This Columbus Day, Seeking the Real History of Native Americans

A Q&A with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States.

By Mark Trecka

CHICAGO -- When Howard Zinn published A People's History of the United States in 1980, historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz told Zinn that he had largely failed to include the narratives of Native Americans. Zinn replied that it was up to Dunbar-Ortiz to write that book.

After three decades of work, she published An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States with Beacon Press last year, challenging the version of U.S. history most Americans learn in school, a version of history that proceeds from the concepts of Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery. Dunbar-Ortiz indicts the U.S. as a country founded on settler colonialism and genocide of Indigenous people, posing the question, "How might acknowledging the reality of U.S. history work to transform society?"

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Lakota spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse attends a demonstration against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico in front of the White House in Washington, DC, on January 28, 2015.

A veteran of radical leftist political movements throughout the 1960s and 70s and part-Indian herself, Dunbar-Ortiz was recruited by Native American traditionalist activist Wallace "Mad Bear" Anderson. She began working with the American Indian Movement around the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee and also served as an expert witness in the 1974 "Sioux Treaty Hearings" in Lincoln, Nebraska, publishing The Great Sioux Nation: Sitting in Judgment on America in 1977.

Dunbar-Ortiz was heavily involved as a human rights advocate in the Contra War in Nicaragua from 1979 into the 1990s, spending time with with Indigenous Miskitos, U.S.-supported Contras and UN-affiliated NGOs. She frequently traveled to Nicaragua and Geneva to develop conventions on the rights and self-determination of Indigenous peoples around the world.

Between 1974 and 2009, Dunbar-Ortiz taught at California State University, but as she recently told an audience in Chicago, she spent six of those 35 years on leave without pay, traveling and working primarily with the UN on human rights issues. She has published a dozen books including three memoirs, Red Dirt, Outlaw Woman and Blood on the Border.

This year, Dunbar-Ortiz has toured the U.S. in support of An Indigenous Peoples' History and her stops have intertwined with developments tied to Indigenous rights in America. During his visit to Washington, D.C. last month, Pope Francis canonized missionary Junípero Serra, who helped the Catholic Church settle parts of California, a move which has been met with great protest from Indigenous and allied groups. Ahead of this year's Columbus Day, a growing list of U.S. cities has opted to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples' Day. And the Congressional sale last December of Oak Flat, an Apache holy site in Arizona, to a foreign mining concern has sparked a highly visible resistance movement across the country.

Dunbar-Ortiz sat down for an interview at the home of former radical activists Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers in Chicago last month to discuss her dual role as a historian and activist, reflecting on these moments from the stance of a historian, albeit a kind of historian that the world had yet to embrace. She quotes William Faulkner: "The past is not even past."

Mark Trecka: You have always challenged the way that we do history. This is certainly the case with your most recent book, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, addressing history as written from a colonial viewpoint. But even before that, you were writing memoirs, doing memoirs as history. Your 1974 book, "The Great Sioux Nation," is an unorthodox document.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: At that time, oral history was not being done...

MT: And by working this more personal, unorthodox way, you're challenging the traditional narrative. But ultimately what you're doing is very subjective. Being personal is being subjective. So I wonder if the goal really is not clean objectivity but something else? Transparency? Accountability?

RDO: I think for sure. Being a historian, you are trained to "tell the facts from the documents." I have appreciated being grounded like that, but of course standard historians refuse to see themselves as being subjective. They are interpreting and yet they put it out as if it's objective information.

MT: "An Indigenous Peoples' History," although intended for a broader audience, is somewhat rigorous, if not academic. So who is reading it?

RDO: The publisher, not just me, has never had this experience with a book. Beacon Press has been publishing since 1846, they were an abolitionist press originally and they have never had this experience. They have never, for instance, sold out the first printing of a hardback. And they've published Cornel West. My book was hardly reviewed anywhere; it was reviewed negatively by Publishers Weekly. I was so devastated last July when they advanced these anonymous reviews. Even the Library Journal had big, bold, capital letters, "NOT RECOMMENDED." (Laughs) They just dissed it!

MT: Why?

RDO: Oh, it's just, you know, "She's talking about the United States as a colonial power, what an absurd idea."

MT: In the book you document that land policy is the way the US has done colonialism differently than other places. And it still goes on, doesn't it?

RDO: The more I researched, the more I came to understand that the US government created private property as real estate, where this was the most important portable commodity. And not only that but that they had mapped that whole plan out. You can go read it online now: the Northwest Ordinance. Before the Constitution, they had a colonial plan. They called it that. And they had all the land broken down and how they would support an independent government without British subsidies. And that was it, they would recruit settlers and sell them land. By selling plots of land to plantation owners as they moved the Natives out, just expanding that land base. Before the development of industrial agriculture, the primary accumulation of wealth was the land sales, from the founding of the United States until 1840. That's a long time to build a basis. So real estate is that sacred. Not sacred land like the Indians mean, but sacred capital.

MT: That mentality, ownership of property as being sacred, starting with the Northwest Ordinance but ending ...

RDO: Never! And with immigration, this is the carrot that's put up: that you can own your own piece of property. And you too can be a capitalist on equal playing ground. You're starting and you can build it up.

MT: You say in the final chapter of "An Indigenous Peoples' History" that the US project is the same today as it ever was. How does that play out?

RDO: This is the first new book I've published since 2005 and that was on the Contra War [Blood on the Border] and I went around the country giving talks. I wrote that not just as a third memoir but because when George H. W. Bush came to power, he reappointed to the Middle East everyone who was carrying out the Contra War. Every one of them. One by one. I think there were 23 that we counted. Elliott Abrams ... John Negroponte was put as the first person in Iraq. He had run the whole Contra War.

MT: Then it's not even much of a stretch. You're talking about the same people that have done the same things in various places.

RDO: Exactly. And the military inheritance from father to son to grandson, you can follow that throughout the Indian Wars, then to the Philippines, then to Cuba, conquest, then they're in World War I and their sons are the generals of World War II. And it's especially pernicious. You know, I see the post-Civil War, that reconstruction period, as so interesting. But one thing that gets left out is that in that compromise, it wasn't just like pulling the occupying army out to enforce reconstruction, it was also leaving the army there.

Because all the major army bases and people who join the army, even voluntarily now, are from the South. They're still white southerners. And the South is just crawling with bases. So it's a very Southern culture. It's a very Southern, militaristic culture. So in some ways, the Confederacy won the military side of it after all. It was kind of a division of government: we'll take the civilian, you take the army.

MT: Are you working on anything right now? Another book?

RDO: I have another Beacon Press book. I took on a coauthor [Dina Gilio-Whitaker]. It's part of a series they're doing called MythBusting. Bill Fletcher Jr. did one on trade unions titled, "They're Bankrupting Us, and 20 Other Myths About Trade Unions." There is one by Noam Chomsky's daughter, Aviva Chomsky. Hers is called, "They're Taking Our Jobs, and 20 Other Myths About Immigration." They are both really, really good. So the one we're doing, my writing partner has chosen the working title, "There Are No Indians Left, and Twenty Other Myths About Native Americans."

MT: That is definitely something powerful in "An Indigenous Peoples' History," the idea of the myth of the last Indian. It is really so insidious. It's so invisible. It isn't that I thought all the Indians were gone. But there is something about it...

RDO: It's just impressed on people. It's so different from the Civil Rights Movement, which is all about too much visibility. African Americans are always noticed, always. Same with Mexican immigrants. There's a paranoia: too many of them, too loud, all these myths. Instead, Native Americans are solemn, quiet. Absent. They're just "not there."

MT: It's sort of difficult for a lot of people to wrap their heads around. The goals are very different, those of the Civil Rights Movement and those of Native American movements.

RDO: This book is a tool for how to present the Native issues and also the tremendous diversity among Native people. Most Native Americans, it's like being invisible. It's a very different oppression. Because they can perform being a normal American. Everyone is performing, like immigrants, they have to perform being an American and then they go home -- they have a dual life. So Native Americans in some ways are more like foreigners that have to play American.

And they can do that and they can be very good at it. That part on the narrative of dysfunction in my book, I often read that at book talks. On the other hand I describe Pine Ridge and the poverty and all and how they won't take $1.5 billion [as reimbursement for the US government's appropriation of Lakota Sioux' sacred Black Hills, the site of Mount Rushmore] -- that kind of blows people's minds. They think, "This must be something I just don't understand."

MT: There are times I wonder, why not take that money and do something that furthers the cause of your ideology? That number!

RDO: And so few people to divide it among. Well, they used to do that. Since World War II, they set up the court of Indian Land Claims where tribal governments could present all the land that was taken -- and the Sioux did that. They were denied the land claim. The Black Hills case where the Supreme Court ordered all that money to be given to the Sioux, that was decided in 1980 and had been in court since 1947, just sitting there. They allowed no restitution of land, just reimbursement. And because of the gift giving, Native Americans don't spend that money on themselves, they give it away to families and friends -- there's so much need -- so it evaporates. Within a year, within two years. So even that $1.5 billion, in the end, wouldn't go that far.

MT: So you just think it wouldn't mean to the Sioux what it sounds like it means?

RDO: No, it's that the money would clear the title. That they would never again be able to [fight for the possession of the Black Hills]. But that resiliency, that's how people have survived. There is an ethics in that that you can't then translate into each individual native person acting ethically, but it shows how a collective can make better people of people.

MT: Do you see that with the struggle to protect Oak Flat? The Apache Stronghold movement? Do you see it happening there? It's a different story, of course...

RDO: Yes. It's a different story, but there is quite a bit of determination. And also in Hawaii now, the observatory that University of Arizona is putting on top of a mountain on the Big Island. That's a really sacred area. There are so many sacred areas there and they've had huge demonstrations; very hard, rugged area to get up to. So there's a lot of land occupations now, blockaded; all the pipeline things. Yeah, Native people are -- there's a huge movement.

MT: Do you have hope that the movement to save Oak Flat will create change? Do you think it is successful at least in terms of visibility?

RDO: The Apaches have been pretty strongly recolonized. They were really decimated. Thirty years war against them, the post-Civil War military machine, high-powered weapons, automatic weapons, Gatling guns ... so, they were pretty smashed and scared. You know, there's this timidity. It's really great to see these young people organizing. If we don't understand this as a settler colonial nation -- even if there were no Indians left, that they had managed to kill them all off, it would still be this country. It would be worse because there wouldn't be any testimony as to what it used to be like, no one would know, it would be a complete secret. And anyone trying to change it would still have to deal with these things.

Mark Trecka is a writer, performer and artist currently based in Chicago. He has traveled extensively and performed in over 20 countries in North America, Europe and Asia.