History in Red: America According to Its Natives

Photo by Advanced Source Productions | CC BY 2.0

On September 30th, New York Times reporter Simon Romero profiled the thief who had severed the bronze right foot from a statue of Don Juan de Oñate twenty years ago as a protest against the genocide of American Indians. Even the normally sedate “gray lady” could not help but refer to Oñate as the “despotic conquistador” of New Mexico. Indeed, the theft of the foot was highly symbolic since Oñate had once ordered the chopping off of the right foot of 24 Indigenous captives.

Romero got a chance to interview the foot thief through a rendezvous set up by Cheyenne-Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre who made “Skins,” a 2002 film that climaxes with red paint tossed in George Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore.

Romero analogized these protests with those against the statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee. Eyre referred to the president’s complaint about these disrespectful acts: “Trump asked if all this stops with Washington or Jefferson. For me, that’s actually where it starts because we need to go back a whole lot further to examine the crimes upon which these lands were claimed.”

Trump is well-qualified to defend Washington and Jefferson since he harbors the same sort of racist attitudes that these Indian-killers embodied as early architects of Manifest Destiny. When he was building up his gambling casino empire in the early 90s, he claimed that Indian reservations were run by the Mafia. He secretly paid for more than $1 million in ads that depicted the St. Regis Mohawks in upstate New York as cocaine traffickers and career criminals around the time that they were seeking to build a casino in the county where I grew up. He even told the notoriously racist shock jock Don Imus that they were probably not real Indians, stating that he might have more Indian blood than them.

Besides the St. Regis Mohawks, there was another Indigenous group seeking permission to build a casino–the Munsee Lenapes. They were ethnically cleansed from Sullivan County, where I grew up, in the 1800s. Monsey, New York (now a predominately orthodox Jewish enclave) was named after the people who lived in the area while the city of Muncie, Indiana was where they were forced to go. Frankly, I would welcome a return of all the Munsees to their original homeland. They certainly would have more respect for a beautiful part of New York state that is being sacrificed at the altar of capitalist development and its consequent environmental despoliation.

When some on the left seek to contextualize Washington and Jefferson, it usually follows the line of reasoning that despite being slave-owners, they were also founding fathers of a democratic republic that was the envy of the world. While this might not sit well with the descendants of the slaves they owned, it also carries the burden of sweeping Indigenous peoples under the rug.

After reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, you will conclude that all these great White leaders should be condemned to the ashbin of history. Published as part of the Beacon Press’s Revisioning American History series (there are also books about gays, the disabled and Blacks/Latinos in American history), it is very much in the vein of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”. While the term “revisionist” is often applied to works such as these, I am persuaded that “revisioning” is a far more appropriate term since it points to both past and future. If we do not have a vision of how the United States should be governed, our future is bleak.

As the title indicates, “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” is a history of the nation from the perspective of the people

who lived here before the colonists arrived. Dunbar-Ortiz’s mother was part Indian and grew up neglected and often homeless until she met and married her Scots-Irish father at the age of sixteen. Thefamily grew up in rural Oklahoma, scraping by as sharecroppers. When Dunbar-Ortiz attended college in the 1960s, she became an antiwar and woman’s liberation activist. Ultimately she became both a scholar and an activist in the American Indian movement, a dual role that I view as essential to building the movement. Without a connection to the living movement, scholarship will become narrowly academic. By the same token, without being rooted in the social and economic fabric of Indigenous history, the movement will not be able to develop long-term strategies for both survival and empowerment.

While the book is focused on United States history (she disdains the term American for obvious reasons), it is introduced by several chapters that present an overview of the entire Western Hemisphere. In a tour de force of cross-disciplinary scholarship, she describes the central role of corn in Indian society. Despite the well-known connections between nations like the Comanche and Lakota with the buffalo, it seems that the overwhelming majority of Indians raised corn and beans, supplemented by hunting and gathering for a healthy diet.

Archaeologists trace corn cultivation to 10,000 years ago in central Mexico. Unlike other plants, corn does not grow wild and relies on human cultivation to prosper. While most people familiar with the Indigenous roots of Mexican cooking understand the centrality of corn, it is also worth noting that a French colonist raid on four Iroquois villages in the late 17th century resulted in the destruction of forty-two thousand tons of corn.

Corn was not the only foodstuff that required careful cultivation. Despite the image of pristine wilderness, the American Indian “intervened” in nature in order to help sustain the towns that bordered the forests. (Dunbar-Ortiz uses the term town frequently to refer to concentrations of Indian population since this correctly describes the civilized character of such settlements.) Indigenous farmers always carried flints in order to start fires. By burning underbrush, they created havens for game such as deer and bear that could then be hunted for the collective benefit of the community. Citing Charles Mann, the author of “1491” and a favorite of Oñate’s foot absconder, Dunbar-Ortiz supports his conclusion that the notion of wilderness hardly applied to the Indigenous world:

Rather than domesticate animals for meat, Indians retooled ecosystems to encourage elk, deer, and bear. Constant burning of the undergrowth increased the numbers of herbivores, the predators that fed on them, and the people who ate them both. Rather than the thick, unbroken, monumental snarl of trees imagined by Thoreau, the great eastern forest was an ecological kaleidoscope of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak. The first white settlers in Ohio found woodlands that resembled English parks ­­ they could drive carriages through the trees so widely spaced that the forest “could be penetrated even by a large army.” John Smith claimed to have ridden through the Virginia forest at a gallop.

While not exactly a paradise, Indigenous society was certainly one in comparison to the hell that the colonists imposed. The aforementioned John Smith was just one of a number of Englishmen who saw the Indians as worthy of extermination insofar as they interfered with the commercial exploitation of land. In early seventeenth century Jamestown, John Smith decided that the Powhatans should be compelled to provide food for the settlers, as well as unpaid labor. When war broke out over these threats to native sovereignty, the colonists resorted to a tactic that would be favored for the next three hundred years: destroying the farms and fields of the Powhatans.

Caught between the British Empire and the “freedom-loving” colonists who sought independence, the Indians tried to negotiate their way between Scylla and Charybdis. As was the case with slaves who joined up with Lord Dunmore, who promised emancipation in exchange for fighting for the Crown, Indians frequently found themselves on the side of a supposedly reactionary power. Washington, whose face got soaked in red paint on Mount Rushmore, might have been for freedom in the abstract but not when it came to Indigenous peoples, either in the abstract or the concrete.

Between 1776 and 1789, the year that the Constitution was adopted, President Washington decided to launch a total war against the Indigenous peoples in the region that would eventually become Ohio. He sent out citizen militias on search-and-destroy missions against the Miami and Shawnees who were led by Little Turtle. As was the case with the war against the Powhatans, destroying the food supply was essential. Three hundred homes and twenty thousand bushels of corn were destroyed. Dunbar-Ortiz points out that these citizen militias were basically death squads that were sanctioned by the Second Amendment. While not specifically identified in the amendment that the NRA wraps itself in, native peoples were its target.

Washington was pleased with the gains made against the nation’s internal enemies, but he pushed for the formation of a professional army that could finish the job. Led by the aptly named Major General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the army created a base in Ohio called Fort Defiance that was used as a launching pad against the Shawnees and Miamis, murdering men, women, and children indiscriminately.

It fell upon the shoulders of Tecumseh to protect the Indigenous peoples of Ohio from the democratic republic’s genocidal warfare. He urged his people to abandon the colonist trade goods, including alcohol, and return to their cultural roots. In an early pan-Indigenous initiative that anticipated the American Indian Movement of the 1970s and 80s, Tecumseh urged Indians to unite against White incursions. When he traveled to the south in order to recruit the Muskogees and other nations into the alliance, the U.S. military struck at his home base in Ohio on November 6, 1811, while he was absent. After a vastly outnumbered Indigenous defense force was overrun by the army, there was the customary bloodbath with homes and granaries burnt to the ground. For all practical purposes, the U.S. was following the same tactics it would follow many years later in Indochina.

In a chapter titled “Indian Country”, Dunbar-Ortiz makes this relationship between past and present explicit. Between 1798 and 1827, the U.S. intervened militarily twenty-three times from Cuba to Tripoli (Libya). If the expulsion of native peoples from their land was essential to the consolidation of capitalist property relations internally, these invasions were key to creating the groundwork for the imperialism that would be consummated by the Spanish-American war and future land grabs. Every American president was committed to this colonizing mission blessed by God, some more openly than others. In a speech brazenly titled “The Expansion of the White Races”, Theodore Roosevelt spoke sanctimoniously:

There is one feature in the expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries which should never be lost sight of, especially by those who denounce such expansion on moral grounds. On the whole, the movement has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place. Of course any such general statement as this must be understood with the necessary reservations. Human nature being what it is, no movement lasting for four centuries and extending in one shape or another over the major part of the world could go on without cruel injustices being done at certain places and in certain times. Occasionally, although not very frequently, a mild and kindly race has been treated with wanton, brutal, and ruthless inhumanity by the white intruders.

“An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” is a book that will be of great value to those first learning about the Indigenous perspective as well as someone like me who has been reading and writing about native peoples for the past twenty-five years. Dunbar-Ortiz is both a major scholar in this field, arguably the most authoritative in the academy, as well as a sorely needed public intellectual that is not only deeply familiar with Indigenous society but with the broad range of issues facing the left internationally. Beacon Press is to be commended for initiating the Revisioning Series and especially for publishing this stirring counter-history for a country that Karl Marx must have been envisioning when he wrote that “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

My interest in the relationship between Marxism and the American Indian was sparked by articles I read twenty-five years ago in a British magazine called Living Marxism that argued for assimilating Indigenous peoples in the name of “progress”. Eventually, this sect dropped the Marxism and continues along the same line but from a libertarian perspective.

As it happens, there was another sect called the Revolutionary Communist Party that had Maoist politics rather than the blend of Trotskyism and libertarianism of the British group. Led by Bob Avakian, it shared their namesake’s hostility to Indian rights. In a controversial debate with Russell Means, an Avakianite defended Marxism-Leninism-Maoism against his opponent’s supposed “noble savage” romanticism. Needless to say, his hostility toward pre-capitalist social formations went hand in hand with the Chinese government’s imposition of “modernism” on Tibet.

The more I looked into the Marxist fetish over capitalist modernity that was encouraged by a superficial understanding of the Communist Manifesto with its dismissal of “village idiocy”, the more aware I became of the affinities between a dogmatic socialism and the sort of modernization theory found in ideologues like Walt Whitman Rostow who was named after the celebrated poet of the common man by his socialist parents. Thanks to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book, we have a much better idea of what Walt Whitman stood for. In a very real sense, Whitman advocated that the Indians get the same treatment that the Vietnamese peasants were getting from a Pentagon following Rostow’s prescriptions. Supporting the war against Mexico that he saw as being in line with Manifest Destiny, the poet was clear about should be done about those who stood in the way of progress: “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.”

In the 19th and early 20th century, it was possible to believe in the civilizing mission of the U.S. even if you ignored the genocidal impact the colossus had on peoples who were in its path. However, the 21st century threatens the extinction of every living thing, including rats major and minor.

While it is certainly necessary not to romanticize the pre-capitalist societies of the Aztecs or the Comanches that did involve a great deal of cruelty, there is something that united them all and that is needed once again for the survival of the planet—the absence of a profit motive. If the profit motive was responsible for the creation of railroads, telephones, steamships, airplanes and the Internet, it will also be responsible for the destruction of all these gains of the industrial revolution and the lives of every living creature that benefited from them as long as they are meant to serve profit rather than human needs. Humanity is at a crossroads. Unless we live in harmony with nature as the American Indian did until the arrival of the colonists, we are doomed.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.