of treaty making delivered at the Great Lakes History Conference, Grand Rapids, October 2, 1998.

Video: Broken Treaties (29 minutes)

Next, show an excerpt of a documentary titled “Broken Treaties” created by Oregon Public Broadcasting, in partnership with the Oregon Historical Society.

Stop the video at the 29:22 mark.


Preparation for Day Two (Homework)

To prepare for day two of this inquiry, students will compose three well-thought-out questions—questions that came up during the film and/or questions they have afterward.

Have students write each question on a separate index card or a separate sheet of paper and bring their questions to class on day two.




Consensus Questions (8 minutes)

Have students break into small groups and review each other’s questions. They’ll pass their questions either clockwise or counterclockwise until each group member has read all three questions from all group members.

Next, have each group attempt to come to consensus as to which question they’d like to do additional research on. In order to practice consensus-building, each student must contribute to the discussion and offer justification as to why they think a specific question will best bring everyone to a greater understanding of the topic at hand.

Video: How Property Law Is Used to Appropriate Black Land (22 minutes)

Next students will watch a short documentary from Vice News on the loss of land suffered by African Americans throughout the southern United States.


Small Group Discussion (10 minutes)

Afterward, ask students to break into their same small groups and discuss their reactions to the documentary.

As a group, students will come up with three questions they have that they’d like to explore further as a result of what they’ve just learned from watching the documentary. 


Audio segment on Georgia Resolution (5 minutes)

Teachers will close out the day by having students listen to a five-minute NPR news segment about a Georgia community that recently celebrated when their mayor and town commission passed a resolution calling the forced removal of African Americans from their community an act of terrorism rooted in white supremacy. 



To assess students’ understanding of the material they’ve taken in, assign them to write a one- to two-page reflection paper where they’ll:

  1. Answer the question: “Who does the land belong to?”
  2. Compare and contrast the stories of land dispossession in Native American and African American communities.


Additional Resources for Teachers


“The Indian Problem”: A 12-minute video from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Essay: George Washington’s ‘Tortuous’ Relationship with Native Americans

The ACC Commission Passes the Linnentown Resolution, Calls for Reparations

Black People’s Land Was Stolen (Opinion, New York Times)

‘You Can Feel the Tension’: A Windfall for Minority Farmers Divides Rural America (New York Times)