I just saw a documentary about the colonial time in North America and how the Lenape people sold the Delaware valley to Europeans. In this program a current Lenape "chieftain" claimed that the Lenape didn't understand the concept of buying and selling property.

I assume that the Lenape (and other people around them) owned property such as tools, weapons, jewelry and that they sometimes exchanged it with other tribes members or outsiders. How did such an exchange work if it wasn't based on a concept of owning and that certain pieces was available in abundance while others were rare?

Furthermore, what about land? Didn't Indians, after conflicts, reach agreement with surrounding tribes about border lines between them? That tribe A owned this area and B owned or controlled that area?

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    This appears to be a question that is purposely subjective, with the intent of providing the author an opportunity to dump all their knowledge on the subject without worry of being objectively wrong (as long as the argument can be supported). This is great for school essays, but is simply not the kind of question we can field here. Our format requires objectively answerable questions. If your own research on this topic turns up a question that looks objectively answerable, feel free to ask that here. Jan 13, 2019 at 15:55
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    Convince me that it wasn't the Lenape believing they had conned "the silly white men". How would so few settlers ever enforce their property rights. There is also much hidden "bigotry of low expectations" being presumed by the questioner and the Lenape chieftain being quoted. This question just seems to me an excuse for a discussion - with no prospect for a definitive answer. @MarkC.Wallace Jan 13, 2019 at 16:45
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    I don't think it's possible to give a simple answer to this question, because there were hundreds of different cultures in North America. The Lenape may have had entirely different ideas from the Iroquois, Cherokee, Hopi, Lakota...
    – jamesqf
    Jan 13, 2019 at 18:35
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    @EmLi - I'm no expert in Lenape cultural history but I very much doubt the documentary-maker is correct, or care to be accurate. Indigenous land rights has been recognised the world over for a long time, including North America. If you are really interested in legal history of property (and land) rights for Native Americans, you might find this useful - Land, Culture, and Community: Reflections on Native Sovereignty and Property in America (SSRN, 2001).
    – J Asia
    Jan 14, 2019 at 7:16
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    @JAsia Indigenous land rights is something completely different from my question.
    – d-b
    Jan 14, 2019 at 15:32

2 Answers 2


I am delighted to find that there is information online that helps to understand this. (OK, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the information adds more complexity than clarity, but it still delights me).

Aside: @Jamesqf (et. al.) is quite correct to point out that the North American native population is diverse, and what holds true for the Lenape may not be true for other nations. (Given that the various tribes had very different economic and political bases, I'd be very skeptical of any answer that relied on (for example) Hopi or Dineh sources to predict Lenape behavior.) I have tried to limit my answer to what I know of the Lenape.

The Lenape had a culture in which the clan and family controlled property. Europeans often tried to contract for land with the tribal chiefs, confusing their culture with that of neighboring tribes such as the Iroquois. The Lenape would petition for grievances on the basis that not all their families had been recognized in the transaction (not that they wanted to "share" the land). Wikipedia:Lenape quoting American Anthropologist

It is also worth consulting the Walking Purchanse; my cursory analysis of this is that the lack of understanding (the frame challenge) had to do with the stakeholders, rather than the concept of property. The Lenape perceived "land ownership" as deriving from family groups, while the Europeans perceived land ownership as deriving from a government. The Lenape didn't have the same institution of "government" as the Europeans did, so even if the Europeans intended to approach the negotiation in good faith, the differences in assumptions doomed the negotiation.

I suspect that someone more skilled & knowledgeable than I could shed some light on the difference between property rights for objects & goods, & property rights for land - which is critical to a high quality answer to your question. Your original question included "market commerce", but that concept isn't relevant to the actual question, which had to do with land rights, so I omitted it for brevity.

Other thoughts, not fully developed into an answer In my opinion, this question is a opportunity to examine the concept of property and the institutions of commerce in a pre-economic society. At least to my perception, @EmLi has phrased the question to invite a frame challenge, and an answer that included such concepts as potlach, Capital Deepening vs Organic composition of Capital, and exchange entitlements might be useful. (I can't find an easy explanation of exchange entitlements. From my very biased perspective, exchange entitlements are a horrific form of community repression, so I'm not the best person to summarize them)

The summary is that "property" is a complicated concept, with multiple interpretations. Our modern, capitalist, commercial definition of property is only one of a complex set of possible definitions. I'm told that in certain cultures, if you do not return a tool to its correct storage location, you lose "owernship" of that tool; in such cultures. Took me a long time to wrap my head around it. (I"m not citing the culture, because I don't trust my memory.)

@EmLi, I'm sorry I can't give a good answer to the question. Before I went any further, I'd need to watch the documentary and understand the context of the Lenape leader's statement. Was it factual or rhetorical? Any answer without that context is... suspect. I hope that what I've provided will at least give you some directions for research, and perhaps attract some commentary from people more knowledgeable than I.

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    That frame includes assumptions that native Americans, Lenape and "Indians" are more or less the same. Further "ownership" can in any society include toothbrushes, but exclude 'commons' like land (This is a frequent batlleground now, in cities, or for larger areas for water, and conceptually contested for the standoff between Diesel-owners and those primitive breathers.) That "Marxists are opposed to commerce" reads as quite untrue though. 'Capitalist exchange' is exploitation, but comecon is +. China, Koreas try to do as much commerce as possible. Jan 13, 2019 at 18:29
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    If we go beyond imperialism (political science), this question requires some basic understanding of law and economics. And if that is achieved, this is a good book to consult, "Beyond the Indian Act - Restoring Aboriginal Property Rights. Note the sub-title, "Restoring".
    – J Asia
    Jan 14, 2019 at 6:38
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    @LangLangC: But of course both China and North Korea stopped being Marxist several decades ago.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 14, 2019 at 19:08
  • @jamesqf Clear. Don't tell that to anyone who doesn't want to hear that ;) Thing is, when they were widely regarded as Marxist, communist etc, they didn't shun 'commerce' either. (Apart from perhaps Red Cambodia; the commerce angle is like expecting a Communist Canadian government to issue the order "Canadians, only buy Canadian bananas!") Jan 14, 2019 at 19:21
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    I think however, discussion of communist economics has strayed from the scope of Lenape property rights.
    – MCW
    Jan 14, 2019 at 19:35

Similar to mentioned above, there were Native Americans who did have private property ownership. To many of them, what was unknown was individual private ownership. Clans and families could privately own things like plots of land independent of the rest of the community. Their concept of private property was closer to the economic system known as distributism: an economic system where private property is own in a society through cooperatives, member-owned mutual organizations, & small (sometimes family owned) businesses. Unlike capitalism, private property is never owned by a single person or individual and unlike socialism, the means of production are not all collectively owned by the entire community through the state, a single co-op, labor union, or other collective entity. So the Lenape understood the concept of private ownership and buying/selling land, but not from the perspective of an individual owning private property - more from the perspective of a smaller collective group within the community owning land or a business, usually a family.

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