Indigenous Usufruct Rights and Stewardship

Indigenous Peoples’ Day has come and gone, and Thanksgiving week is on the horizon. Now come the days of lesser light when, in Abenaki tradition, Penibagos, the Leaf Falling Moon, will be followed by Pebonkas, the Winter Maker. Fallen leaves will crunch underfoot when hunters stalk the woodlands and fields.

How longstanding is the tradition of hunting and fishing in the North Country? More than 11,000 years ago the ancestors of today’s Abenaki arrived in the place they would come to call Ndakinna, “Our Land,” following the post-glacial return of migrating caribou along the winding valley of Kwenitekw, Long River (the Connecticut). 

Over time, a cyclical way of life evolved that relied on gathering wild foods, gardening and hunting—all of which meant traveling to different locations in different seasons. Summers were spent living near large community gardens, and winters in the best hunting grounds. When garden soil became depleted, or when game was scarce in a family’s hunting territory, horticultural activities and hunting were relocated to new grounds. Over time, as resources recovered, activity would once again shift back to the replenished areas. This combination of seasonal cycles punctuated by periodic relocation to allow the land and resources to recover, was key to the sustainable land use practices of New England’s native peoples. It was a seasonal form of local sovereignty within a regional homeland.

Historically, Abenaki families had specific hunting territories that were passed down to the next generation through the lineage of women. Families held the right to hunt, harvest berries, gather birchbark, grow food and undertake the full range of subsistence activities. Even though these territories were defined and vigorously defended, whenever hunting rights were exchanged between families it was only the permission to use the land that was given. 

Later, when Native Americans traded with Europeans, they exchanged land use rights for a period of time, or so they thought. The Western concept of owning and trading the land itself was alien to indigenous peoples and conflicted with their world views. The seasonal movement of native peoples, however, was shrewdly used by early colonists to exploit these diverging views of land use and ownership as a pretext for laying claim to vast tracts of land. Fallow fields, forests and other environments that were not surmised to be actively used by local indigenous populations at that particular moment in time were declared vacant or abandoned, and thus free for the taking. 

Some words are fulsome and satisfying as they roll off the tongue, pregnant with meaning when plumbed for depth and historical weight. So it is with usufruct (YOU-suh-fruct), whose roots sprout from the Latin usus et fructus or “use and enjoyment.” It speaks of the right to employ someone else’s property for one’s own benefit, and for a time, without altering the nature of that property.  

After decades of fighting for their indigenous rights to hunt and fish in Ndakinna, the Abenaki peoples of Vermont finally succeeded when, in July of 2020, the State legally recognized some of their usufruct rights. In 2021, members of the Abenaki communities who have been recognized by the State of Vermont became eligible to receive free permanent licenses for hunting and fishing.

The legal issues behind the conflict between usufruct rights and the Western concept of land ownership underlie two divergent views of resource use that collided when the first Europeans arrived in the Americas more than 500 years ago. Over time, the English view of land as commodity prevailed, supplanting the traditional Native American perspective that land was shared by families and communities, and that the use of natural resources was connected to long-term stewardship. And since survival depends on the sustainable use of the soil, as well as maintaining healthy populations of plants and animals, usufructuary encourages wise stewardship.

Rural residents in the North Country are still trying to balance the land ownership of individuals and families with the value of managing resources for the benefit of communities composed of diverse peoples and forms of life. In the months ahead, this tension will play out in the midst of seasonal changes, as it has for thousands of years.

The many opinions one encounters about white-tailed deer personify the wide array of perspectives about wildlife and the land. Photo by Laura College on Unsplash.

What you can do: Engage in thoughtful conversations with people who have a variety of viewpoints on usufruct land rights and our relationships to wildlife. Read some of the classic works that broach this and related subjects, such as A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and Of Men and Marshes by Paul L. Errington.


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