Friday, January 2, 2015

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

A review

In most histories books of this country, the ancestors of the first people who lived here are usually portrayed as being on the sidelines.  In her book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz quoted author Francis Jennings who described how historians routinely portray the indigenous people from this part of the world:

“In the first place they (US historians) exclude Amerindians (as also Afro-Americans) from participation, except as foils for Europeans, and thus assume that American civilization was formed by Europeans in a struggle against savagery or barbarism of the nonwhite races.”

I’ve read several good books on the history of the indigenous people who lived in this part of the world.  These books would include biographies, histories of the wars against Native Americans, books that included illustrations of the Indian lifestyle, and books on the contributions of Native Americans in the world. 

While many of these books are worth reading, I can’t think of one book that gave a comprehensive picture of this history.  With Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ book, I no longer have that problem.

Why do we study history?

Before we think about the contents of this book, we might ask the question: Why do we study history at all?  Certainly studying history rarely leads to gainful employment.  Many historians write about history as if it were an adventure story that has little or no relevance to the present.  So, why not just forget about the past and live in the present?

The great writer James Baldwin gave the following answer to that question in his book The Price of the Ticket:

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past.  On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.  And it is with great pain and terror that one begins to realize this.  In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view.  In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.”

President Obama ignores the reality of history

So, in reviewing this book on The Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, I will start with the inauguration speech of President Barack Obama in 2009.  Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz also quoted this speech to give us a frame of reference for looking at her subject.  Here Obama talks about our ancestors in this country.

“Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life.  They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or fraction.”

What did our ancestors work for in reality?  Obama chooses not to talk about the fact that in this country 80% of the population owns no more than 6% of all financial wealth. 

Another issue Obama fails to talk about is the over 100 years of genocidal warfare against the descendants of the first people who lived in this part of the world.  This war started with the following words in the Declaration of Independence.  Here the founders of this country explained one of the grievances they had against the British Crown:

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an indistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

Clearly indigenous people carried out wars against each other before European contact.  This was the case with the ancestors of all people throughout the world.  The difference is that Europeans had a goal of total displacement and or genocide with respect to the first inhabitants of this part of the world.

The Indigenous people’s history of the United States

Dunbar-Ortiz gives us a brief outline of what indigenous nations looked like before European contact.  These were extremely complex societies.  Emory Dean Keoke and Marie Porterfield also gave a summary of the complexity of indigenous cultures in their book, American Indian Contributions to the World – 1500 years of inventions and innovations.

One of the most striking contributions in this book was the way in which indigenous people raised their children.  Keoke and Porterfield pointed to the work of the psychologist Erik Erikson who used the Native American lifestyle as a model for raising children.  Erikson argued that children need to be a part of an environment where they learn trust as well as autonomy.  If this doesn’t happen children will develop feelings of mistrust, shame, and doubt.  In old age, adults will either have a sense of integrity, or they will develop feelings of despair.   

Dunbar-Ortiz gives us a summary of the history of this country that documents the U.S. government’s policies towards the first nations.   This history points to a consistent policy of attempting to eliminate any trace that Native Americans ever lived here.

We can start this history with the revolution that gave birth to this country.  The indigenous people knew that the British were not their friends.  However, many indigenous nations understood that the American revolutionaries would be even more aggressive in robbing them of the land they had lived on for thousands of years.  For this reason most indigenous nations supported the British during the revolution. 

Many Black people also sided with the British because they felt they had a better chance of eliminating slavery under British rule.  Clearly many Native Americans proved to be correct in anticipating a genocidal war promoted by the new revolutionary government.

In New York the revolutionary forces not only defeated the Seneca people, they destroyed their foodstuffs eliminating their very means to live.  This was the beginning of over 100 years of genocidal warfare against the first nations of this country.

Dunbar-Ortiz spent some time writing about President Andrew Jackson who many historians continue to consider a hero.  Jackson signed into law the 1830 Indian Removal Act.  This law ordered the indigenous nations to abandon their homelands and move to what is now Oklahoma.  Thousands of Native people lost their lives in forced marches where they moved to the west.  In the Indian Removal Act the government argued that indigenous people would have a right to that land “forever.”  This didn’t turn out to be the case.

After the Civil War the U.S. government continued its active war against the indigenous nations.  There was a consistent policy of murdering millions of buffalo in a clear effort to eliminate any chance that many indigenous people had of surviving in their homeland. 

After the active shooting wars ended, the government sent indigenous children to schools where they were deliberately taught to forget their culture.  Recently, archeologists have won government support in preventing indigenous people from having access to the remains of their ancestors.

In all, there were about 371 treaties the United States government violated with the indigenous people of this part of the world.  Understanding this fact, allows anyone to question the entire legal system of this country.  If the government has routinely violated numerous treaties, why would we expect that they will enforce their own laws?

Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the wars against Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have a clear connection to the wars against the indigenous people of this part of the world.  Today, the U.S. government is holding prisoners at their infamous base in Guantanamo, Cuba.  These prisoners were captured in war, but have been denied the status of Prisoners of War.  Instead, they are labeled enemy combatants.  Dunbar-Ortiz shows how the rationalization for these detentions came from the wars against the indigenous people of this part of the world.        

Follow the money

In looking at this history we might also consider Edward E. Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told.  In this book Baptist argues that the production of cotton by slave labor was the primary economic force that led to the industrialization of the United States and the world.  Baptist also argues that the method that was indispensable to this industry was the consistent and routine torture of slaves.

Dunbar-Ortiz gives us the facts that the theft of Indian land was the primary source of wealth in the early years of this country.  This is how she explains it:

“Neither superior technology nor an overwhelming number of settlers made up the mainspring of the birth of the United States or the spread of its power over the entire world.  Rather, the chief cause was the colonialist settler-state’s willingness to eliminate whole civilizations of people in order to possess their land.”

Why is the Forth of July a national holiday?

So, looking at this history of genocide and torture we might ask the question: Why is the signing of the Declaration of Independence a national holiday on July 4, every year?

Clearly the facts Dunbar-Ortiz presents in her book are thoroughly documented.  On the other hand, I look at this history a bit differently.  Clear advances were made because of the revolution of the thirteen colonies.  These advances would include, freedom of expression as well as citizenship rights.  Advances in the labor movement and the civil rights movement would have been more difficult were it not for the American Revolution.

Likewise, the abolition of slavery in this country was also an important advance that was celebrated by about four million former slaves.  We can also say that all workers and farmers benefitted from the abolition of slavery.  Yet, while President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he also signed the order to execute 38 of the Dakota people in Minnesota.  Lincoln also signed executive orders that violated treaties with indigenous nations.

What does all this mean?  My point is that the advances made because of the American Revolution and the Civil war occurred while these same forces carried out policies of genocide against the indigenous people from this part of the world.  However, a recognition of these advances doesn’t mean that we should go ahead and continue to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

If we recognize the advances made in this country, we should also recognize the genocide against Indians, the routine torture of slaves, the horrendous conditions working people faced, child labor, as well as Jim Crow segregation.  In my opinion, there is no rational reason to celebrate any of these aspects of the history of this country.

The American Revolution as well as the Civil War also established the capitalist system in this country.  Dunbar-Ortiz’ book documents some of the horrors that came along with this development.  However, the working class was also born as a result of this development.

As we wrestle with all the problems we face today, there is a clear road forward.  Working people and farmers have a clear interest in advancing a new kind of government that makes the human needs of all people its top priority.  Native Americans will and have played an invaluable role in advancing this movement. 

The Cuban government has shown that it is possible to give everyone a lifetime right to health care and education using only a fraction of the resources of this country.  As the world capitalist economy continues to fall apart, more and more workers will see this road as our only way forward.  Clearly, a government that continues to make heroes out of those who had a routine policy of genocide against indigenous people is not capable of solving the immense problems we face.

Leonard Peltier

My one disappointment in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’ book is that she did not mention Leonard Peltier.  Clearly, her book had much ground to cover and a look at his case would have taken up a bit of space.  Peltier has been serving about 37 years in prison because the U.S. government worked diligently to frame him up. 

I will end this review with a section of the speech Peltier gave at his trial.  In my opinion this is one of the most important speeches in the history of this country:

“I stand before you as a proud man; I feel no guilt!  I have done nothing to feel guilty about!  I have no regrets about being a Native American activist­–thousands of people in the United States, Canada, and around the world have and will continue to support me to expose the injustices which have occurred in this courtroom.  I do feel pity for your people that they must live under such and ugly system.  Under your system, you are taught greed, racism, and corruption–and most serious of all, the destruction of Mother Earth.  Under the Native American system, we are taught all people are Brothers and Sisters to share wealth with the poor and needy.  But the most important of all is to respect and preserve the Earth, who we consider to be our mother.  We feed from her breast; our Mother gives us life from birth and when it’s time to leave this world, who again takes us back into her womb.  But the main thing we are taught is to preserve her for our children and our grandchildren, because they are the next who will live upon her.”       


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