There are two things that immediately emerged for me after reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s outstanding book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. The first had to do with US history itself. The second, and this may at first glance appear strange, was the plight of the Palestinians.
Dunbar-Ortiz has constructed a very accessible examination of the history of the USA as seen through the eyes of the Native American/First Nations/Indigenous peoples. In a remarkably condensed yet comprehensive form, she begins with an explanation of what Indigenous societies looked like prior to the European invasion. From there she takes the reader into an emotionally troubling, yet historically rigorous look at the European invasion/colonization of the Western Hemisphere and its ramifications.
What Dunbar-Ortiz helps the reader to understand, more than anything else, was that the genocide carried out against the Native Americans was not accidental. That may sound like a strange choice of words, but throughout so-called mainstream US history there is a tendency to suggest that the European colonization was, at least at first, well-intentioned, relatively benign, and had the unfortunate consequence of introducing deadly diseases into the Western Hemisphere which the immune systems of the peoples of the First Nations were unprepared to resist.
Dunbar-Ortiz demolishes such arguments and points to the mythology that has been connected with the European colonization of the hemisphere and, in the USA, the expansion westward. The aim, as became quite clear in the case of North America, was to remove the Native Americans from the land and, indeed, from the Earth. This took various forms ranging from repeated forced removals of Native Americans from their land by the settlers upon a military victory; to mass murder; to the introduction of bacteriological warfare (by Lord Jeffrey Amherst in the 1760s via smallpox).
Dunbar-Ortiz points out that in North America, as opposed to Central and South America, the settlers had no interest in mixing with the Indigenous people and certainly no interest in creating a North American mestizo grouping. The Indigenous were seen as an obstacle to progress, a progress that was dictated by a certain religious zeal that linked with empire. This use of religion by the settler-colonists is a very important factor in all settler states, most notably Northern Ireland, apartheid South Africa, the United States and Israel. In each case, God allegedly spoke to the settlers and told them that this land was to be their land. Why God did not speak to the Indigenous and tell them to move on has never been explained.
The difficulty in reading An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is that it upends the entire mythology connected with US history. This is not only a ‘problem’ for the mainstream USA, but it is also a problem for many progressives and leftists in the USA who have, to varying degrees, accepted elements of the settler narrative.
There are obvious examples of the mythology such as the story connected to Thanksgiving. But the brutality of the westward expansion is rarely addressed in mainstream history or fiction. Instead, the Native American is regularly painted as the aggressor, and the ungrateful aggressor at that. The other component of this myth, however, is the idea that the land was vacant. There are many examples of this but in the realm of fiction, if one thinks of the classic Western Shane (with Alan Ladd), there is not one sense that that beautiful land had been occupied by a prior civilization. In watching such films, one views the magnificence of that late 19th century West and thinks of the challenges facing the people who entered into that vacant land…
…Except for one problem: the land was not vacant. It had been occupied and the people living there were removed.
For many of us to the left of center, there are complications when viewing US history. The myths associated with US history, including rugged individualism or even some myths associated with the Civil War, run up against the reality of what took place for Native Americans. Consider the US Civil War. Some of the greatest Union generals, e.g., William Tecumseh Sherman, who fought valiantly against the Confederacy, were themselves—or became—leaders in the genocide against Native Americans. General Sherman, who issued an order that opened up the possibility for the redistribution of land to the African former slaves, became one of the major architects of the war against the First Nations, a war in which he and many other military leaders had little interest in ending without the total destruction of the First Nations. It was also during the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln opened up more land for settlers and sought the removal of First Nations in order that the homesteaders could claim territory.
Thus, when looking at the Civil War, for instance, one must rethink the entire period. It was not a binary of good vs. evil or even the Union (fighting against slavery) vs. the Confederacy (fighting to support slavery), but an overdetermined moment in which multiple contradictions were at play. An example of this was the siding with the Confederacy by some Native Americans because they believed that a victory by the Union would set the stage for their own annihilation.
Another example of the challenge to those of us to the Left of center is contained in the critique offered by Dunbar-Ortiz of the widely praised documentary by Oliver Stone and Peter Kusnick (The Untold History of the United States). Stone and Kusnick suggest that much of what happened after World War II, vis a vis US foreign policy, was inconsistent with the direction of the so-called Founding Fathers. Dunbar-Ortiz disputes this and argues that the path has been entirely consistent. There was no ‘golden age’, in other words, wherein there was not an aggressive, imperial instinct within the Republic. While it may have taken various forms, it was not something that was rooted in one or another Presidential administration or Congressional Session, but rather has been hard-wired into that which we have come to understand to be the United States of America. This has been demonstrated in the unfolding of the continuous wars of expansion since 1783.
The genocide against the Native Americans, does not exist in the past, but is a continuing reality as evidenced in the violation of treaties or the inconsistency of the US government (and state governments) in recognizing the need for restitution. Demands for restitution and resistance to continued oppression—and genocide—have been very important features of the movement among Native Americans, both in the USA and throughout the Western Hemisphere. This is a key component of the book, not simply to ward off despair, but to remind the reader that through the hundreds of years of genocidal expansion and against all odds, the First Nations have continued to fight back and, at various moments, reconstitute their resistance.
I mentioned in the beginning of this review the Palestinians. As I turned each page of this book I found myself thinking about the Palestinians. In the two visits that I have made to the Occupied Palestinian Territories I have found myself thinking about the Native Americans. It is not only that the land, itself, reminds one of the Southwest, but the conditions of the people is so familiar and so similar.
In the case of the Occupied Territories, one of the key features in common is that the Israelis have no interest in ‘integrating’ with the Palestinians. As opposed to the Spanish in Latin America who did not send the same proportion of settlers to the Western Hemisphere and who found it useful to mix with the Indigenous and Africans (thereby creating intermediary groups as an instrument of social control), the English in North America were interested in the removal of the Indigenous. The same is true of Israel and the Palestinians. The more extreme elements of the Israeli political class openly and audaciously advocate the forced transfer of Palestinians out of Israel and the Occupied Territories into Jordan (which the Zionists claim to be the actual Palestinian homeland).
In reading An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States it is actually quite easy to understand the historic basis for support among large sections of the US population for Israel against the Palestinians. The Palestinians are today’s Native Americans. They are in the way of progress. The Israelis are a largely European population that is on a mission, and, much like the European and Euro-American settlers of the 17th through 19th centuries (in North America), believe that they have an entitlement to the land either because God allegedly offered it to them or because the Israelis are somehow allegedly superior to or more civilized than the Palestinians. It all fits together. The Israelis look like ‘us’ (European); they have built cities that look like Miami or Los Angeles; and they are bringing civilization to a ‘barbaric’ region of the planet.
To the extent to which this narrative is ignored or goes unchallenged, what awaits the Palestinians will, at best, be silent complicity in their removal, if not an actual genocide. And, perhaps this is the concluding point of this review. While the First Nations were falling beneath the juggernaut of settler colonialism, there were few voices in opposition. Their struggle was not a struggle for most labor unions, parties of the political Left, and in some important cases, not even for other peoples who were victimized by white supremacist racial and national oppression. That silence made each of these movements not neutral, but complicit in one of the greatest horrors of the last five hundred years.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us that it is actually never too late to turn history on its head. That is where this book has its immense value.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014). 296 pps. U.S. $27.95, CAN $32.95
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the host of The Global African on teleSUR English. He is a racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com.