An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States: A Book Review

IndigneousUSHistoryThe United States understands genocide to be a terrible thing that other countries have done, or are doing. The eradication of an entire population—civilian women, men, and children—along with their culture and national sovereignty—is something we condemn in our media. When we see genocide happening elsewhere, we debate if and when we should step in with economic sanctions or military action—when it is time to put a stop to a crime against humanity. Rarely, if ever, do we examine our own history long enough to understand that the United States was created by people who committed genocide against the people who were already living here. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, in her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, gives us this truth in its fullness, showing us the history we have attempted to deny. She does so “…not to make an accusation but rather to face historical reality, without which consideration not much in US history makes sense, unless Indigenous peoples are erased (p. 7).”

A book of this nature could easily become so mired in pain that healing is impossible or so lost in names and dates that we forget it was—and is—lived in flesh and blood. Dunbar-Ortiz does neither: history lives in her words, as she unearths what we do not know and connects it to what we have learned. Our history is charted for us as our ancestors lived it, stolen territory by stolen territory. At a little over two hundred pages, this book is not only vital and revelatory, but a relatively quick read.

The author sets the stage by dispelling a colonialist myth—when we speak of Indians, we are not speaking of a monolithic culture: “Native peoples were colonized and deposed of their territories as distinct peoples—hundreds of nations—not as a racial or ethnic group (p. xiii).” She also dispels the notion that Indians were uncivilized: “In the founding myth of the United States, the colonists acquired a vast expanse of land from a scattering of benighted peoples who were hardly using it—an unforgivable offense to the Puritan work ethic. The historical record is clear, however, that European colonists shoved aside a large network of small and large nations whose governments, commerce, arts and sciences, agriculture, technologies, theologies, philosophies, and institutions were intricately developed, nations that maintained sophisticated relations with one another and with the environments that supported them (p. 46).”

Ah, but what about all those stories of Indians sneaking into settlers’ villages in the night and wreaking havoc? If the colonists were murdering, so too were the Indians, the story goes. Dunbar-Ortiz puts the story in perspective: “Settler colonialism, an institution or system, requires violence or the threat of violence to attain its goals. People do not hand over their land, resources, children, and futures without a fight, and that fight is met with violence. In employing the force necessary to accomplish its expansionist goals, a colonizing regime institutionalizes violence. The notion that settler-indigenous conflict is an inevitable product of cultural differences and misunderstandings, or that violence was committed equally by the colonized and the colonizer, blurs the nature of the historical process (p. 8).”

Dunbar-Ortiz walks us through that historical process: from the Northwest Ordinance to the Louisiana Purchase, from the Monroe Doctrine to the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, from the Long Walk to Wounded Knee. She exposes the heroes of our national lore—Kit Carson chief among them—as the leaders of a “scorched earth” approach to Indigenous peoples in which women, men, and children were massacred town by town, food sources were confiscated and eliminated, and nations of people were force-marched from their homes. She also discusses the pivotal role that authors played in the formation of our national myths, beginning with James Fenimore Cooper: “Cooper’s reinvention of the birth of the United States in his novel The Last of the Mohicans has become the official US origin story (p. 103).”

As Dunbar-Ortiz replaces our mythical past with the real one, she describes the concrete forms and consequences of genocide, including broken treaty after broken treaty.  Recognizing the validity of treaties shows us a path forward: “The central concern for Indigenous peoples in the United States is prevailing upon the federal government to honor hundreds of treaties and other agreements concluded between the United States and Indigenous nations as between two sovereign states (p. 203).”

Native activism, from the seizure of Alcatraz in 1969 and the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973 to many legal battles over land rights and broken treaties, has centered on this one idea: sovereignty. Dunbar-Ortiz details this activism, and what sovereignty means to specific nations: for example, the Sioux have sought the return of the Paha Sapa, or the Black Hills, since their seizure in 1876.

Dunbar-Ortiz’s history of the United States asks us to face facts and move forward, respecting the goals of Native activism as we do so: a future that acknowledges the past must, by its very nature, be transformative. If we are to create this future, we must have a full understanding of our past—and I can think of no better way of gaining that understanding than reading Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, which should become required reading in all US history courses.


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