As the United States government engages in twenty-first century wars and occupations abroad while simultaneously waging a war at home on working people, those who wish to organize for a more just world have to ask the question: how is our current condition connected to the colonialist foundations of this country? Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s short but wide-ranging An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States provides some important answers to this question.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is well-suited to the task. She grew up in Oklahoma, her father a ranch hand and sharecropper, her mother half-Indigenous American. She has spent decades as a revolutionary and a feminist, organizing against the Vietnam War, participating in the movements for women’s liberation, and becoming active in the American Indian Movement and the International Indian Treaty Council following the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973. This started her down the path of dedicating her life to the struggle of Indigenous peoples for the right to self-determination. Over the years, she has written numerous books about the history of Indigenous people.
“The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism,” she writes at the beginning of the book,
the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft. Those who seek history with an upbeat ending, a history of redemption and reconciliation, may look around and observe that such a conclusion is not visible, not even in utopian dreams of a better society.
The central question Dunbar-Ortiz poses in the book is: “How might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform society?”
Dunbar-Ortiz systematically dismantles the founding myths of the United States. These include that it was a pristine wilderness only lightly occupied by its original inhabitants; that the European conquest was an “encounter” between native and European; that the United States was destined to extend its control over the entire continent and that the Indians were a “vanishing race”; that the United States is a uniquely democratic, free, and multicultural society; and that the American Revolution was fought to give freedom for all, and that it shows the US began not as a colonial, but rather as an anti-colonial nation. These myths are not only propagated by conservatives, but are also the deeply held convictions of many liberals that are constantly reinforced by presidents and politicians. As the author notes, in 2009 President Obama, in an effort to persuade people that the US could broker negotiations between Israel and Palestine, reassured everyone that “America was not born a colonial power.”
Dunbar-Ortiz provides a window into the real experiences of Native nations—of genocidal wars waged against them as part of a brutal and bloody process of bringing a new ruling elite and capitalist state into being. She also shows how Native peoples have resisted this process over hundreds of years, a process that contributed ultimately to the survival and resilience of Indigenous peoples today.
Many North Americans believe that the United States’ imperial conquest began at the end of the 1800s with the invasions of Cuba and the Philippines. The truth is that US imperial ambitions began immediately after the revolutionary war. Indeed, as Dunbar-Ortiz notes, one of the goals of the Thirteen Colonies in gaining independence was overcoming the resistance of the British to further territorial expansion and dispossession of Indian nations. The ruling class gobbled up land and resources through genocidal policies, occupations, and wars as the settler population expanded, driven by land speculation and the spread of slavery. From the outset the United States was a settler-colonial project, notes Dunbar-Ortiz, similar to the ones we are familiar with in Palestine, South Africa, and Australia. She details how the settler-indigenous conflict was not something that was natural; rather it was a result of a profit-generating economic system. “The notion that settler-indigenous conflict is an inevitable product of cultural differences and misunderstandings,” she writes, “or that violence was committed equally by the colonized and the colonizer, blurs the nature of the historical processes. Euro-American colonialism, an aspect of capitalist economic globalization, had from its beginnings a genocidal tendency.”
The seizure of land and the violence that it entailed formed the backbone of capitalist development in the US. This was an aspect of what Karl Marx called the “so-called primitive accumulation of capital”—the seizure of land in the interest of a colonial power and the transformation of this land into large-scale private property. Dunbar-Ortiz is particularly good at showing the connection between the dispossession of the peasantry in Europe to create a new “free” laboring class at the same time that Europeans were dispossessing the native populations in the Americas and setting up the slave system in the South. She quotes David Chang to explain the process: “Nation, race and class converged in land.” “Everything in US history is about the land,” she writes on the first page of the book: “Who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (“real estate”) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.”
White supremacy became one of the main ideologies used to justify both the enslavement of Africans and the process of concentrating indigenous land into the hands of a new ruling elite. Dunbar-Ortiz argues that this ideology was one of the means by which the ruling class neutralized class conflict between wealthy and poor settlers. But as she notes, England “practiced” the methods of colonial conquest it used in North America first in its conquest of Ireland.
The English government paid bounties for the Irish heads. Later only the scalp or ears were required. A century later in North America, Indian heads and scalps were brought in for bounty in the same manner. Although the Irish were as “white” as the English, transforming them into alien others to be exterminated previewed what came to be perceived as racialist when applied to Indigenous peoples of North America and to Africans.
Many descendants of those family members who settled in Ireland under British rule later went on to settle in the US. These folks, called Scots-Irish because many were of Scottish descent, played the same role as they had in Ireland. “Scots-Irish were the foot soldiers of British empire building,” writes Dunbar-Ortiz, “and they and their descendants formed the shock troops of the “westward movement” in North America, the expansion of the US continental empire and the colonization of its inhabitants.”
A strength of Indigenous People’s History is how it connects the conquest of the continent to US overseas conquest. Not only the scorched-earth military methods it employs, but also the language that the US military uses to reference its overseas wars, is steeped in language from its wars against Indians. The US military gained experience first in fighting over this land mass against the Indigenous population, and this history still informs the military when it comes to US occupations of other nations. Indeed, many of the generals who led US troops in the conquest of the Philippines from 1898 to 1902 were trained US soldiers against “hostile” Indians in the West. It is still common in the military today to refer to “Indian Country” as enemy territory in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In this Dunbar-Ortiz connects the history of imperialism from the Pequot War in 1637 to the Mexican-American War in 1846, and from the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 to the War in Afghanistan.
The book faces some challenges as a result of its length, which was apparently dictated to Dunbar-Ortiz by the publisher. Covering hundreds of years of Indigenous history in fewer than 240 pages is a tall task. Its brevity makes it a good book to introduce the topic, but it also makes it difficult to offer much historical narrative. At points, important periods of history feel unnecessarily truncated. At points, more time is devoted to the white conquerers than to the Indians who resisted. For example, in a chapter devoted to Andrew Jackson’s war on Indigenous peoples, Osceola—one of the key Seminole leaders who fought Jackson, leading to the largest and costliest military defeat of the United States prior to the Vietnam war, isn’t mentioned. Moreover, Dunbar isn’t afforded the time to present a developed picture of what Indian Country looks like today, and the current political, economic, and social struggles facing Indigenous nations.
She ends her book with a call for the US to honor treaties it has made with Indigenous nations, restoring sacred sites including giving the Black Hills back to the Lakota, and massive reparations to reconstruct and restore native nations. A “radically reconfigured” continent, she argues, will require “the full support and active participation of the descendants of settlers, enslaved Africans, and colonized Mexicans, as well as immigrant populations.”