Teaching Students About Squatter Sovereignty

Squatter sovereignty, sometimes referred to as “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” is a legal principle that allows someone who occupies land for an extended period of time to claim ownership over it. This doctrine has a long and complex history that dates back to the era of colonialism and westward expansion in the United States.

Teaching students about squatter sovereignty is important because it helps them understand the historical and legal context of land ownership in America. It can also help students think critically about property rights, social justice, and the relationship between the individual and the state.

One way to begin discussing this topic with students is to provide a brief historical overview. For many indigenous peoples, land was not considered a commodity to be bought and sold, but rather a communal resource that was valued for its spiritual and cultural significance. However, as European settlers began to occupy North America, they brought with them a different notion of land ownership that prioritized individual property rights.

Over time, this conflict between communal and individual ownership led to legal battles over land use and property laws. In the 19th century, squatter sovereignty emerged as a means for early settlers to claim ownership of land that had previously been occupied by Indigenous people.

To help students better understand how squatter sovereignty worked in practice, instructors can provide examples from actual court cases. For example, in Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), the Supreme Court ruled that Native Americans could not sell land to private citizens, but only to the federal government. This decision helped to establish the legal basis for squatter sovereignty, as settlers who occupied land without government permission could claim ownership over it if they held it for a certain period of time.

Similarly, the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed settlers to claim up to 160 acres of public land if they lived on it for at least five years and made improvements to the property. Although the Homestead Act was intended to promote westward expansion and encourage farming, it also allowed squatters to claim land that had previously been inhabited by Native Americans or owned by the government.

To make this topic more relevant to current events, instructors can also discuss contemporary examples of squatter sovereignty. For example, in cities like Detroit and Baltimore, housing activists have organized “squats” where they occupy vacant homes and buildings in order to draw attention to the problem of housing insecurity. While these activists may not be claiming legal ownership over the properties they occupy, they are using the principles of squatter sovereignty to challenge the dominant narrative around property rights and the role of the state in regulating land use.

Overall, teaching students about squatter sovereignty can be a powerful way to help them think critically about the social, political, and economic forces that shape our understanding of property rights and ownership. By providing historical context and contemporary examples, instructors can help students develop a more nuanced and informed perspective on issues related to land use and social justice.

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