An Indigenous peoples’ history of the United States

Indigenous cover

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the 16th century onward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which has 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. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore, all exalt it.

— Martin Luther King Jr.

 My belated education (see here) continues with

  • Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous peoples’ history of the United States (2014).

Having outlined her own troubled family history and her path to activism and research after the Wounded Knee siege of 1973, Dunbar-Ortiz rewrites the standard periodisation of US history.

The facts are well documented, if still widely ignored: genocide, along with slavery; a catalogue of massacres and expropriation; the commodification of land, with “sacred land becoming real estate”. But like Tanya Talaga she puts the story in global context, as a template for colonialism around the world; and she also stresses survival.

Starting with early history, the very notion of America as a “New World” is deceptive.

It should not have happened that the great civilisations of the Western hemisphere, the very evidence of the Western hemisphere, were wantonly destroyed, the gradual progress of humanity interrupted and set upon a path of greed and destruction.

Before the colonists arrived, North America was no wilderness; in the words of Francis Jennings,

They did not settle a virgin land. They invaded and displaced a resident population.

Dunbar-Ortiz describes imperialism and settler colonialism, the propounding of the white supremacist doctrines of manifest destiny and the covenant with God, the Columbus myth and the doctrine of discovery.

As “trendy postmodernist studies” insisted on Indigenous “agency”, “encounter”, and “dialogue”, they still refrained from fundamental questions: “with multiculturalism, manifest destiny won the day”. Seeing settler colonialism as a genocidal policy—a view obscured by the “nation of immigrants” framework—she comments:

The notion that settler-indigenous conflict is an inevitable product of cultural differences and misunderstandings, or that violence was committed equally by by the colonised and the coloniser, blurs the nature of the historical process.

The culture of conquest didn’t start with Europeans crossing the Atlantic:

By the time Spain, Portugal, and Britain arrived to colonise the Americas, their methods of eradicating peoples or forcing them into dependency and servitude were ingrained, streamlined, and effective.

Indeed, as Chalk and Jonassohn observed in 1990, “genocide has been practised in all regions of the world and during all periods in history”; it was even widely celebrated. Dunbar-Ortiz adduces the “profit-based religion” of the Crusades, a Christian zeal to justify colonialism. And domestic crusades were waged against heretics and the poor; as the labour of the European peasantry was exploited, relocation, deportation, and expropriation of land were already commonly practised by the late 15th century. With European commoners suffering from the transition from common land to land as private property, they found an escape valve; colonialism around the world offered them new opportunities to join in the usurping of resources, land, and labour. The ideology of white supremacy, already clear in the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia, would provide an illusion of class levelling. Dunbar-Ortiz notes the savage British conquest of Ireland in the early 1600s.

Dunbar-Ortiz scrutinises the Calvinist origin story, in which the notional superiority of the early Anglo-Scottish-Irish colonists has remained entrenched, despite the “nation of immigrants” theme.

Disease was only one among several factors in the sharp decline of Indigenous populations in the Americas over the 16th and 17th centuries. Gold was the new currency of colonialist ventures, seducing both elites and common people; successive gold rushes increased the greed of migrants and stimulated further ethnic cleansing.

The systems of colonisation were modern and rational, but its [sic] ideological basis was madness.

The Seven Years’ War (1754–63) between the British and the French was largely a British war with the Indigenous peoples. As Dunbar-Ortiz observes, the kind of counterinsurgent warfare that the Scots-Irish settlers perfected formed the basis of US militarism into the 21st century: unlimited war with extreme violence, whose purpose is to destroy the will of the enemy people or their capacity to resist, employing any means necessary but mainly by attacking civilians and their support systems, such as food supply. She notes the continuing use of such vocabulary in the US military machine, such as the term “Indian country” in the Vietnam war, and the code name “Geronimo” for the 2011 campaign against Osama bin Laden.

Another weapon of war was alcohol, which took a growing toll on Indigenous peoples through the 18th century. Christian missionaries accompanied the genocide, but even conversion didn’t ensure survival.

The settlers continued waging genocidal wars after the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In the southern states stolen from the native population, the basis of the plantation economy was slavery (my naïve question for white supremacists: why go to the bother of importing slaves all the way from Africa when they could simply have enslaved the Indigenous population rather than exterminating them?).

In the Southeast the “genocidal sociopath” Andrew Jackson implemented the “final solution”; his presidency enshrined genocide at the apex of US government.

Democracy, equality, and equal rights do not fit well with the dominance of one race by another, much less with genocide, settler colonialism, and empire. It was during the 1820s—the beginning of the era of Jackson settler democracy—that the unique US origin myth evolved reconciling rhetoric with reality.

In The last of the Mohicans (1826) James Fenimore Cooper set a pattern for the nullifying of guilt. As an instance of the denial of colonialism Dunbar-Ortiz cites Obama’s inaugural address in 2009.

The story is just as shocking as the great invasion moves West. Enthusiastically supporting the US war against Mexico in 1846, Walt Whitman praised “historical destiny”:

The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated; it is the law of races, history…

For such authors, still celebrated today, heroism was the major theme.

Dunbar-Ortiz notes foreign wars at the time, in former Spanish territories of Mexico and South America, as well as in north Africa.

Indigenous peoples were the object of ongoing brutality through the Civil War. Some groups actually sided with the Confederates. Kit Carson’s campaigns against the Navajo were infamous. By 1870 the Indigenous population of California was reduced to 30,000, “quite possibly the most extreme demographic disaster of all time” (but see Steven Pinker below).

After the Civil War, massacres and land-grabs continued, as the US Army, led by Sherman and Custer, consolidated the conquest of the West—with African-American troops now playing a significant role.

This reality strikes many as tragic, as if oppressed former slaves and Indigenous peoples being subjected to genocidal warfare should magically be unified against their common enemy, “the white man”. In fact, this is just how colonialism in general and colonial warfare in particular work.

Indian scouts were also recruited to the US army. Still the Indigenous peoples fought back, as in the war on the Apaches (1850–96) led by Geronimo. But the Ghost Dance movement of 1890 was a desperate final act of resistance, which would now take new forms.

* * *

Pacified, the survivors now came to be seen as docile, their submission confirmed by the insidious new institution of boarding schools (from the 1870s). By the 1890s most Indigenous communities were confined to reservations, where they could never thrive.

In industrial unrest at home the army protected the bosses. With segregation entrenched, “race riots” erupted. Under Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, and the appointment of John Collier as commissioner for Indian affairs, Indigenous rights were protected to a degree; but communities suffered severely during the Great Depression.

The period after World War Two saw increased claims to compensate for illegally-taken land, though they were always circumscribed. Despite the “Red Scare”, the civil rights movement grew. Abroad, the US was ever more involved in counterinsurgency.

In 1970, under Nixon, the Taos Pueblo managed to regain their sacred site of Blue Lake, leading to further scrutiny of sites such as the Black Hills, scarred by the “odious” Mount Rushmore carvings:

Called the “Shrine of Democracy” by the federal government, it is anything but that; rather it is a shrine of “in-your-face” illegal occupation and colonialism.

New generations took up the struggle for self-determination, with the National Indian Youth Council formed in 1961. Protests began to attract media attention, such as the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island, which lasted for eighteen months. Noting the solidarity and joyful good humour that ruled, Dunbar-Ortiz cites the activists’ proclamation, a fine piece of satire:

We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.

We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty:

We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars (24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.

We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of the land for their own to be held in trust by the American Indians Government and by the Bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity—for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down to the sea. We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilisation and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state…

Further, it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.

Dee Brown’s Bury my heart at Wounded Knee was published in 1970, and in 1973 protesters converged on the site, now “little more than a trading post, a Catholic church, and the mass grave of the hundreds of Lakotas slaughtered in 1890”. This, the culmination of two decades of collective Indigenous resistance, coincided with the Vietnam War, whose massacres recalled those of Native Americans.

Indeed, Dunbar-Ortiz sees the “Indian wars” as a template for US imperialism abroad. From 1798 to 1827 the US intervened militarily 23 times overseas; from 1831 to 1896, 71 times; from 1898 to 1919, 40 times. Again, such campaigns to expand markets were waged under the guise of divine responsibility, as in Cuba and the Philippines.

Despite protests, the US army continued to use the imagery of “Indian country” during the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq. She cites John Grenier:

US people are taught that their military culture does not approve of or encourage targeting and killing civilians and know little or nothing about the nearly three centuries of warfare—before and after the founding of the US—that reduced the Indigenous peoples of the continent to a few reservations by burning their towns and fields and killing civilians, driving the refugees out—step by step— across the continent […] Violence directed systematically against noncombatants through irregular means, from the start, has been a central part of Americans’ way of war.

In 1982 a Spanish and Vatican proposal for the UN to celebrate the doctrine of discovery and the “encounter” between Europeans and the peoples of the Americas was met by protest (cf. Invasion Day in Australia). In 2007 the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was ratified, offering hope that it might “bring western cultures out of their old world of savagery and closer to humanity”, as Leo Killsback put it—analogous with Germany’s progress following the Genocide Convention in the wake of World War Two.

The story now converges with the wider movement against ecological degradation, as vested business and government interests continue to oppose claims for restitution of land.

protest

Protests against the Line 3 pipeline, Minnesota 2021 (source).
Generally I’m much in favour of well-illustrated books,
but I find the lack of images in Dunbar-Ortiz’s book rather eloquent.

Dunbar-Ortiz illustrates the travails of economic self-determination with the giant electronics company Fairchild at Shiprock in the Navajo Nation, as well as the gaming industry, part of whose profits go towards educational and lobbying activities.

Meanwhile “the mainstream media and books regularly expose and denounce the poverty and social dysfunction found in Indigenous communities”, with widespread alcoholism, child abuse, and suicide (she cites Chris Hodges’ account of Pine Ridge in Days of destruction, days of revolt; for another horrific case, see Grassy Narrows). As several scholars observe, all these are symptoms of trauma and powerlessness in the wake of colonial subjugation. Alcohol has even been seen as a form of resistance, as have truancy and sabotage in boarding schools.

The conventional narrative of US history routinely segregates the “Indian wars” as a subspecialisation within the dubious category “the West”. Then there are the westerns, those cheap novels, movies, and television shows that nearly every US American imbibed with mother’s milk and that by the mid-20th century were popular in every corner of the world. […]

The opening of the 21st century saw a new, even more brazen form of US militarism and imperialism explode on the world scene.

Legalised torture, as at Guantanamo, was now justified by the precedent of Modoc prisoners in 1872. Dunbar-Ortiz also refers to the displacement of the people of the Chagos Islands to make way for the US base of Diego Garcia, another ongoing dispute.

She notes the astronomical number of firearms owned by US civilians, and their incomprehensible attachment to the Second Amendment (for gun control, see references under Ghost dance).

Overseas empire was the logical outcome of the course the United States chose at its founding.

Under “North America is a crime scene” Dunbar-Ortiz gives a gory catalogue of a deeply troubled society. It remains unclear how America can come to terms with its past; as elsewhere, even acknowledgement of historical crimes would be a start.

* * *

All this may seem like preaching to the converted, but there are plenty of people, like me, who need to read such analysis. Importantly, there’s also a version for young people. Still, I’d like to read reviews by the kind of historians whose world-view the book disputes, ardent defenders of empire like Niall Ferguson. The book will fall on deaf ears among conservatives who still insist that America is “not a racist country”, “as Georgia’s education board adopted a resolution insisting that students should be taught that racism and slavery are aberrations rather than the systemic norm”. (see here, and here). So I remain curious to learn how to bridge the gulf with such people; at least, a book like this may spread these ideas more widely.

It’s worth returning to Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature: a history of violence and humanity (n.2 here), in which he cites Matthew White’s lists for global death tolls through history. While I remain dubious about awarding first “prize” to the 8th-century An Lushan rebellion, the “annihilation of the American Indians” from the 15th to 19th centuries is placed 7th on the list, before World War Two (9th), Mao (11th), Stalin (15th), and World War One (16th). While the statistics are inevitably approximate, Pinker’s consideration is detailed.

European colonialism too has portrayed itself as benign. In the UK, the legacy of colonialism and slavery is, belatedly, becoming a pressing issue—again vehemently resisted by vested interests.

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