Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Land and Citizenship

National borders; aren't they fun? I dearly love the British Isles. The countryside is gorgeous, the centuries of history are awe-inspiring and the television is fabulous. That said, I have some grave reservations about the legacy left to the United States by British (and European) notions of land ownership and citizenship.

First, the more generally European problem: when Europeans arrived in the New World (also known as "home" to millions of Native peoples), they encountered societies that generally had no notion of land ownership. The idea that a human could personally own land was ludicrous. After all, nature and everything in it was a gift from the Creator. How could a person be so presumptuous as to lay personal claim to such a gift? Tribes might deem certain areas their territory of influence, but Mr. Powhatan Guy from Massachusetts Bay could no more own land than I could claim to own my own square foot of atmosphere.

Unfortunately, Europeans operated under a very different set of assumptions. For them, land could be owned, personally and privately, and in fact that was the primary point of most European powers and principalities. Conquer territory; claim it in the name of the monarch; extract all the resources--animal, vegetable and mineral--that could be found. Given these two fundamentally irreconcilable notions, Native peoples and Europeans could not make each other readily understand their intentions. Europeans believed Native peoples were "wasting" the land by failing to take ownership and mold it to their needs (although we now know that through methods like seasonal burning of the Great Plains and many other practices, Native peoples manipulated the landscape for their own needs in a communal fashion). If they managed to circumvent language barriers sufficient to ask Mr. Powhatan Guy who owned the land, of course Mr. Powhatan Guy would reply "nobody," probably in a tone of voice indicating European Dude had the mental capacity of a limpet. Unfortunately, European Dude's reply was, inevitably, "Great! I claim this in the name of King Whoever. Martha, let's set up shop!" And so the course of settlement progressed, helped along for the Europeans by their possession of guns and some very nasty virus strains.

The above was a tragedy founded upon fundamental differences between Native and European notions. The British, or those colonists that would become British following union of England and Scotland in 1707, brought an additional set of understandings to the New World that would forge colonies different from those developed by Spain and France. Spain and France were empires composed of diverse peoples. They were comfortable as societies with the idea that citizens could come from different geographic locations, with different regional traits. In short, the Spanish and French colonies were "cultures of inclusion." Citizenship was founded upon loyalty to the monarch. Therefore, a loyal resident of New Spain who was descended of Native blood could be just as much a citizen as a resident of Seville. This did not erase racial distinctions, but it did allow for fluidity of racial distinctions, intermarriage, and empires that could expand and absorb diverse peoples under a single king. This also meant that the Spanish and French did not deem it necessary to create densely settled populations--the local inhabitants could become citizens, under the administration of a small core of colonial administrators overseeing resource extraction and maintaining the peace.

Britain, on the other hand, was founded upon notions of citizenship that depended upon a strong core state. While Spain in particular had developed as a diverse collection of peoples from different places, Britain was an island. Invasions in the distant past had indeed introduced new blood--but the island had not been conquered since 1066. As well, English and then British citizens had laid claim to rights and representation over centuries, dating from the Magna Carta in 1215. Citizenship meant loyalty to the monarch, but it also encompassed an entire range of conceptions about the rights of the citizenry--and a presupposition of a certain ethnicity. As a result, British colonies were "cultures of exclusion." Outsiders were not allowed the rights of citizens, even if they were the original inhabitants of a given New World territory. As well, the British were in the New World to settle and establish colonies modeled upon the British model of a strong core society. They would not be content with far-flung, sparsely settled colonies geared toward resource extraction; they were establishing a New Britain for the New World.

The significance of all this talk about land, borders and citizenship is that it leads us to the situation in which we find ourselves today. Because European notions of land ownership "won," we talk about personal and national claims to territory. Because British notions of citizenship triumphed over those of the Spanish and French, we have a great deal of trouble conceptualizing a diverse state with diverse peoples. We tend toward imposing uniformity upon regions and different ethnic groups. We want to hold those borders firmly and hold our conceptions of citizenship in similarly firm fashion.

The problem? The American Southwest was a Spanish territory. For 250 years, the Spanish and then the independent (but Spanish influenced) country of Mexico laid claim to the part of the country that now comprises Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and parts of Colorado and other southwestern states. The Spanish imposed their European notions of land ownership, but they did not create dense settlements or substantially restrict their notions of citizenship. Since 1848, the United States has attempted to impose its own, British-influenced notions of land and citizenship, with substantial success. The deeper history of the region, however, continues to underlay these efforts.

Now, the passage of Arizona's SB 1070 exposes the continuing tensions in the American Southwest over the diverse populations that call the larger, transnational region home. Clearly illegal immigration is a serious problem, because a movement in the shadows and outside the law becomes an avenue for exploitation, smuggling and other illegal activities. We cannot erase the past century and a half of history that has brought us to this point. An enlightened understanding of the traditions that come into play, however, could help to inform the debate. We need a solution that will avoid casting aspersions upon an entire ethnic population; as well, we need a solution that will acknowledge the history of diverse settlement and porous borders that characterized this region historically. We also need to address the problems that drive Mexicans out of their own country and into the United States in search of opportunity. The United States bears no small degree of responsibility for some of Mexico's most persistent problems--but that is a topic for another day.


Gregorio said...

Fascinating perspective Laura! With all of my work in Latin America, I had never considered the difference between Spanish and British colonization, at least not like this.

Tying this into the immigration debate and SB1070 is a totally fresh look. Thank you for sharing and please keep writing! The more perspectives we can get on the immigration debate, the more likely we are to resolve it in a way that is both just and compassionate.


Laura Gifford said...

Thanks, Greg. I first came across the concept of cultures (they use the term frontiers) of inclusion vs. exclusion in a really good textbook by Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher called, appropriately enough, "The American West." I use it in my History of the American West classes. It's actually quite a good read as well as serving well as a text.