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’ voyages: the annihilation and conquest of Native Americans.
An injury to one is an injury to all, the old labor slogan goes. What if we applied that idea to US indigenous history? How does the history of genocide affect all people in the United States even today?
This week, as some in the United States mark Indigenous People’s Day, author and professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz suggests that while remembering native history is good, it would be far better if we took the time and all got a lot smarter about how the treatment of Native Americans set wheels in motion that affect us all through to the present.
In her new book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, longtime author-activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz corrects the record: The precolonial continent wasn’t untamed, uncultivated: “There was a road from Alaska down to southern Mexico; roads that [went] from east to west, north to south . . . Not paths . . . not roads just for hunting paths or migrations.” These were trade routes, reports Dunbar-Ortiz. “They had stops; they had places to stay . . . And trade items from central Mexico ended up in what is now Quebec and the Great Lakes area and vice versa.”
Before colonial capitalism, there existed what she calls “indigenous socialism.” The destruction of that economy through war, denial of self-determination, dispossession, criminalization and violence against women affected no group more than indigenous people, but they weren’t the only ones.
Colonialism, she argues, served as “an escape valve for the mother country.” Peasants thrown off their lands with the enclosure of the commons were assuaged with an offer of land “where they could be lord,” she says. But poor settlers too were “duped.”
“Corporations are predators to everyone now,” she said.
Understanding indigenous history not only reveals a lot about how we all live and why; reconnecting the dots of this history gives glimpses of alternatives and ways, she suggests, to, as Naomi Klein says, “change everything.” Dunbar-Ortiz traces her own heritage to Oklahoma white settlers and to Cherokees. Her other books include Red Dirt, Growing Up Okie, Outlaw Woman and Blood on the Border, A Memoir of the Contra War. The video of our conversation can be seen on The Laura Flanders show at GRITtv.org, or on Telesur English. The text has been edited lightly for publication.
Laura Flanders: I got [the message] very strongly that this isn’t necessarily a book for indigenous people. They may well know this history. It’s for the rest of us. Why is it needed?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: It’s for everyone to understand, for the settlers, for the immigrants, to understand indigenous people’s experience of the United States and point of view. As a historian, I really wanted to call it the True History of the United States because it’s not just that there are two points of view. There are the colonizer and the colonized, but do you really want to identify with the colonizers?
Yet that’s exactly what our history for the most has done. What’s different when you look at it from the colonized point of view?
First of all, you see the United States founded as a settler state. It’s a republic; it’s called a republic. The French called their republic a republic, but it was still a colonizer – colonized Algeria and Vietnam – but the United States, of course, is exceptional. It could not possibly be a settler state; it could not possibly be imperialist; it’s rescuing people, helping people. The very first emblem of the Puritans when they came over was a very tired, weary looking native person with a kind of limp bow and arrow saying, “please come help us, come save us.”
Hence that very typical idea that this was a land without people or culture, that needed the civilization that the settlers would bring. . . .
This was Zionism, and this was the new Jerusalem. The Puritans had a whole philosophy and ideology of this being a place given to them by their god.
Different from South America, we’re led to believe in our history books that here was no culture that you could see, like the Aztecs or the Incas. Instead there were roaming bands of people on horseback . . .
. . . in an untamed forest, a vast wilderness that had not been tamed. Of course, it’s not true at all. The valley of Mexico influenced both south and north, the birth of civilization sort of like in the Old World: the Tigris and the Euphrates in Egypt, and it went everywhere. Corn and the farming went all the way up to the Great Lakes, to [the Northeast] and to the Sub-Arctic. Ninety-nine percent of the indigenous population in North America were farmers who lived in towns and had grain storages, and very sophisticated governance.
The roads are the most amazing thing. Until I did this book, I had known about the roads in the Southwest (they are very connected to central Mexico), because that’s my [area of specialization]. I had no idea that there was a road from Alaska down to southern Mexico – the Pan-American Highway today; roads crisscrossing that [went] from east to west, north to south in every direction. They were all trade routes. They were not paths; they were not roads just for hunting paths or migrations. There were roads that were used. They had stops; they had places to stay. They had markets and trade, and trade items from central Mexico ended up in what is now Quebec and the Great Lakes area and vice versa. All of those artifacts tell you there was this enormous amount of trade, and in general, the Toltecs, before the Aztecs, created turquoise as the means of exchange. So they had monetary systems.
It’s fascinating. I learned so much from this book, I have to say, so thank you for the many years you put into writing it. You write repeatedly that you cannot talk about capitalism in the US without talking about colonialism.
Well, in general, I think you cannot talk about capitalism without colonialism. Even Marx said that the primary accumulation of capital came from the looting of the Americas and the enslavement of the Africans and of native peoples. In the first century of Spanish-Portuguese colonization, native slavery was legal. It was replaced by African slavery. Once the church wanted to enslave the natives, have them build their missions and so forth.
It’s interesting you say that even the colonial class, many of them were people who had been, if not enslaved, at least dispossessed inside the colonial countries. Originally, the not-very-United Kingdom.
Yes, the United Kingdom and in Spain. Those who were displaced by the fencing of the commons all over Europe and England were without any means of income and they were thrown into labor in the textile mills as sheep became a commodity.
The landless peasants who maybe harvested berries in the forest or grazed their livestock on the lord’s land, were made pretty vulnerable, particularly vulnerable to a promise that land could be theirs.
It solves, as Peter Linebaugh writes, it solves a contradiction between the creation of the landless possibly volatile class of people who are very angry about their dispossession, so offer them land far away and they too can be a lord. It’s an escape valve for the mother country, and then when the United States – when it’s a republic – uses its colonization on the rest of the continent as an escape valve from a volatile, unhappy, lower class.
Don’t make trouble here. Go west.
Right. Find some land and it will be your own.
You said “motherland,” but you also talk about patriarchy.
The oppression of women, of course, goes back – the division of labor and so forth. In Europe and in England, women had a lot of authority pre-Catholic, pre-church times, of being the medicine people, of being the farmers, the people who kept the seeds, the spiritual people. There were some men, but this was mainly a woman’s role – sort of the intellectual class. With the fencing of the commons and the Crusades, the lords and the monarchy, and the church targeted then these people of pre-Catholic religious practices and this is the burning and killing of the witches, millions of people, mostly women were killed.
A large proportion of whom were called witches for failure to pay rent? Why is it important to tell this story and for us to understand it today, we who are not indigenous people?
We need to understand what a settler state is and the role we play. I mean half my family are settlers, Scotch-Irish on the Dunbar side. I’ve really studied this sort of family history and they were among the losers on the frontier who ended up in Oklahoma. You could not make a living farming; you could not compete with the plantation and slavery, so you were subordinate to them as a tenant or sharecropper because they kept eating up land – and yet they kept their hope. They would go to the next frontier and they were going to make it this time, so they end up in Oklahoma and then the dust bowl and everyone is dispossessed, and they go to California. So, I know that story very well, yet the consciousness that’s there is that this is still possible. There is still this sense that there is the American dream.
But your other side are Cherokee?
Yes, so I have a split personality, but I can see both sides. I have a lot of sympathy for people who were duped and they don’t like to think that they were duped, but they were duped. I just think it’s very liberating to know the truth. I really believe in that old adage, the truth will make you free.
You still haven’t explained how that settler history and the consciousness and that tradition plays out now or affects us now?
Look at the Tea Party. Those are people who want that dream back. They are mostly descendants of the old settlers. Spain had its own settlers too. Not being Jewish and not being Muslim meant you could be an old settler and you had a certain nobility. So there’s this sense, there was also an ideology created of nationalism during the Andrew Jackson era of the old settlers being actually the indigenous people. Not only this idea of manifest destiny and Zion, but also that the Indians are fading away and they present to us settlers as in Last of the Mohicans: Now it’s yours, we’ve had our time; it is now your land to take care of. That is a very strong mentality that they are the indigenous. Just like the Afrikaners in South Africa.
It also speaks to me of the reality that we’ve had experiences of different economic systems in the United States on this territory, on this continent. Going back and thinking about the pre-capitalist culture is liberating, also in the sense that you stop equating “civilization” with a particular economic system. There was another one.
Yes, and it was socialistic. Indigenous socialism. Collectively – this is why native property wasn’t recognized: Because it was collectively owned and then they tried to allot it. They literally put in the Dawes Act (the Allotment Act) that selfishness had to be created for civilization to flourish among the native people. The other aspect that I think that we have to be aware of is that every inch of territory that is now the United States was taken by warfare. War on the native people, many of these were genocidal wars, and in every case, native people resisted in one way or another to stay on their land: they don’t just give up. In this 300 years of warfare, 100 of it under the United States republic preceded by 200 years of settler-colonial warfare, most of it by local armed militias, a certain kind of warfare developed that was the root and foundation of the US military. Acted out time and again: you look at Vietnam, it resonated so much with the Indian wars. They even use a lot of the same terminology that they used, like “Indian Country.”
There is so much more in the book and I really encourage people to really look at it. You are pretty critical of corporations and foundations and their relationship to native land and native issues. Do you want to talk about that?
Corporations are predators to everyone now, but native people are kind of the canaries in the mine in the 19th century. The United States government – which had a federal trust responsibility under the treaties to protect native land from outsiders, from settlers coming in or companies coming in – instead did the opposite and would give leases and give contracts without consulting the native people. So the corporations ran rampant from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In Oklahoma, it was mainly petroleum and mining. All through the West, mining and seizing land, simply transferring it or making native land into so-called public lands that is then leased out to the government.
If we had just been paying closer attention, we might have seen what would happen next to everyone.
You also have a very different approach to the Second Amendment . . .
The Second Amendment is – many African-Americans have noted correctly that it applied to militias to police the plantations informally. Often these were very poor white people who were hired to be the militias and very brutal. But long before that, initially, I think the ongoing – at least in that point of time – the major crisis of the US was wanting to get into the Ohio Valley and to expand. The militias that controlled native people and burned their towns – and burned their food – killed people, carried this out without the government criticizing it or punishing it, but not necessarily condoning it.
You have dedicated a lifetime to writing history that refuses to do anything other than apply a race, gender and class lens to everything that you do. You have also been actively involved in movements that go back to the ’60s, through the American Indian Movement (AIM) right to the present. Any lesson to people out there or message to those who may think this is old political correctness, we’ve done this, now we can all be one people again? We don’t need this-one’s history and that-one’s history; we’re ready now for a new era?
Native people may be in a stronger position politically almost than any other group in the United States right now. People are looking to Native Americans: Well, what is it that’s going on? Idle No More really alerted people.
They talked on this program [about] how native treaty rights might be the way we stop corporate exploitation of the dirty tar sands or other dirty oil resources.
Exactly. With democracy within native nations that can control the tribal governments that are so attached to the federal government – that’s been a long struggle to break that colonialist tie where that’s who they answer to rather than the people – then it’s a very, very strong basis for fighting the corporations.
But still important that we tell these peoples’ histories.
It’s important that we tell all people’s history, but especially native people because it is the history of this country and it is what is lost, and we should really be mourning it – what was lost. When people read that first chapter “Follow the Corn,” I think there will be this great sense of sadness. There’s a great sadness, I think, in people about native people and the genocide. But there are two things: It’s worse than you imagine, what you thought was lost. [And] don’t give up on native people. They survived; they are survivors – and have survivor skills. They survived the worst genocide in human history – the greatest numbers over the greatest times. They know a lot that is going to be very important as we face some difficult times ahead.
Roxanne, thank you for bringing us so many more stories that I hope people will come to remember and appreciate. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States is just out; we’ll put a link at our website. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, thanks for coming in.