An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

by William Loren Katz on April 10, 2015

Author: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Publisher: Beacon Press, 2014

It is not easy to condense the United States narrative from its Indigenous people to the US Gulf Wars in less than 300 pages. It is even harder when the author is determined to be thorough, informative, and engaging. And it is harder still if the author’s compelling story challenges the “American Exceptionalism” mythology that dominates our schools, colleges and corporate media.

Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz arrives well equipped for the task. Born to a sharecropper Oklahoma family with Native American ancestry, she earned a doctorate in history, is the author of half a dozen books, and has long been a political activist who shaped a radical understanding of her country’s trajectory among students, academics and anyone who would listen. Besides her books, she has been able to make good use of the media of radio and TV.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States asks readers to consider the experience of Native Americans as more than the starting point for understanding this country. Radical historians over the centuries wisely begin their studies discussing Indigenous Americans as the earliest American casualties of imperialist greed and expansion. Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz shows in chapter and verse that this experience is more than a useful symbol for today, though it is often abandoned as scholars move beyond the Columbus “era of discovery.”

Dr. Dunbar- Ortiz reveals the meaning of discovery more fully than previously and the better to explain its impact to today’s issues of imperialism, racism, and capitalism. As measuring points for today, most scholars prefer to discuss other examples, such as African Americans under slavery and as exploited agricultural and industrial workers. This leaves Indigenous experience as more a symbolic than a useful, current instrument for discussing such topics as “humanitarian interventions,” the Middle East and racism.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States first examines the policy of “settler colonialism” — a mix of the invaders’ slavery, racial oppression and land theft that led to the world’s most thorough and sustained genocide. Conquering soldiers destroy cities they describe as “magnificent,” “paradise,” and “a garden of Eden.” Dunbar-Ortiz disputes historian’s claims that conveniently lessen white guilt by lowering the number of invasion casualties or turn violence into mishap. For example, the author disputes that victory over Indigenous people was an “accident” caused by European diseases for which Indians lacked immunity. No, Europe brought not only well-armed and trained forces but also “ingrained, streamlined and effective” “methods of eradicating” and “enslaving people.” If foreign germs played a key role, she asks why did conquest take 300 years of murderous, warfare? She also dispels the notion that massacres of Indians were a result of cultural misunderstandings, or the fault of both sides. Colonizers consistently institutionalize forms of violence that lead to genocide.

Throughout Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz unearths self-serving claims (usually racist) embedded in Presidential speeches, laws, and court decisions and of course the Monroe Doctrine and “Manifest Destiny.” These casually waved aside land seizures from Jamestown to Cuba to the Philippines to Iraq and Palestine.

US settler-colonialism always marched to a racial beat. Andrew Jackson justified atrocities against Seminole men and women. Teddy Roosevelt penned racial platitudes that could have been written by Hitler. “Poet of American Democracy” Walt Whitman proclaimed, “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated; it is the law of the races, history . . .. ” A rare and unusual collection of quotes by persuasive eyewitnesses and scholars strongly support the author’s claims.

Settler colonialism, Dunbar-Ortiz shows, also guided the US as it moved across the globe. “Low intensity” warfare and “special operations” were first deployed against Indigenous villagers in the 1700s, during the war against Mexico, and at Wounded Knee in 1890. Then these techniques was airlifted to Afghanistan and Iraq. The US high command used “Indian Country” to describe President Johnson’s enemy in Viet Nam and later the nations Presidents Bush and Obama fought in the Persian Gulf. Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in plan “Geronimo.”

Those who invaded with the most sophisticated weapons and divisive diplomatic tools also developed the modern “spin” to cast their role as civilizer and their victims as heathens requiring guidance or deserving death.

Like the interventions they accompanied, the spin never ends. She cites President Barack Obama telling a recent Dubai TV audience “if you look at the track record . . . America was not born as a colonial power.” The President’s is claiming the US can be an honest broker in the world since it has avoided the predatory role assumed by earlier colonial powers. This wistful view disguises a military record that began in 1492, continued with the 1845 invasion Mexico and later was shipped out to countries that had valuable resources or needed discipline or “regime change.”

Dunbar-Ortiz does not dispute the spin’s power or reach.  During the “Indian wars” the War Department recruited Native Americans as Army Scouts. Indigenous people also faced soldiers recruited from the ranks of potential allies – penniless Irish and German immigrants, and newly freed slaves. In the name of Christian civilization Native children were shipped to missionary schools designed to kill “the Indian” and build “good Christians.”

In a book this large in scope and short in pages, the author has little time to detail the resistance movements that united Indigenous and other people of color in the Americas. As one who participated in the American Indian Movement, the women’s movement and many others, she is aware that story could have filled another volume. Maybe she’s working on one.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States stands as one of the most important narratives of our country to appear in decades.  Dr. Ortiz-Dunbar has earned a high place among scholars of people’s histories. She offers students and teachers a feast of useful eyewitness and scholarly documentation. Her book should serve as a needed corrective in US high school and college courses, and deserves the widest readership among young and old.

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