Originally appeared in La Jicarita:
Reviewed by NICK ESTES
History, especially Indigenous history, is still a site of struggle in academia, in public education, and in the popular national imaginary. The narrative conventions of U.S. history often create convenient niches for the so-called “Indian Wars” under the umbrella of a “history of the West.” Past atrocities safely remain in the distant past, perhaps unfortunate, but nonetheless in the past. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States derails this narrative. She contends that the genocidal history of the U.S. against Indigenous peoples was not only foundational to bring the nation into existence but required to export it as a global project in the twenty-first century. Indigenous peoples, perhaps the first and longest standing enemies of U.S. empire, remain central to this history of the U.S. and its future.
For this reason, Dunbar-Ortiz’s highly accessible An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is the Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee of our times. When Bury My Hearthit bookstores in 1970, it became a national bestseller. Mass protests against the Vietnam War drew connections to the U.S.’s genocidal and imperial past of Indian-hating and colonial massacres. In the same moment, the burgeoning Red Power movement was radically altering the landscape of Indigenous scholarship and political struggle on the domestic and international stages. It didn’t call U.S. imperialism exceptional, but rooted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Dunbar-Ortiz, a participant in both of those struggles, writes in a time when the militarization of the globe under U.S. empire in a post-9/11 world has again exposed the fallacy of U.S. democracy. Yesterday’s enemies of empire, Indians, are made anew in our present moment as the ever-looming “terrorist threat.”
To understand this, Dunbar-Ortiz asks us to reconsider the foundation of the U.S., making several claims. First, the U.S. is a colonialist settler-state, which “is not to make accusation but rather to face reality, unless Indigenous peoples are erased.” (7) The “refusal or inability” of U.S. historians to understand their own history is the source of the problem, or “the absence of the colonial framework.” (7)
Second, Indigenous resistance is over five centuries old and needs to be re-framed within a broader history of the Americas that does not result in complete annihilation and disappearance. She writes, “Surviving genocide, by whatever means, is resistance.” (xiii) This also means rethinking history from an Indigenous perspective as active participants in shaping their own histories of themselves, the land, and the formations of U.S. colonialism.
Lastly, U.S. “culture of conquest” means violence, genocide, expropriation, destruction, and dehumanization of Indigenous peoples. It is a historically rooted structure, not an event that happened in the past. Indian hating was a requirement to export colonial violence to rest of the world. “Perhaps it was inevitable,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “that the earlier wars against Indigenous peoples, if not acknowledged and repudiated, ultimately would include the world.” (12)
Piece by piece, An Indigenous Peoples’ History dismantles the U.S. national narrative, and rigorously interrogates it from an Indigenous perspective. Beginning with the origin stories of European settlers arriving in the “New World” who sought to transform the landscape into the image of the land they left, death and elimination of Indigenous peoples followed in their wake. They appropriated the existing infrastructure of trade routes and agriculture and initiated war after war of extermination to seize land and resources. Here, Dunbar-Ortiz works against the so-called “terminal narratives” to which many U.S. historians subscribe, that Indigenous population decline was mainly due to biological factors such as disease. Conveniently absent from these narratives is over three centuries of colonial warfare waged against Indigenous peoples. “Commonly referred to as the most extreme demographic disaster—framed as natural—in human history,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes, “it was rarely called genocide.” (40)
European ideas of property also played a crucial role in the colonization of the Americas. Peasantry dispossessed of land and livelihood, especially in British occupied Ireland, comprised the rank-and-file of newcomers who came to make a life of their own. They had little choice in the matter when faced with the alternative of starvation and death at home. With them also came soldier settlers, or Ulster-Scots, who were seasoned and violent settlers in the colonization of Northern Ireland. They also brought the practice of scalping, which they first used on the Irish, and the tools of colonization necessary for violent war making against Indigenous peoples. These Scots-Irish settlers formed the wall of colonization as both fodder for the “Indian Wars” and as militant settlers who pushed frontier boundaries. They willingly or unwillingly cleared the way for “civilization” by transforming the land into real estate. The myth was born that white European civilization was “commanded by God to go into the wilderness to build the new Israel” and “entitled to the land through their blood sacrifice.” (55)
Revered U.S. presidents from Andrew Jackson to Abraham Lincoln also washed their hands in Indigenous blood. Jackson’s genocidal Muskogee war won him his political career. As president from 1829-1837, he won support from landless, poor settlers to whom he promised land by implementing removal policies for many of the “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole) in the South. Killing and hating Indians was not only politically profitable, it was a requirement for office after Jackson.
Lincoln’s tenure was no different. Credited as the author of the 1863 “Emancipation Proclamation” and for “freeing” black slaves in the Civil War, his role as a national “hero” is irreparably stained by his treatment of Indigenous peoples. Lincoln won favor with poor white settlers, much like Jackson, with his promises of “free soil” under the 1862 Homestead Act and the Morill Act, which opened up Indigenous land in the West for settlement and “land grant universities.” (140) He also sent Union troops to violently crush the Dakota in Minnesota Territory and expel them from their homelands in 1862; 38 Dakota men were hung in a public display of force. To date, this remains the largest sanctioned mass execution in U.S. history. Lincoln was also president during the 1864 Navajo “Long Walk” where thousands of Navajo were rounded up and forced marched to an open-air concentration camp.
Successors would walk proudly in these “bloody footprints” across the land and through time. What became known as the “Indian Wars” violently opened up Indigenous land in the West to help relieve the pressures of class conflict and economic crises in the East due to industrialization. With the so-called closing of the frontier and the massacre of 300 Lakota people at Wounded Knee in 1890, almost all land in the U.S. had been divided and privatized. This was further exacerbated by the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act, which gave reservation land allotments to individual Indigenous families and then allowed the sale of “surplus” lands to settlers on the cheap. Indigenous peoples also became a lamentable footnote in the U.S. popular imaginary, as their population reached their lowest numbers. “With the ‘dead Indian,’” Dunbar-Ortiz observes, “the ‘American Century’ was born.” (161)
“The American Century” also served to continue the process of conquest of Indigenous peoples. A large number of Indigenous peoples served in the military during World War I, even though many were not U.S. citizens. In recognition of their service, citizenship was granted through the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. Many Indigenous peoples, however, protested citizenship because they had not asked for it. As part of the New Deal, perhaps the most dramatic transformations took place. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act ended allotment and allowed for tribal governments to become politically organized around a U.S.-based constitutional model. Overwhelming numbers of Indigenous peoples also served in World War II, only to return from service to be met with 1950s termination and relocation policies that promised to end federal recognition of tribes and relocate them off their reservations. Much of the Indigenous resistance to these federal policies fueled the resistance to come in the following decades.
The long history of Indigenous anti-colonial resistance, or the “culture of resistance,” from Tecumseh to Crazy Horse, remained (and still remains) in the hearts and minds of many. The post-World War II formation of the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Youth Council, and the American Indian Movement (among many other organizations) pointed to a new generation of social movements, some of which also broke onto the world stage at the United Nations. In fact, much of the twenty-point program of the 1972 “Trail of Broken Treaties” nation-wide march to Washington, D. C. served as a framework for the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But many of the achievements of the international struggle came with consequences; the 1973 73-day standoff at Wounded Knee resulted in a violent FBI crackdown. Nonetheless, the vibrant international culture of Indigenous peoples still exists and thrives today.
With these insights in mind, Dunbar-Ortiz closes the book by looking to the future. Weighing heavily on the moment in which she writes, the U.S.’s endless “war on terror” is, in many ways, a re-fashioning of the “Indian Wars” or the creation of new Indians of empire’s frontiers. Challenges to U.S. empire must then come with the understanding and appreciation of Indigenous existence and resistance, deeply embedded within this particular history. She argues that any social movement that intends to disrupt settler colonialism and empire must account for Indigenous peoples: “Indigenous peoples offer possibilities for life after empire.” (235)
But An Indigenous Peoples’ History is not another litany of white guilt. Dunbar-Ortiz invokes the late Lenape scholar Jack Forbes when she argues that although living settlers are not responsible for their ancestors’ acts of genocide, “they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past. Assuming this responsibility provides a means of survival and liberation.” (235)
This is a book that should be shared among the Indigenous and non-Indigenous reading public as well as read and taught in college and high school classes. It will serve as a reference point for many scholars and activists to come.