Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

One of the most viewed posts on this blog is my review/comparison of the books A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn and A Patriot’s History of the United States by Schweikart and Allen. I intended to read through both books and compare them chapter by chapter, but I gave up after a while – mostly because it was clear that the latter book was simply an attempt to rewrite history to confirm social conservatives’ belief that they are the best. It was propaganda for nationalists.

Whatever those two books are, neither of them hold a candle to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. This book is heavy. The history related by Dunbar-Ortiz is raw and you need to know about it if you want to call yourself an American. Let’s get into it.

Dunbar-Ortiz explains in the introduction that people need to rethink what they have been taught about American history. US history is not as positive as they think because it is a history of settler colonialism and genocide. Her book is designed to question how acknowledging the reality of US history – white supremacist ideologies, slavery, government-condoned murder of Indigenous peoples – can work to transform the today’s society (p. 2). Dunbar-Ortiz starts by reframing the origin narrative of the US, which says that Manifest Destiny gave Europeans the belief system they needed to claim that they had a right to the lands that they “discovered” and to remove or kill the Indigenous people already living there (p. 3).

Taking the true history of the US into account, which is something that Dunbar-Ortiz points out that previous histories of America have not done, will force us to take responsibility for the effects that actions in the past are having on the present. And Dunbar-Ortiz’s book is not about to let you put aside responsibility. Trust me. In fact, Dunbar-Ortiz shows that failing to account for the history of Indigenous peoples in the US (I’m looking at you, Schweikart and Allen) has always been wrong and it has played a central role in the murderous colonialism pursued by the US government throughout history:

Awareness of the settler-colonialism context of US history writing is essential if one is to avoid the laziness of the default position and the trap of a mythological unconscious belief in manifest destiny. The form of colonialism that the Indigenous peoples of North America have experienced was modern from the beginning: the expansion of European corporations, backed by government armies, into foreign areas, with subsequent expropriation of lands and resources. Settler colonialism is a genocidal policy. […] The objective of US colonialist authorities was to terminate their existence as peoples – not as random individuals. […] The United States as a socioeconomic and political entity is a result of this centuries-long and ongoing colonial process. Today’s Indigenous nationals and communities are societies formed by their resistance to colonialism, through which they have carried their practices and histories. It is breathtaking, but no miracle, that they have survived as peoples. (pp. 6-7)

After the introduction, An Indigenous Peoples’ History is set up in a chronological format. For me, each chapter filled in gaps in my knowledge of US history – gaps from things that I wasn’t taught in school or from things that I was taught incorrectly. For example, most of us think that there was an end to the Revolutionary War and then the country got started in creating itself as a political power. But Dunbar-Ortiz gives us a good reality check here. In describing what happened after the United States won the Revolutionary War against the British in 1783, she says:

Wars continued for another century, unrelentingly and without pause, and the march across the continent used the same strategy and tactics of scorched earth and annihilation with increasingly deadly firepower. Somehow, even “genocide” seems an inadequate description for what happened, yet rather than viewing it with horror, most Americans have conceived of it as their country’s manifest destiny. (p. 79)

It’s not just that my teachers didn’t teach me this. This kind of stuff just isn’t out there, although hopefully it is more these days. And I hope that An Indigenous Peoples’ History gets as much press as possible so people are able to also fill in the gaps left by their high school textbooks.

An_Indigenous_Peoples_History_of_the_United_States_Dunbar-Ortiz_small

Dunbar-Ortiz also sets some stereotypes straight when she points out that alcohol has been a tool of colonialists throughout history and around the world. It’s not just Native Americans that are prone to alcohol abuse, it’s subjugated people everywhere as colonialists make alcohol readily and cheaply available so that they (and usually their Christian missionaries) can take advantage of dysfunctional conditions and further place communities into submission. Now you know.

As Dunbar-Ortiz moves through US history, she defines the identity of non-Indigenous people as being militaristic at its core:

The cumulative effect goes beyond simply the habitual use of military means and becomes the very basis for US American identity. The Indian-fighting frontiersmen and the “valiant” settlers in their circled covered wagons are the iconic images of that identity. (p. 94)

So it’s no surprise that the US frequently embarks on international military interventions. In fact, the US militaristic/colonialist identity is, according to Dunbar-Ortiz, the result of centuries of European colonialism and imperialism (p. 96). When it comes to the US, the narrative of American exceptionalism is defined and reinforced to exclude Indigenous people and non-whites from the story (pp. 104-105, 107). This narrative gets told over and over again throughout US history so that it becomes a basis for American identity, but it is grounded in a myth in order to avoid the realities of history.

Those realities of US history, which Dunbar-Ortiz’s book points out, are not for the faint of heart. They are real and they are gruesome. Trigger warning, here are some of them:

The US forces arrived on the edge of Prophet’s Town at dawn on November 6, 1811. Seeing no alternative to overriding his brother’s instructions, Tenskwatawa led an assault before dawn the following morning. Only after some two hundred of the Indigenous residents had fallen did the troops overpower them, burning the town, destroying the granary, and looting, even digging up graves and mutilating the corpses. This was the famous “battle” of Tippecanoe that made [William Henry] Harrison a frontier hero to the settlers and later helped elect him president. (p. 86)

In the aftermath of “the Battle of Horseshoe Bend,” as it is known in US military annals, [Andrew] Jackson’s troops fashioned reins for their horses’ bridles from skin stripped from the Muskogee bodies, and they saw to it that souvenirs from the corpses were given to “to the ladies of Tennessee”. (p. 99)

In adopting total war in the West, Sherman brought in its most notorious avatar, George Armstrong Custer, who proved his mettle right away by leading an attack on unarmed civilians on November 27, 1868 […] All told, the Seventh Cavalry murdered over a hundred Cheyenne women and children that day, taking ghoulish trophies afterward. (pp. 145-6)

And those aren’t even the worst ones in the book, let alone the history of the US. Lest you think that those horrors all belong to the past, Dunbar-Ortiz shows that today “One in three Native American women has been raped or experienced attempted rape, and the rate of sexual assault on Native American women is more than twice the national average” (p. 214).

The theme of movement is central in America history and culture. It even turns up in discussions about Superman being the quintessential American because he is literally unrestrained in his movement. But back to reality, Dunbar-Ortiz shows that the expansion of US territory from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific – from sea to shining sea – was not natural at all and that it mostly involved settlers being accompanied by military regiments, especially in the goldfields of California and the Willamette Valley region of the Pacific Northwest. Dunbar-Ortiz asks:

Why then does the popular US historical narrative of a “natural” westward movement persist? The answer is that those who still hold to the narrative remain captives of the ideology of “manifest destiny,” according to which the United States expanded across the continent to assume its preordained size and shape. This ideology normalizes the successive invasions and occupations of Indigenous nations and Mexico as not being colonialist or imperialist, rather simply ordained progress. In this view, Mexico was just another Indian nation to be crushed. (p. 118)

Dunbar-Ortiz brings this knowledge to bear on the present day by taking a critical look at modern society and beliefs. She talks about the “race to innocence” in the US, or the assumption that new immigrants and their children cannot be responsible for what happened in the country’s past. She points out that the effects of the past can be seen in today’s society – in the “trillions spent on war machinery, military bases, and personnel instead of social services and quality public education” and in the profit margins of corporations which pay minimal taxes and in the repression and oppression of poor people and activists. And how white immigrants and their children benefit from the US’s settler-colonial past, while non-whites are harmed by it. As Dunbar-Ortiz points out, the US has not come to terms with its past and these are symptoms of a “deeply troubled society” (p. 229).

If these examples are too abstract for you, just look around for concrete symptoms of our troubled society:

Here’s a story about Michigan trying to make English its official language. There are twelve federally recognized native American nations in Michigan. https://www.thesouthend.wayne.edu/features/article_fd6d5dba-4692-11e8-b1e7-6b84e7e66f05.html

Here’s a story about armed Trump supporters asking Arizona state representative and Navajo Eric Descheenie if he is in the US “legally.” https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/trump-supporters-navajo-legislator-legal/

Here’s a story about Cahokia, which was the largest city in the US before 1400 AD and was located across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. You may know it as the mound city. Early (non-indigenous) archeologists tried to attribute the building of the city to literally any group of people besides American Indians. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/white-settlers-buried-truth-about-midwests-mysterious-mound-cities-180968246/

Here’s a story about how Native Americans were murdered because they had more money than the white people around them. https://www.npr.org/2018/04/06/600136534/largely-forgotten-osage-murders-reveal-a-conspiracy-against-wealthy-native-ameri

Here’s a story about two Native American teenagers being detained on a college campus tour because some lady thought they looked like “they don’t belong”: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/may/04/native-american-students-colorado-state-college-tour-police. And here are Native people talking about the hate and violence they’ve received for just being: https://twitter.com/John_A_Little/status/993984296561111040.

Here’s a story about mapping out the missing and murdered Indigenous women in the US and Canada and how many problems there are in finding and identifying them: https://rewire.news/article/2018/04/27/mapping-missing-murdered-native-women-want-story-meaning/. The hashtag is #MMIW.

I found Dunbar-Ortiz’s book informative and enjoyable (if that’s the right word considering the topic). I highly recommend it. If I had to levy a criticism against it, I would say that it could have a used a few maps. My knowledge of US geography is quite good, but a few historical maps would have helped show the movement and displacement of Indigenous peoples through history. You can find An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States here.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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