Urszula Piasta-Mansfield: The Perfect Crime: How Europeans Stole Indigenous Lands and Forgot About It

Friday, December 1, 2017 at 11:15am to 1:10pm

400 Caldwell Hall

Lecture by Urszula Piasta-Mansfield, 

Lecturer and Extension Associate, American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, Cornell University 

Abstract: 

A Perfect Crime? How Europeans Stole Indigenous Lands and Forgot about it.

In the fields of Indigenous as well as Colonial/Settler Colonial Studies, the Doctrine of Discovery has received a considerable attention as the origin story for a settler state such as the United States. However, I would argue that the Doctrine, while useful in capturing the tenor and the overall fabric of European colonization, does not adequately explain the various facets of this story, especially the story of the land. Preemption, i.e. the exclusive right of first purchase of Indigenous lands, is one those blind spots: the most understudied instrument in the formation of the settler colonial state.

The goal of this paper is not so much to define or situate preemption historically as it is to critically evaluate the processes it launched and the precedence it set for the Indigenous-Euro-American relations in solidifying the Western property discourse on this continent. Where this European right came from and how the European powers agreed to abide by it without consultation with Indigenous owners is merely part of the crime. What makes the crime perfect, however, is the fact that preemption as an instrument of land acquisition on one hand and land dispossession on the other, not only locked the Indigenous land rights within Euro-American property discourse and shifted the burden of upholding its principle against the floodgates of European territorial aggression on Indigenous owners but also, once realized, i.e. once having erased Indigenous presence, preemption itself ceased to exist.

Hence, the preemption produced a very specific legal and geopolitical space of exclusionary, hierarchical and Euro-centric relationships that always thrived on a brink of crisis in an attempt to simultaneously negate and rationalize the persistence of Indigenous land rights. Nevertheless, this robust story of preemption-mediated settler space is still more complex in its telling. Even if proven the crime, it could be argued that preemption also aspired to reaffirm Indigenous peoples as land owners with the power of consent and to protect them in their ownership.

The audience will be invited to interrogate the various ways in which the abstract concept of preemption became a conduit for generating of a common space, whose co-evolveness served to eventually ground the United States property discourse.

* This lecture is part of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Speaker Series Seminar (AIIS 6010). All lectures in this series are open to the public.

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