Gender, Culture, and Access to Land

by C. E. Whitehead


(Originally submitted to the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly Writing Contest, October, 2005)

In the early nineteenth century, Mary Jemison, an Irish woman captured by French and Shawnoe¹ (and possibly Delaware) raiders, then adopted by their Seneca ‘brokers’ (Seaver, 1992; retrieved online, 2005; ed. Namias),² lost her land to White opportunists and Indian drinking debts (Namias, 1993)³. Jemison then moved with her daughters and grandchildren to a reservation farther west.

Many persons—both European and Native--lost land during colonial and post-colonial conflicts when the various groups—French, Spanish, British, Native—recognizing these land claims fell from power. But Jemison had become a U.S. citizen in exchange for a title to her tract from the State of New York! What kept Jemison from holding onto this land? According to “Statements for the Council of Chiefs . . .” (August 1981; retrieved online, 2005), “[u]nder Haudenosaunee law . . . land is held by the women of each clan.”4 Land conflict between Natives and Whites arose perhaps partly because of differing concepts of land and land ownership, including perhaps different ideas about men’s and women’s land rights. Today, incorporating the ideals of different cultures into a vision of land rights may provide more people—including women and the poor—more access to land.

According to Payne (2002; citing Angel, 2001), “. . . today’s urban poor may confront a pattern of land ownership that is more rigid, . . . better enforced, and hence considerably less affordable than before.”5

Dollars are channeled to develop some urban real estate, often into ‘upscale’ neighborhoods, while other urban real estate is left decaying (Rogal, retrieved online, 2004; and Hometowns U.S.A., retrieved online, 2004).6 In such developments, towering 'cities within cities'—like the John Hancock Building (Housing; retrieved online, 2005)7—are constructed in order to squeeze as many dollars possible per acre. The poor may be pushed out of these new and as noted, often ‘upscale,’ developments.

As development pushes the poor into the margins, squatter cities—informal, alternative systems of land tenure yet to ‘take off’ in the West—pop up in the third world (Nelson, retrieved online 2005; citing Neuwirth)8.

Companies that might ultimately provide land for squatters include mining and minerals exploration companies, which acquire and explore large quantities of land. Mining companies such as and are located in places like Peru and Mexico where housing is needed. Other companies include those exploring land with no known deposits.

Issues arising in the construction of these squatter cities include (1), speed versus standards and access to services—including transportation to employment (Payne, 2002)9; and (2), preservation of eco-systems. East Europe and Spain, with some of the highest owner-occupied housing rates in Europe, have not solved their unemployment problems (Payne, 2002), and East European owner-occupied housing is mostly ‘flats’ (Grover, Munro-Faure, Soloviev, 2002)10.

The key may be to preserve the whole eco-system habitat on land that is reclaimed from companies such as mining and minerals companies, and not simply to construct human habitat which can only be a portion of the total. The mining and mineral companies meet varying local environmental regulations requiring some investment in the local community and ecosystems. Southern Peru is an example: here are Southern Peru's overview of local environmental mandates it meets, and Southern Peru's 'blog' on its investment in the community. It must be noted that environmental mandates where third world mining operations are located are probably nowhere near as strenuous as regulations in the wealthier countries.

It's important to preserve the eco-system in balance, because inadequate drainage and an out-of-balance eco-system mean, simply, poorer health for humans and other animal inhabitants of the system. Soil in balance drains adequately and has a number of creatures living in it that are essential to the planet's health but which cannot live in balance on pavement and concrete. Soil and greenspace are also important in keeping the planet's thermostat regulated. Thus it's critical to provide non-paved space. (According to one theory, "hypersea," propounded by Mark and Diana McMenamin, the balance of flora and fauna in the body is related to the balance outside; it's all part of 'hypersea'--an intriguing and perhaps accurate theory of health.)

Europe’s “Gypsies,” of course, may not own dwellings—except for vehicles—and they too remain poor. But conditions for Gypsies degenerate further when host countries settle them in low-income housing at city peripheries. Gypsies’ own concepts of housing and land needs may be better suited to their advancement, in spite of the impoverished lifestyle that often accompanies traditional Gypsy land use. Gypsy culture perhaps incorporates into it a belief that accommodations allowing the Gypsies to move periodically may be crucial to their accessing employment, and this flexibility may be part of why Gypsies fare better living according to their traditions.

Gypsies believe that no one owns land, for land is free, and impossible to bind, while everyone possesses camping rights, as noted in a poem by Tsigane Sandra Jayat (Jayat; retrieved online, 2004)11. While land is at a premium and little is available (programs like the Homestead Act in the U.S. ended in 1974), if the ways various cultures—including migrant and aboriginal cultures—view land are brought together, and issues such as economic and seasonal migration needs are incorporated into land rights, access to land may nevertheless be granted more often to women, children, the poor, and non-humans. Granting access to the last of these, to plants and animals, is also crucial for balancing our eco-systems and making Earth more hospitable. And, new ways of viewing land rights are of course essential to solving the problem Jemison was faced with, in which land claims are often in fact put through with little or no consideration for the rights of a land tract's current inhabitants--human or non-human.

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  1. “Shawnoe” is the spelling some Shawnoe prefer; it reflects the original pronunciation better than does “Shawnee” apparently.
  2. James E. Seaver (1992; retrieved online, 2005), A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, 1rst ed., introduction by June Namias (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press). URL: .
  3. June Namias (1993), White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).
  4. "On Land Rights of the Haudenosaunee: Statements for the Council of Chiefs Haudenosaunee, Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy" (August, 1981; retrieved online 2005). URLs: ;
  5. Geoffrey Payne (2002, citing Angel, 2001), “Introduction,” in Land, Rights and Innovation: Improving Tenure Security for the Urban Poor, ed. Payne (London: ITDG Publishing): 9.
  6. Brian Rogal (n.d.; retrieved online, 2004), “For African-Americans struggle and some gains,” Community News Project of the Community Media Workshop. URLs: ;;
    also Hometowns U.S.A. (n.d.; retrieved online 2004), “A Noir Urban Tour.” former URLs (have been recently unable to access): ; ).
  7. Housing (n.d.; retrieved online 2005), “John Hancock Center.” URLs:;
  8. Robert H. Nelson (n.d.; retrieved online, 2005), “Illegal Cities: Life Among the Third World’s Squatters,” Review of Neuwirth’s (??DATE) Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World. Reason Online. URL:
  9. Payne (2002), “Introduction,” (London: ITDG Publishing): 3-22.
  10. Richard Grover; Paul Munro-Faure; Mikhail Soloviev (2002), “Housing Tenure Changes in the Transitional Economies,” Chapter 3 in Land, Rights and Innovation: Improving Tenure Security for the Urban Poor, ed. Geoffrey Payne (London: ITDG Publishing): 41-56.
  11. Sandra Jayat (n.d.; retrieved online, 2004), “Interdit aux nomades . . . ,” in “Tsiganes. URL:
    For an English translation, see "Off-limits to Nomads".
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