Author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz speaks about her book on the true history of how the United States became a nation and the Eurocentric racism used to justify it.
The false narrative of Columbus “discovering” the Americas still pervades history books and the Eurocentric mindset of the United States. Learn the true history of what author and Professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz calls the legacy of Columbus’s voyages: the annihilation and conquest of Native-Americans. Read “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” now.
“It’s essential to remember that the United States had been involved in overseas imperialism from the beginning,” author and Professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes. That policy was forged as the original 13 colonies expanded westward and committed genocide against Native Americans. Many of the empire-building acts of the United States throughout its history – including at the current moment – can be explained by its war on indigenous inhabitants of North America that was justified by Eurocentric racism and “manifest destiny.”
The following is an extensive interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on the true history of how the United States became a nation, occupying land it did not own by decimating native residents. It’s an eye-opening account that thoroughly debunks jingoistic and false history taught in the vast majority of US schools.
Mark Karlin: Here it is October and the nation celebrated the 13th of this month as Columbus Day, “honoring” Columbus for “discovering” the Western Hemisphere. Many people, at least now, have the alternative of celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day, including those of us at Truthout. Isn’t it a bit galling that Columbus Day is still a federal holiday, given that it reinforces a false narrative that resulted in a magnitude of death and barbarity that is almost incompressible?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yes. As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our nation was born in genocide. . . . We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode.”
Continuing to celebrate Columbus’s first voyage is an example of what Dr. King refers to as elevating genocide to a noble crusade. Columbus’ voyage on behalf of the Spanish monarchs, endorsed by the Holy Roman empire, marked the onset of modern colonialism as well as the beginning of the African and Native-American slave trade. And capitalism. Marx aptly described the process of primary accumulation of capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of prior accumulation.” – Karl Marx, from Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist
Following up on Columbus Day, your 11th chapter is entitled “The Doctrine of Discovery.” How has this doctrine been used to seize what were indigenous lands by the United States?
From the mid-15th century to the mid-20th century, most of the non-European world was colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the first principles of international law Christian European monarchies promulgated to legitimize investigating, mapping and claiming lands belonging to peoples outside Europe. It originated in a papal bull issued in 1455 that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa. Following Columbus’ voyage, another papal bull extended similar permission to Spain. Disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies led to the papal-initiated Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which, besides dividing the globe equally between the two Iberian empires, clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the discovery doctrine.
This doctrine, on which all European states relied, thus originated with the arbitrary and unilateral establishment of the Iberian monarchies’ exclusive rights under Christian canon law to colonize foreign peoples, and this right was later seized by other European monarchical colonizing projects. The French Republic used this legalistic instrument for its 19th- and 20th-century settler colonialist projects, as did the newly independent United States, when it continued the colonization of North America begun by the British.
In 1792, not long after the US founding, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery developed by European states was international law applicable to the new US government as well. In 1823, the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall held that the Doctrine of Discovery had been an established principle of European law and of English law in effect in Britain’s North American colonies and was also the law of the United States. The Court defined the exclusive property rights that a European country acquired by dint of discovery: “Discovery gave title to the government, by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.” Indigenous rights were, in the court’s words, “in no instance, entirely disregarded; but were necessarily, to a considerable extent, impaired.” The court further held that indigenous “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished.” Indigenous peoples could continue to live on the land, but title resided with the discovering power, the United States. The decision concluded that native nations were “domestic, dependent nations.” This remains the fundamental colonial law under which the United States’ government structures its relationship with Native-American nations.
The doctrine of discovery has been used by many colonial powers historically to claim land. After all, most of what is now the United States was first seized in the name of European powers, particularly Britain, Spain and France. Can you elaborate on the related notion of terra nullius (meaning land belonging to no one in Latin) that was used by British explorers, for example, to assert that aborigines and other indigenous populations did not occupy what is now Australia, so therefore they could be slaughtered since they were disposable and not a sovereign nation. Wasn’t this doctrine also applied to the lands acquired by the US through “manifest destiny,” even though the indigenous populations of North America did have identities that were a variation on nationhood, just different from the European model?
The Doctrine of Discovery does not require terra nullius in order to seize land from the indigenous inhabitants. However, the British settlers of the 13 North American colonies, particularly Massachusetts Bay colony, as well as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, and carried on the independent US republic as well as by the republics of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay, justified their brutal massacres of Native farmers and fishing people by claiming that the land was sparsely populated, invoking terra nullius.
That’s why the first chapter in the book, “Follow the Corn,” about precolonial North America, is so important. Here I document the large populations that existed, with 99 percent of the indigenous population, agricultural producers, living in towns and cities, with vast irrigation systems, as well as networks of roads for robust trade and travel. The Valley of México was the source of the spread of agriculture all over the temperate, as well as even arid, regions of North America. Along the coasts, fishing villages thrived, with travel and trade around the Pacific, Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean. The nomadic people of the bison in the Plains were also involved in trading – the bison were even imported into upstate New York by the nations of the Iroquois. Rather than hunting, Native peoples built deer parks and practiced game management that brought the animals to them, rather than having to hunt them down.
The other important element has been called the “terminal narrative.” In this version of terra nullius, infectious diseases brought by the Europeans wiped out most of the indigenous populations and would have depopulated the continent even if European settlers had never come, due to the trading ships along the Atlantic coast before settlement began. The principal reason the consensus view is wrong and ahistorical is that it erases the effects of settler colonialism with its antecedents in the Spanish “Reconquest” and the English conquest of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. By the time Spain, Portugal and Britain arrived to colonize the Americas, their methods of eradicating peoples or forcing them into dependency and servitude were ingrained, streamlined and effective. If disease could have done the job, it is not clear why the European colonizers in America found it necessary to carry out unrelenting wars against indigenous communities in order to gain every inch of land they took from them – nearly 300 years of colonial warfare, followed by continued wars waged by the independent republics of the hemisphere.
What was the role of religious manifest destiny to “conquer the heathens in the name of God,” as you discuss in your section on Calvinism?
Most US historians of the pre-Republican period of Anglo colonizing projects attribute to the Puritans the fundamental ideology that still forms the basis for US nationalism and identity. The Puritans’ arguments justifying their “errand in the wilderness” are very similar to those made by the Calvinist Boer settlers in Southern Africa, as well as the Calvinist Scots settlers in Northern Ireland, all of them embracing the concept of “Zion” and a new “Jerusalem,” a godly mission to realize their god’s will for creating “civilization” and destroying the devil-filled savages, false occupiers of land granted to the Calvinists’ god’s children. This rhetoric is nearly identical to that used by Zionism in seizing and settling the land of the Palestinians.
Although most US citizens today would not make the Calvinist argument, the residue of that ideology produces the nearly totally embraced concept of US exceptionalism. As President Barak Obama told an Al Arabiya television interviewer in Dubai, in affirming that the United States could be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power.” Of course, he was lambasted by right-wing patriots and even the press for claiming the US was less than perfect.
Your book is replete with research confirming how the US waged a conscious, often proclaimed war of annihilation, including ongoing massacres of women and children, against Native Americans to obtain land for white “settlers.” How many Native-Americans were killed in the barbaric expansion of the US westward?
I don’t believe anyone knows for sure how many Native Americans were killed in the process of US colonization of the continent, from founding to 1916. In the 16th century, it is estimated that there were 15 million native people in what is now the continental United States (but 30 million in the Valley of Mexico, which is inseparable from North American precolonial relations; 100 million in the Western Hemisphere); today, there are 3 million Native Americans within US borders.
Settler colonialism, as 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 processes.
The term “genocide” was coined following the Shoah, or Holocaust, and its prohibition was enshrined in the United Nations convention adopted in 1948: the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention is not retroactive but is applicable to US-Indigenous relations since 1988, when the US Senate ratified it. The terms of the genocide convention are also useful tools for historical analysis of the effects of colonialism in any era. In the convention, any one of five acts is considered genocide if “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”:
• killing members of the group;
• causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The colonization of North America was genocidal by plan, not simply the tragic fate of populations lacking immunity to disease. In the case of the Jewish Holocaust, no one denies that more Jews died of starvation, overwork and disease under Nazi incarceration than died in gas ovens, yet the acts of creating and maintaining the conditions that led to those deaths clearly constitute genocide.
Can you sum up how Andrew Jackson engaged in “career building through genocide”?
As the most notorious land speculator in western Tennessee, Jackson enriched himself by acquiring a portion of the Chickasaw Nation’s land from which he carved his large slave-worked plantation. In 1801, Jackson took command of the Tennessee militia as a colonel and began his Indian-killing military career. With his army of white settlers promised booty and land, his militia waged a brutal war of annihilation against the Muskogee Creek Nation. Jackson, far from being reprimanded for his genocidal methods, won a commission from President James Madison as major general in the US Army. In that capacity, he commanded regular and mercenary troops in attacking resistant Muskogee Seminole villages in Spanish Florida. Wars against the Seminoles continued into and through and beyond his presidency. Jackson was elected to the presidency in 1828 as a hero to the planter class as well as the landless poor whites, to whom he promised land. He carried out their will as commander and chief of the armed forces in forcibly removing the five large agricultural nations in the Southeast to Indian Territory (later the state of Oklahoma) in forced marches.
After the Civil War, journalist James Mooney interviewed people who had been involved in the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation. Based on these firsthand accounts, he described the scene in 1838, when the US Army removed the last of the Cherokees by force:
Under [General Winfield] Scott’s orders, the troops were disposed at various points throughout the Cherokee country, where stockade forts were erected for gathering in and holding the Indians preparatory to removal. From these, squads of troops were sent to search out with rifle and bayonet every small cabin hidden away in the coves or by sides of mountain streams, to seize and bring in as prisoners all the occupants, however or wherever they might be found. Families at dinner were startled by the sudden gleam of bayonets in the doorway and rose up to be driven with blows and oaths along the weary miles of trail that led to the stockade. Men were seized in their fields or going along the road, women were taken from their wheels and children from their play. In many cases, on turning for one last look as they crossed the ridge, they saw their homes in flames, fired by the lawless rabble that followed on the heels of the soldiers to loot and pillage. So keen were these outlaws on the scene that in some instances they were driving off the cattle and other stock of the Indians almost before the soldiers had fairly started their owners in the other direction. Systematic hunts were made by the same men for Indian graves, to rob them of the silver pendants and other valuables deposited with the dead. A Georgia volunteer, afterward a colonel in the Confederate service, said: ‘I fought through the civil war and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew.’
You quote many famous figures in US history, including Walt Whitman and Theodore Roosevelt, expressing their abject racism toward the indigenous population. In essence, the Euro-centric wave of US occupation of indigenous lands appeared grounded in a wanton racial stereotype of Native-Americans as an inferior race, even implying that they were a species so inferior that causing their extinction was a benefit to the human species. From where did this despicable outlook derive?
By the time of Theodore Roosevelt, US society, including “scientists,” was awash in Social Darwinism and eugenics. But, clearly, Walt Whitman was a true visionary in the sense that his vile language of Mexicans, “Injuns,” and “niggers,” fit into the Social Darwinism that developed in the Atlantic world as a justification for colonialism and genocide, not just in North America, but all the Americas and Caribbean, South Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific, and especially, Africa and African Americans.
As an enthusiastic supporter of the US war against Mexico in 1846, Whitman proposed the stationing of 60,000 US troops in Mexico in order to establish a regime change there “whose efficiency and permanency shall be guaranteed by the United States. This will bring out enterprise, open the way for manufacturers and commerce, into which the immense dead capital of the country [Mexico] will find its way.” Whitman explicitly grounded this prescription in racism: “The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated; it is the law of the races, history. . . . A superior grade of rats come and then all the minor rats are cleared out.” The whole world would benefit from US expansion: “We pant to see our country and its rule far-reaching. What has miserable, inefficient Mexico . . . to do with the great mission of peopling the New World with a noble race?” In September 1846, when General Zachary Taylor’s troops captured Monterrey, Whitman hailed it as “another clinching proof of the indomitable energy of the Anglo-Saxon character.” Whitman’s sentiments reflected the established US origin myth that had the frontier settlers replacing the native peoples as historical destiny.
That Whitman remains the idol of so many US American intellectuals, scholars, and writers, including predominately the Beat Era rebel poets, attests to the deep-seated racism in US culture, a kind of toxic that oozes everywhere. Thanks to the powerful African-American-led Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century, there is much greater awareness now of the crimes of the Atlantic slave trade and the institution of legalized enslavement of Africans in the United States. Although deep-seated racial discrimination and racial hatred persists, such acts are at least denounced and are formally illegal. However, the residue of Indian-hating and Indian-killing has been dealt with sporadically, and the myth of a “natural” disappearance of a “backward race” is not far from the surface of most US Americans’ consciousness. The renewed and very public indigenous resistance movements in the 20th century have produced hundreds of researchers, writers and spokespersons that are beginning to have an effect, as witness a widespread questioning of celebrating Columbus, and, of course, the public debate about the Washington football team’s moniker.
You draw a close relationship to the US using strategies of empire against the indigenous population that became part of a pattern in how the United States became a colonial power independent of Europe. Can you give an example of how this played out with possessions such as the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico?
Yes, but it’s essential to remember that the United States had been involved in overseas imperialism from the beginning. Traversing the continent “from sea to shining sea” was hardly a natural westward procession of covered wagons as portrayed in Western movies. The US invasion of Mexico was carried out by US marines, by sea, through Veracruz, and the early colonization of California initially progressed from the Pacific coast, reached from the Atlantic coast by way of Tierra del Fuego.
Between the Mississippi River and the Rockies lay a vast region controlled by indigenous nations that were neither conquered nor colonized by any European power, and although the United States managed to annex northern Mexico, large numbers of settlers could not reach the Northern California goldfields or the fertile Willamette Valley region of the Pacific Northwest without army regiments accompanying them. 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.
Then there were the Barbary Wars. The opening lyric of the official hymn of the US Marine Corps, composed and adopted soon after the invasion of Mexico, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” refers in part to 1801-1805, when the Marines were dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to invade the Berber Nation of North Africa. This was the “First Barbary War,” the ostensible goal of which was to persuade Tripoli to release US sailors it held hostage and to end “pirate” attacks on US merchant ships. The “Second Barbary War,” in 1815-1816, ended when pasha Yusuf Karamanli, ruler of Tripoli, agreed not to exact fees from US ships entering their territorial waters.
But, yes, the post-Civil War US Army of the West that carried out the genocidal counterinsurgencies against the peoples of the Northern Plains, the Intermountain West, and the Southwest moved abroad in the 1890s to the Caribbean, Central America and the Pacific, carrying out tried and tested counterinsurgency campaigns against those peoples who resisted. The prime target by 1898 were the Spanish colonies of the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico, where nationalist forces were fighting for independence from Spain, and the US intervened to drive Spain out, then turned on the insurgents, holding the Philippines as a colony for nearly a half century, dominated Cuba until the Cuban Revolution, and seized and still holds Puerto Rico as a colony (also Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, American Samoa, the Marshall Islands, and other Pacific islands).
In your conclusion, you state bluntly that “North America is a crime scene.” Can you expand on that?
I take that concept of North America as a “crime scene” from Chickasaw scholar Jodi Byrd. One can imagine yellow tape surrounding the whole of the United States. I think the metaphor of a crime scene brings to consciousness the unfinished business of dealing with the past. It also raises the question of the violence and criminalization that permeates the society, the prison-industrial complex as well as the proliferation of firearms and attachment to them, and the continued US wars against much of the rest of the world, rhetorically and militarily.
On pages 64-65, you provide background to the barbaric origin of the term “redskins.” In light of your historical account, how do you view the refusal of the Washington DC NFL franchise to change its name?
Not only the Washington franchise, but also public schools and colleges across the country use “redskins” as their nickname. And not only does the Washington team balk at dropping the odious name, but also the fans continue to support its retention. I believe this willfulness is based on something more profound than ignorance of the historical significance of the term and is actually an affirmation of settler-colonialism, that a dead Indian is the symbol of the team that inhabits the US capitol.
The source of “redskins”: As an incentive to recruit fighters, colonial authorities early on introduced a program of scalp hunting that became a permanent and long-lasting element of settler warfare against indigenous nations. During the Pequot War, Connecticut and Massachusetts colonial officials had offered bounties initially for the heads of murdered indigenous people and later for only their scalps, which were more portable in large numbers. But scalp hunting became routine only in the mid-1670s, following an incident on the northern frontier of the Massachusetts colony. The practice began in earnest in 1697, when settler Hannah Dustin, having murdered 10 of her Abenaki captors in a nighttime escape, presented their 10 scalps to the Massachusetts General Assembly and was rewarded with bounties for two men, two women and six children. Dustin soon became a folk hero among New England settlers.
Scalp hunting became a lucrative commercial practice. The settler authorities had hit upon a way to encourage settlers to take off on their own or with a few others to gather scalps, at random, for the reward money. “In the process,” military historian John Grenier points out, “they established the large-scale privatization of war within American frontier communities.”
Although the colonial government in time raised the bounty for adult male scalps, lowered that for adult females, and eliminated that for indigenous children under 10, the age and gender of victims were not easily distinguished by their scalps nor checked carefully. What is more, the scalp hunter could take the children captive and sell them into slavery. These practices erased any remaining distinction between indigenous combatants and noncombatants and introduced a market for indigenous slaves. Bounties for indigenous scalps were honored even in absence of war. Scalps and indigenous children became means of exchange, currency, and this development may even have created a black market. Scalp hunting was not only a profitable privatized enterprise but also a means to eradicate or subjugate the indigenous population of the Anglo-American Atlantic seaboard. The settlers gave a name to the mutilated and bloody corpses they left in the wake of scalp-hunts: redskins.
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