Autumn in the US is oddly bookmarked by the two holidays that celebrate the origins of European settler colonialism in the Americas: Columbus’ landfall on October 10, and that mythological encounter of multicultural good will, the first successful harvest of the Plymouth Colony on the fourth Thursday in November.
For those who would reflect on a fuller meaning of that history stripped of the hagiography of the victors, this period is a good one in which to be reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ new book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (from Beacon Press’ ReVisioning History series). The book has just come out in hardcover, and it should be as widely read as possible. It is a foundational work.
It is an overview of more than 400 years of European and US American relations with the Indigenous peoples of the continent, and at less than 240 pages long, it is a somewhat breathless reading experience. But An Indigenous Peoples’ History is really meant to be a beginner’s introduction to the topic; its primary function is as a corrective to the inexcusably minimal depiction of those relations even in other radical or revisionist US histories – including Howard Zinn’s original People’s History, the genesis of the ReVisioning series. In a recent talk in San Francisco, the author described how Zinn essentially commissioned her, when she critiqued this limitation of his work, to write the history he had not.
As an introduction, An Indigenous Peoples’ History is written with a clarity and straightforwardness that aid its presentation of a thesis as sound as it is grim: Genocide against Native Americans was not a “tragic” side consequence of settler colonialism based on “cultural misunderstandings” or the unwitting introduction of disease. It was an explicit policy integral to European colonial expansion in the Americas and foundational to post-colonial nation-building. The Americas were already fully settled when Europeans came. Stating the so-often denied obvious, Dunbar-Ortiz notes: “Settler colonialism 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.” But she also makes it clear that the conditions that drove European expansionism had been hundreds of years in the making.
The class structure developed over centuries in European societies had utterly dispossessed and impoverished a huge segment of their own populations, creating a permanently desperate and land-hungry class whose members, as the book describes, became the justification for and in fact the shock troops of Indian removal. And this remained true even though, time after time, large landholders and speculators were the primary beneficiaries of the land clearances. Dunbar-Ortiz describes how England’s brutal colonization of Ireland in particular served as an effective dry run for its colonial endeavor in the New World.
The ideology of white Christian supremacy, in place since the Crusades, and more recently injected with Calvinism’s idea of the covenant, was also definitive. It wholly justified (when it was necessary to colonial expansion) construing Indigenous peoples as inferior or even satanic. This allowed them no rights – including any to the land on which they lived – that “a white man was bound to respect.” Manifest destiny was the ultimate American expression of this centuries-in-the-making set of doxa. God had conveniently bestowed superior culture (might) upon His chosen, and so they were destined to possess the land. The book convincingly makes the case that these were not the views of outlying extremists, but of the Founding Fathers and the most powerful actors in the colonial and post-colonial political and military arenas.
But there is an equally important and perhaps more unique element that truly makes An Indigenous Peoples’ History fundamental reading. It exposes how the set of beliefs and assumptions justifying the displacement and extermination of Native Americans has been crucial to the establishment of a mainstream US identity that persists today, of which manifest destiny is the unspoken premise. And it describes how this idea-set has been and remains a driver of US militarism elsewhere in the hemisphere and the world.
The identity is the settler identity – surrounded by implacable enemies and hostile nature, the US American’s role is to possess and subdue the land and civilize the peoples. Once the frontier closed in the late 19th century, such a heroic and powerfully attractive identity still needed to find expression, and one way it did is through imperialist enterprises spun as bringing light to dark peoples – but also conveniently beneficial to controlling the trade routes and raw materials necessary to internal economic growth.
But outside intervention was also coeval with ongoing wars against Native peoples throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Dunbar-Ortiz describes the continuous nature of US interventionist policy, almost from the founding of the republic:
Between 1798 and 1827, the US intervened militarily twenty-three times from Cuba to Tripoli (Libya), to Greece. There were seventy-one interventions between 1831 and 1896, on all continents […] forty interventions between 1898 and 1919 […] conducted with even more military heft but using the same methods[.]
The most direct connection between internal and external wars in the late 19th century is the presence of the same military leadership in campaigns against American Indians and in overseas occupations like the Philippines. “Twenty-six of the thirty [US] generals in the Philippines had been officers in the ‘Indian wars,’” according to Dunbar-Ortiz. “Major General Nelson A. Miles [who had led definitive campaigns to uproot the Nez Perce, the Sioux, and the Apache] was put in general command of the army in the Philippines war.” She notes that Admiral Dewey “referred to the Filipino [rebels] as ‘the Indians’ and vowed to […] ‘keep the Indians out’” of Manila.
In the 20th century, the Vietnam War was fought using many of the same methods, and grunts and leaders alike referred to the land beyond enemy lines as “Indian Country.” Dunbar-Ortiz cites military historians who have found the reference in every ensuing US military engagement where troops are on the ground.
Particularly fascinating is her exposure of the use of US legal precedents established during the wars against American Indians, to legitimize torture and the expansion of US military authority in the 21st century “War on Terror.” We are given the example of a Yemeni captive in Guantanamo, whose conviction by US military tribunal was upheld using a precedent from US action against the Seminoles, with the analogy that Seminole resistance was “much like modern-day al Qaeda.” John Yoo’s infamous Bush Administration “Torture Memo” used an 1873 Supreme Court decision declaring vengeful actions, including murder, legal when they are exercised on persons considered “banned from society […] but still subject to the sovereign’s power.” The precedent-setting case in question concerned the treatment of Modoc Indian prisoners in California who had killed a US Army general.
The third beneficial aspect of this work is the emphasis on Indigenous resistance and survival. It describes the scope of the genocide (with the continental Indigenous population collapsing by 90% in less than 200 years, “commonly referred to as the most extreme […] demographic disaster in human history”), but it also refuses the narrative that Native American peoples ever became essentially extinct or irrelevant in spite of the almost unrelenting attempts to make them so. Multiple examples of resistance are noted, as well as the late 20th century resurgence in movements that have led to concrete gains for Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty in the US and globally.
Finally, the book challenges what Dunbar-Ortiz calls the “perfectability narrative” of other radical US histories. This is the idea that the US, whatever its original ills, needs only to continue moving towards greater inclusion, and that an engaged citizenry, building on the accomplishments of previous struggles, will ensure that this happens. But without acknowledgment and significant redress of the original wrong, she counters, inclusion will always be an empty word. If there is no acceptance of the fundamentality of genocide to settler colonialism, including in the territory that became the USA, colonialism’s unspoken norms will continue to underlie all US politics, internal or external.
Almost as a side note, she dismisses postmodern and “multicultural” relativist approaches with a lack of equivocation that seems overdue on the Left – that emperor has been parading around in the nude for quite a while.
No matter how many other histories are published in the ReVisioning series, in my view this is the one that should be read first and foremost. The great value of historical events to the non-historian is always the insight they give us into contemporary realities. And only through the corrective lens of the history told here can our current social and political reality even begin to be understood.