Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.
The Acoma poet Simon Ortiz writes in From Sand Creek that “the future will not be mad with loss and waste though the memory will.” People will not forget their past, but that should not stand in the way of change. Ortiz adds, “Be there: eyes will become kind and deep, and the bones of this nation will mend after the revolution.” Ortiz’s words are an invitation—an appeal for a shared struggle. They are the coda to the historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s superb new book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. With such words, she reveals much of her purpose.
As the book begins, she writes of how beneath the lands that some identify as the United States are “interred the bones, villages, fields and sacred objects of American Indians.” How that internment happened is the subject of her book, which is meant to teach the books’ readers that history—“a necessity and a responsibility to the ancestors and descendants of all parties.” She sets out by explaining the frameworks she does not use. First, she rejects a “cultural conflict” interpretation within which the Native nations and the European settlers waywardly wandered into some squabbles about culture. Then, she dismisses a now-fashionable optic whose lens induces a myopic fixation on agency. As she notes, that way of seeing screens out the structure, or the system of power, within which subjects are forced to assert their agency. Indeed, she hints that such frameworks, for all of their good intentions, have the faint air of revisionism. The agency of the Native communities annihilated by plague and superior European weaponry was far too frequently to encounter genocide. And genocide is not a negotiation or a dialogue. It is an atrocity, one raising questions of “reparations, restitution, and reordering society.”
To raise questions of reparations is to talk of a crime whose scale can be reckoned with in terms of—but not at all reduced to—monetary units. Dunbar-Ortiz insists that colonialism is about stealing from others, especially that all-important resource, land, without which there is no life. For that reason the endlessly abrogated treaties the Indian nations signed with the United States were always about land: who owned it, where, and under what terms. Indeed, lately even those treaties are under assault as multinational corporations seek to gain control of the riches in Native subsoil.
Dunbar-Ortiz’s story begins with the pre-contact civilizations in the Americas and especially the United States of America. She presents a full world: its cosmology, agricultural systems, mathematical innovations, and architectural wonders. She ranges from modern-day Mexico to the lands that used to be Mexico in the Southwest of the United States, to the great prairie peoples, and further east. She describes Native political systems and the political ecologies, which the native peoples had made—highlighting the creation of “game farms” on which herds of buffalo could graze. This analysis will be well-known to the student of Native studies. But she is strategic in her task. She is telling the reader about the world that colonialism ripped apart.
She then situates colonial expansion in the Americas in a longer historical arc of European state-formation, displacement of the peasantry, and conquest. She ranges from European military expeditions to the Middle East to the rise of the modern European-state system in the crucible of constant feudal warfare. She braids this with a historical analysis of the origins of white supremacist ideology in attempt to build a “cross-class mind-set…[a] class leveling based on imagined racial sameness.” She roots this project first in the Christian expulsions of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, and traces it through colonialism in the Americas and Africa, and then on to the Holocaust. She then traces that brutality onwards to British settler policy in Ireland, and then on to the colonial expansion to the Americas.
Little escapes Dunbar-Ortiz’s scope. If Europeans were settlers, as many indeed were, the European peasantries were also the victims of a vicious and avaricious project of state-formation. That process saw the European gentry wage wars against the peasants and their communities. Later, it would tear them apart with witch-trials that targeted those communities’ repositories of knowledge: their older women.
A subsequent chapter deconstructs ideological portraiture of the “pristine wilderness” supposedly predating the Columbian encounter. Dunbar-Ortiz emphasizes that early colonial survival in the Americas depended on the infrastructure whose population the settlers had destroyed, an infrastructure they could then grab for their own use. She then traces the settler invasion as the “frontier” moved ever-further West. But those who initially settled the land lost it on that great veiled machine for concentrating wealth, the market. As she writes, the ultimate beneficiaries were the “English patricians, slave owners, large land barons, or otherwise successful businessmen dependent on the slave trade.” They were distinct from the settler-class who were the “dispensable cannon fodder” for continental expansion.
Dunbar-Ortiz then shifts through space and time, highlighting rhetorical parallels as the US army names its “killing machines and operations with such names as UH-1B/C Iroquois, OH-58D Kiowa, OV-1 Mohawk,” and others. She links the ways of contemporary war to the total war through which US colonial forays “sought to disrupt every aspect of resistance,” a practice which the military carries into the present. She suggests that this annihilatory drive, “the out-of-control momentum of extreme violence of unlimited warfare,” in turn “fueled race hatred”—not the other way around.
She then teases out some of the complexities of US racism. She discusses Bacon’s Rebellion, a well-known episode within which “Anglo settler-farmers along with landless indentured servants,” both “Anglo and African…took into their own hands the slaughter of Indigenous farmers with the aim of taking their land.” She then correctly notes that the threat of lower-class peoples banding together provoked the Virginia law that “made greater distinction between indentured servants and slaves and codified the permanent status of slavery for Africans.” Here she so skillfully lays out not merely the origins of racism in a very structural distribution of power, but also the history of colonial dispossession without which the picture remains partial.
Dunbar-Ortiz then moves on to the series of wars, ethnic cleansings, and massacres that set the stage for the independence of the Thirteen Colonies. She highlights the rise to prominence of treaty-making as a key tool of colonial dispossession. She roots expansion in the hunger for land: “owners of large, slave-worked plantations sought to expand their landholdings while small farm owners who were unable to compete with the planters and were pushed off their land now desperately sought cheap land to support their families.” She then moves on to narrating a series of colonial conquests. She offers brilliantly crisp and compact portraits of each one. She shows a cycle of colonial advance, the demand for surrender, and then, if the Indigenous nations refused (as they often but not always did), violent attack. A succession of treaties crystallized the violence of colonial expansion in terms legible within the Lockean system of Western jurisprudence, clarifying who had property rights and where. Within each treaty’s white-and-black letters, she suggests, is concealed the scarlet history underlying each and every one of them.
Dunbar-Ortiz then moves on to the continental aspects of US expansion, especially the campaign through which much of what used to be Mexico was added to what is now identified as the United States’ Southwest. She traces through the words of Walt Whitman a deep and abiding racism: “What has miserable, inefficient Mexico…to do with the great mission of people the New World with a noble race?” he asked. Then, before getting on with the telling of the US invasion of Mexico, she brings the reader on several detours, highlighting the Haitian liberation struggle and Latin American leaders Simon Bolívar and José de San Martín. Only at this point does she set out to tell the story of the US acquisition of Mexico, showing the interest of “US merchants” in the “potential profits to be made,” which “inspired them to set out to capture that trade,” often from fur. In highlighting the role of the profit system in driving settler expansion, she also looks to the role of elites outside of the United States in abetting serial processes of annexation.
Dunbar-Ortiz once again shows the political centrality of colonialism as she discusses Abraham Lincoln’s proposal for “free soil” for the settlers who demanded that the “government ‘open’ Indigenous lands west of the Mississippi” to colonial expansion. She then quickly delves into the sociology of the Indigenous nations of the Southeast that were forcibly relocated to “Indian Territory” (now Oklahoma). She points out that within each there was a “tiny elite,” which was “wealthy and owned enslaved Africans and private estates,” while there was a poorer majority who “continued their collective agrarian practices.” These southeastern nations all made treaties with the Confederacy, but there was a “clear division based on class,” with a “wealthy, assimilated, slave-owning minority that dominated politics” and favored the Confederacy. Meanwhile, the remainder wished to stay out of the conflicts. The colonial question was crucial, but it did not exclude other questions and other cross-cutting lines of division.
Elsewhere, in Minnesota, amidst the ongoing Civil War, in 1862 a drought wracked the Indigenous nations. “When they mounted an uprising to drive out the mostly German and Scandinavian settlers,” the Union Army destroyed the revolt. In writing this specific bit of history, Dunbar-Ortiz makes a very important point, writing against the grain of dominant historiography, with its tendency to turn Lincoln and the Civil War into a crucial part of the national myth. Underneath that myth, underneath all the myths, she uncovers a graveyard that nationalist histories deny even exists, and whose headstones are marked with the dates of colonial massacres.
Subsequent chapters link peacetime colonialism with US imperialism, noting the temporal proximity as the US employed technologies abroad that had been honed in colonial expansion and counterinsurgency at home—a point Richard Drinnon also makes in his Facing West. Dunbar-Ortiz proceeds to link that expansion not with “militarism for its own sake,” a frequent trope of Andrew Bacevich-style imperialist-lite analysis, with out-of-control military Praetors driving the US republic to ruin. Instead, as she writes, “it was all about securing markets and natural resources, developing imperialist power to protect and extend corporate wealth.” She traces this process onwards to the attack on Vietnam and Kennedy’s tellingly-named New Frontier. She then moves on to an important discussion of the resurgence of Indigenous activism in the 1960s, highlighting the “spectacular November 1969 seizure and eighteen-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay” by the Indians of All Tribes, an alliance of California Bay-area Native American community members and students. She also discusses the Wounded Knee siege of 1973. That occurred at the site of a 1890 massacre where US cavalrymen had killed over two hundred people in the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The American Indian Movement (AIM) had chosen that location in order to highlight the killings, and to call for the fulfillment of treaty obligations. Government agents attacked the AIM. Dunbar-Ortiz highlights those events as an important turning point in a broader movement for “decolonization”; her account of colonialism does not omit the resistance it provokes.
Dunbar-Ortiz’s book concludes with reflections on the future of the United States. She traces practices of torture and displacement of indigenous populations in places beyond the continental territories, and then points to other horizons. She asks, how “can US society come to terms with its past?” Some answers include: “honoring treaties,” “the restoration of sacred sites,” and the “payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations.” Her remedies are collective and structural, not individual and performative. And so right before the poem from Simon Ortiz with which she ends the book, she makes clear—leaving no room for doubt—that she is speaking of a collective process. That effort will require massive education as well as the “full support and active participation of the descendants of settlers, enslaved Africans, and colonized Mexicans, as well as immigrant populations.” There is no place for racialism or the postures or impostors of white guilt in Dunbar-Ortiz’s analysis. It is a call for accountability and then reconciliation through shared struggle—not for reconciliation in lieu of revolution, but for reconciliation through revolution.
The book has the appearance and the intent of a primer, or a general education tool. It is a testament to the skill of a historian who has spent a lifetime perfecting the art of telling stories that Dunbar-Ortiz is able to tell this one with such spare grace. She writes of settler-colonialism, capitalism, social contradictions, imperialism, and genealogies of racism. But she tells of them so cleanly and clearly that without doubt a great many will be able to hear and absorb the book’s message. However, its easy and accessible tone and cadence may allow some to be confused into thinking that it is not “theoretical.” That would be a mistake of the first order. For this is a very deliberately crafted and deeply learned book. It is meant to educate and popularize certain ideas not just about the United States, but also about settler-colonialism and its connections with imperialism and capitalism. It ought to invite not just agreement, but also debate.
In that vein, I have an uncertainty about this important book. I wonder whether it makes sense to lump the very different oppressive processes that produced very different patterns of prejudice d under the rubric of white supremacy. European antisemitism and US slavery were very different social relationships, for example. Neither the continuity of language nor the common origin of the oppressions in Christian capitalist Europe can alone be testament to identical practice.
Speaking of this book’s reception, it seems odd that amidst the sudden effusion of interest in settler-colonialism, this study appears to have made only slight tremors in those sectors of the academy theorizing colonial processes. I am not sure why. Perhaps the history Dunbar-Ortiz presents and the way she presents it seem like something from another era. If settler-colonial studies in the 1960s and 1970s was an analytical tool linked to anti-imperialist and frequently anti-capitalist national liberation movements, Dunbar-Ortiz’s optic must seem like a curio, something from the heyday of Bandung or the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Conceptually and methodologically, Dunbar-Ortiz sees and shows settler-colonialism as driven by the internal contradictions of settler-society. She also links US misadventures abroad and at home, emphasizing that the US has always been an empire, amidst its drive westwards across land that was not its own. She insists that what goes on abroad and in the near-abroad is always a result of the inability of domestic institutions to function without that outlet—their need to swell, expand, and engorge. Here one hears the reverberations of the “revisionist” school of US history and its leader, William Appleman Williams. As she makes clear, the result of both territorial and then extra-territorial expansion was massive and pervasive destruction: “Following World War II,” she writes, “the United States was at war with much of the world.” The historical tradition with which Williams was associated is no more, but US wars burn white-hot across the Middle East and elsewhere.
To decolonize means to challenge those wars abroad as well as the structures at home that produce them. Dunbar-Ortiz’s way of looking at the world is indeed a challenge to dominant tendencies within the current wave of settler-colonial studies, where words like class and capitalism appear only infrequently. In its frontal assault on all oppressions, it also has a quiet but sturdy confidence that victory for the oppressed is possible yet. None have attacked her but one worries that she is being ignored. Anyway, either unfair attack or deliberate ignorance would both be unproductive ways of responding to this work. For she has linked indigenous and colonial history to a practical politics. Accompanying that political connection is a wide and deep reading, and a penchant for eloquent, understated, and theoretically informed popular history. Dunbar-Ortiz has given us something both useful and artful, a book that ought to be a reference point for academics and activists alike. It is a work that ought to be reckoned with.