I happen to be reading a brilliant book by a member of the law faculty at UCLA, whose name is Stuart Banner, and the book is, How the Indians Lost their Land — Law and Power on the Frontier (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2007). The book is a study of the relationships between indigenous peoples and the Europeans who came from England and other Western countries to settle and effectively appropriate millions of acres of land which in theory had been held and used by native peoples for God knows how long.
What Banner explains is that laws were one thing, practices and behavior were often something else. But what ultimately always explained how and why land shifted ownership back and forth between two very different societies had more to do with the relative political strength of each group.
When overseas settlers first began venturing into the interior, they often encountered Indian tribes whose numbers and military strength was greater than their own. As this relationship shifted because of increasing and continuous immigration from outside the North American continent, so landed Indian claims to land were either rejected, modified, or simply ignored.
In the second half of the twentieth century, however, and he first sever al decades of the twenty-first, the relative authority of Indian land claims has begun to swing back somewhat in their favor reflecting the ability of Indian tribes and groupings to exercise more political power, thus restoring some of their traditional control over land.
So, for example, Banner cites the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, in which the native Alaskans agreed to relinquish claims to land, in return for $1 billion in cash and 40 million acres of land. There have also been numerous other instances recently, some of them tied to the gaming industry, which also reflect the ability of Native Americans to flex their political muscles and take greater control over their own affairs.
All that being said, however, when we think about how indigenous peoples have fared after coming into contact with white Europeans, often from the same country (England) which provided the whites who washed up on North American shores, the results for the native populations were abysmal or worse.