About Iroquois Land Ownership
Among the Iroquois the tribal domain was held and owned by the tribe in common. Individual ownership, with the right to sell and convey in fee-simple to any other person, was entirely unknown among them. It required the experience and development of the two succeeding ethnical periods to bring mankind to such a knowledge of property in land as its individual ownership with the power of alienation in fee-simple implies. No person in Indian life could obtain the absolute title to land, since it was vested by custom in the tribe as one body; and they had no conception of what is implied by a legal title in severalty with power to sell and convey the fee. But he could reduce unoccupied land to possession by cultivation, and so long as he thus used it he had a possessory right to its enjoyment which would be recognized and respected by his tribe. Gardens planting-lots, apartments in a long-house, and, at a later day, orchards of fruit were thus held by persons and by families. Such possessory right was all that was needed for their full enjoyment and for the protection of their interest in them. A person might transfer or donate his rights to other persons of the same tribe, and they also passed by inherence, under established customs, to his gentile kin. This was substantially the Indian system in respect to the ownership of lands and apartments in houses among the Indian tribes within the areas of the United States and British America in the Lower Status of barbarism. In later times, when the State or National Government acquired Indian lands and made compensation therefor, payment for the lands went to the tribe, and for improvements to the individual who had the possessory right. At the Tonawanda Reservation of the Seneca-Iroquois, a portion of the lands are divided into separate farms, which are fenced and occupied in severalty, while the remainder are owned by the tribe in common. When a young man marries and has no land on which to subsist, the chiefs may allot him a portion of these reserved lands. The title to all these lands, occupied and unoccupied, remains in the tribe in common. Individuals may sell or rent their possessory rights to each other, or rent them to a white man. No white man can now acquire a title from an Indian to Indian lands in any part of the United States. A person could transfer his possessions to another, but apartments in a house must remain to his gentile kindred. In the time of James II the right to acquire lands was vested in the Crown exclusively as a royal prerogative, to which prerogative our State and National Governments succeeded.
The same usages prevail on the Tuscarora Reservation, near the Niagara River, where this Iroquois tribe owns in common about 8,000 acres of fine agricultural land in one body. A part of this reservation has long been parceled out to individuals in small farms, fenced, and cultivated by the possessors. The remainder is unparceled and under the control of the chiefs. The people are allowed to remove from the wood-land of the reserve the dead wood and litter but are not permitted to touch the standing timber. When a young man marries, if he has no land the chiefs allot him forty acres to cultivate for his subsistence; but, before giving him possession, the lot is first open to all the tribe to cut off the timber for fire-wood. Thus the double object is gained of supplying the people with fire-wood and of clearing the land for cultivation for the new family. These possessory rights pass by inheritance to the recognized heirs. A person may transfer or rent his possession to another person; he may rent to a white man, but in no case can he sell to a white man.