Curiosity and Buying America

Walking composition

“He thinks he is presenting things as they are, but what he really presents is his own essentially vulgar personality.” —Willa Cather, 1919, in a letter to her brother

My younger sister and I made a deal once a long time ago—I was maybe 13 or 14 or 15; over 30 years ago anyway—just before or after we’d moved to a new town. I think it was one of our very brief stints in California, or after we’d returned from the Soviet Union. We agreed with each other that we wouldn’t talk to anyone about our previous life, schools, or friends. We’d moved a few times by then and had learned, somehow, that most people just weren’t that interested and how painful their lack of curiosity—which feels like lack of care—could be.

It didn’t feel like a shutting down or closing off so much as coming to the realization that it was rare to meet someone who was interested in the worlds that other people carry around in their own lives and with their own minds. Maybe we weren’t interested, either, though that was harder to know since we spent several formative years adapting to new places, new people, and new circumstances. We were continually reshaping who we were according to where we landed.

We decided that this time we’d keep our precious memories, our selves, to ourselves. We pinky swore on it. One or two or a few years later I tried to draw on those memories for a high school essay and found them frustratingly locked away even from myself.

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I’ve finally gotten full-swing back into Blake Watson’s Buying America from the Indians, enough to make it halfway through. Books like this take me a lot of time to read. It’s dense and packed with information—not dense like a headache to read but just dense with information, like following the various land deals some speculator in America made for several decades leading up to 1776 and beyond. Like Lord Dunmore, who complained when he was moved from governing New York to governing Virginia because he found that Virginia looked much less kindly on his rapacious land grabbing. Dunmore partnered with land dealers who made questionable bargains with various Native tribes, and swept up ownership of as much land as he could but chose the losing side when the revolution came. Lucky him, though—in 1784, after America’s independence was recognized, he filed for and was granted reimbursement from the Crown for loss of lands in large parts of America.

Buying America from the Indians is about the crucial U.S. Supreme Court case of 1823, Johnson v. McIntosh, which decided that Indian people had no right to sell land—only European settlers could do that. In circular reasoning, the decision reiterated the Doctrine of Discovery’s* logic: only people who discovered land could own it. People who already lived in North America simply resided there; they had no right of title. (If this feels infuriating, it is, even more so because that reasoning still dictates many Supreme Court decisions with regards to Native American land rights.)

The part I’ve read up to this point lays out the groundwork for that case, which revolves around power struggles between the British Crown, which claimed that all North American land under its jurisdiction belonged to said Crown—only the Crown could grant legal title to settlers—and people (usually already fairly wealthy) who wanted to buy land land directly from local tribal nations.

A number of America’s “founding fathers” were, when you come down to it, simply land speculators. Leading thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin wrote eloquently on the right of Indians to sell land to willing buyers, not because they saw them as equal partners or even equal people but because they and others wanted that land and the Crown wouldn’t recognize their ownership. Maybe I’m not giving all of them enough credit, but reading this book it’s hard not to think of the entire American Revolution as having nothing to do with life, liberty, or even taxation without representation, and everything to do with a few powerful people frustrated that those with even more power wouldn’t let them gather up and claim as much land as they wanted. It’s particularly enlightening going back to this book after having read Nick Hayes’s The Book of Trespass and gaining (I hope) a deeper understanding of the kind of land-hoarding mentality people packed with them when they flocked to this continent. They badly wanted to chuck over feudalism but only because it would benefit their land speculations.

I’m bracing myself to finally getting to the court arguments and decision themselves, which, again, are more awful from knowing that not much has changed.**

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It’s strange, moving to new places and meeting new people. One of the things that startles me about writing is how often people read and connect with something, maybe because of those long-ago experiences of moving around and coming to terms with the fact that most people aren’t particularly curious about others’ lives.

But isn’t the mind an amazing thing? I imagine when my sister and I were having to adapt to different schools over and over, it was a time of life when we as well as other kids were simply deeply absorbed in our own selves, the growing, fumbling, seeking self that is the mind mediated through the body’s experiences of this world. These days, I am heartened and amazed by how many people are curious. Who try harder to understand lives at far remove from their own.

I don’t know if we have made progress as a species on that front, or if I just spend a lot of time with grown-ups who happen to read books, but it’s hair-curling to think of all those powerful people colonizing this continent and other continents who just wanted and wanted and wanted and took what they wanted and did not, it seems, really pause to wonder about the lives and experiences of those they were taking from. And all the people in the thousands of years before that who did the same and how many are still doing the same. Like they pinky swore to never let another’s experience make the slightest crack in their own worldview.

The mind-blowing thing is how many people try to be better than that. How many people seek out stories and experiences different from their own, simply in an effort to understand one another better. It’s really, when you think about it, about what goes on in people’s minds when they want to find points of empathy and understanding, beautiful.

*I wrote previously about the Doctrine of Discovery and Mark Charles’s book on the subject, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery in October 2020. I’m curious to see if Watson’s book makes anything of the fact that the Doctrine didn’t technically apply to Britain because it was a papal bull directed at Catholic nations. Which makes the doctrine’s use in Johnson v. McIntosh and subsequent U.S. Supreme Court cases particularly interesting—by the time Britain began colonizing North America, it had long since refused the supremacy of the pope and adopted Anglican Christianity over Catholicism. But I assume those religious differences have been convenient to ignore.

**If you want to wade further into the implications of the Doctrine of Discovery on American property law, particularly with regards to Native rights, and the ways in which it has resulted in massive injustices, Blake Watson’s 2012 law article delves into the Doctrine’s effects on various cases since Johnson v. McIntosh and the ways in which U.S. law has utterly failed to face up to the case’s ongoing repercussions.

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Bonus photo: The top photo is of my stepfather’s cabin, which we spent a couple nights at last weekend. While there we walked the property lines to find the corners, and scouted two original survey stones, one pictured below. I am a little obsessed with survey markers and the stories they tell about how we view and occupy land. That’s actually how my whole commons/private property fixation began.

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Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:

  • Speaking of stones, a recent episode of the Scotland Outdoors podcast focused on geology, which is a subject I never get tired of. Although it always throws me off when we (I do this all the time) talk of rocks being however-many-million years old since . . . well, isn’t everything on the planet just reformed matter from when the planet coalesced to begin with? And all that simply reformed matter from the universe? Sometimes it takes a lot of digging to be reminded that we’re all stardust.

  • I’m sure none of you need guidance on how to enjoy coffee, if you drink coffee, but since half my family is employed in the specialty coffee business, I get pleasure out of simple pieces like Jessica Easto’s “How to enjoy coffee” in Psyche. Having had many cupping sessions placed in front of me over the years, I can affirm that she is right when she writes that, “The first time you drink coffee that tastes like more than coffee, you’ll never forget it.”

  • Archaeologist Lindsey Büster had a fascinating piece in Sapiens about the tendency—and an ongoing and inexplicable human need—of Iron Age people in Britain to hang onto objects owned by deceased loved ones, not grave goods but simply stuff that people couldn’t let go of, like bone spoons or grinding stones: “Our relationship with objects (especially those that become problematic through, for example, the death of a loved one) has surely always been complicated. Knowing that we are not, and have never been, alone in these feelings offers a degree of comfort.”

  • I watched this 52-minute Aeon video because I’ve been looking for deeper explanations into why “personal responsibility” seems to have morphed from “take responsibility for my actions” into “I can do anything I want and you just have to deal with it” (please do not ask me how our county and school districts are dealing with masks unless you really want an earful). It wasn’t what I thought it would be, but as an exploration of how we think about poverty it did help reorient my perspective (especially pertinent for all of you interested in the role that individualist ideology plays in fractured society). How did we get from a sense of obligation and responsibility to one another, to its opposite?

  • I don’t know where else to put this because it really has nothing to do with anything, but in a passage of Buying America from the Indians that dwells at length on Virginia’s insistence on its claims to western lands being opposed by land-locked Maryland, and how that disagreement held up signing the Articles of the Confederation for years, Watson quotes a New Hampshire delegate who wrote in a letter that, “There now remains only Maryland, who you know has seldom done anything with a good Grace. She has always been a froward hussey.” You go, Maryland.