Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The cover of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. A cloudy sky, distant horizon and savanna on which is the faded US flag form the background to the text.
Dunbar-Ortiz’s research speaks to a number of political realities – especially racism – that have evolved in the years since publication in 2014

Speaking in the extended aftermath of the so-called Indian Removal Act of 1830, Andrew Jackson, the slave-owning US president famed for his previous (and merciless) warfare against Creek and Seminole tribes in the American South, laid out the case for indigenous extermination. ‘They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition,’ he claimed, concluding that as the many native communities of the South were now ‘established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.’ By the end of Jackson’s second term of office, ‘the force of circumstances’ – implemented by a combination of wild-firing federal troops and unrestrained settler militias – had resulted in the violent relocation of almost sixty thousand indigenous people from their land and homes to regions west of the Mississippi river, in what historians (shy of the term ethnic cleansing) oftenrefer to as the ‘Trail of Tears’.

‘All the presidents after Jackson march in his footsteps,’ Dunbar-Ortiz by contrast observes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, a powerful chronicle of native life and struggle over the approximately five centuries of European colonization that witnessed the shaping of the USA as we know it. ‘Consciously or not,’ Dunbar-Ortiz writes, America’s ‘ruling class’ has consistently imitated the task Jackson set for his own administration: how (in her words) ‘to reconcile democracy and genocide and characterize it as freedom for the people.’ Tellingly, Jackson’s portrait today graces the modern $20 US dollar bill, while the nation’s current commander-in-chief has praised him as a political forefather to his own brand of toxic, bigoted, wealth-wielding populism.

In Jackson’s era as now, however, the imperialistic arrogance of the US government was met with (at times brilliantly effective) resistance; and it is one of the many merits of Dunbar-Ortiz’s historical account to foreground the continuous uprisings of indigenous peoples, as well as the persistence and diversity of indigenous cultures, in the face of intensifying colonial aggression. Cataloguing the relentless and self-heroising savagery of US policies (federal and settler alike) towards indigenous populations, her narrative in the process shakes loose many of the foundational assumptions on which American politics and historiography has traditionally been built. Eloquently, meticulously, and with an almost devastating critical focus, she not only dissects the doctrines of manifest destiny (the right to colonize Westwards) and civilizing mission (the right to whitewash such colonization, and expand it globally), but also probes inherited concepts concerning property, the use and ownership of land, industrial development, and the like. ‘The Haudenosaunee peoples,’ she notes of the alliance of tribes spanning the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence River to the Atlantic, and as far south as the Carolinas,

avoided centralized power by means of a clan-village system of democracy based on collective stewardship of the land. Corn, the staple crop, was stored in granaries and distributed equitably in this matrilineal society by the clan mothers, the oldest women from every extended family.

As here, throughout her account Dunbar-Ortiz refuses to fossilise indigenous traditions, writing instead as if the same modes and formations of communal organisation were living possibilities (and perhaps they are). In a similar fashion, we encounter Tecumseh: a Shawnee warrior and one of the key figures of an indigenous confederacy formed in the early nineteenth century to resist the decrees and incursions of the US government and speculators. ‘The way, the only way to stop this evil’, he is recorded as saying,

… is for the red people to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now, for it was never divided, but belongs to all. Sell a country?! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?

Such episodes hold up a mirror to the many, violent commodifications of capitalist society – modern and historical – exposing its delusions, as well as its frequent brutality (Tecumseh himself was eventually killed in 1813).

As with issues of land and property, the question of class – of who works, who gains, and how these social relations are developed and enforced over time – is latent in much of the story that Dunbar-Ortiz returns to the record, and sometimes openly bares its fangs. ‘Although a man of war,’ she writes, General Philip Sheridan of the Union Army ‘was an entrepreneur at heart’; she quotes Sheridan in a letter to Ulysses S. Grant in 1867, ‘We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians stop the progress of [the railroads].’ Systematic, sustained colonial violence was the pre-condition for capitalist accumulation in the emerging republic; tracing the profit motive through its history is to discover, again and again, the stench of scorched earth and race hatred that made many of its most esteemed emissaries rich, from the oil and railroad baron, John D. Rockefeller, to industrialist and Wall Street tycoon, J.P. Morgan.

Sheridan himself is an unsettlingly emblematic figure in this narrative. The originator of the genocidal aphorism that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, this ‘entrepreneur at heart’ was born to Irish parents who fled serf-like rural poverty in Cavan for America in the early nineteenth century. As such, Sheridan was never fully accepted as an equal by the political and military elites who nonetheless praised his uncompromising zeal as a commander and, indeed, his later supposed achievements as an environmentalist (he championed the founding of Yellowstone National Park, after having forcibly cleared the same region of its original inhabitants). This dynamic is evident in Abraham Lincoln’s aloof and subtly eugenicist description of the fast-rising officer: as a ‘brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.’

Sepia portrait of General Philip Sheridan of the Union army. He is looking past the right shoulder of the viewer, wearing a Union army jacket with two stars conspicuous on the left shoulder, which is nearest the viewer, as he is posed at an angle. He is bearded and has a thick moustache.
General Philip Sheridan of the Union army

Sheridan’s case was in many ways typical. In the second half of the nineteenth century, some of the most ruthless regiments and settler militias of the emerging United States – responsible for the murder, mutilation, and destruction of thousands of indigenous tribes and villages – were lead and stocked by Irish emigrants, themselves (like their relatives in Ireland) very often racialised as un-human or sub-human in popular and press culture. One result, as David Roediger has written, is that ‘politicians of Irish and Scotch-Irish heritage’ in the same period worked diligently to disseminate ‘the idea that a new white American race, decidedly inclusive of the Irish, had superseded the Anglo-Saxon race as the benchmark of fitness for citizenship’ in the new democracy: setting the terms of a discourse with which white nationalists and supremacists, including the likes of Steven Bannon, still engage. Such themes are of course particularly resonant in Ireland today, which in recent months has witnessed a surge in racist mobilising and violence deliberately designed to appeal to a (diffuse, but insidious) tradition that ties Irishness to notions of white supremacist victimhood. Some awareness of the history of these ideological postures is arguably more necessary than ever. As Dunbar-Ortiz summarises, ‘living persons’ may not be ‘responsible for what their ancestors did,’ but ‘they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.’

Time and again, in fact, we are reminded that populations dehumanised, displaced, and even exterminated by colonial dogmas and military directives have participated, in one form or another, in the ethnic cleansing and conquest of indigenous communities elsewhere: communities with whom, superficially at least, they would appear to share common cause. On this last point, she is unflinchingly factual, observing that former slaves and freedom fighters of colour in the American Civil War, for example, joined (and were deliberately stationed by federal authorities on) the frontlines of anti-guerilla campaigns against native communities, an apparent contradiction that adds an edge to Bob Marley’s song on the same subject, ‘Buffalo Soldier’. Likewise earlier, during the Spanish campaigns of the sixteenth century, we learn that ‘Cortés and his two hundred European mercenaries could never have overthrown the [Aztec] Mexican state without the Indigenous insurgency he co-opted’. In this case, however, one of the great strengths of Dunbar-Ortiz’s account is her equally clear-eyed perception that ‘resistant peoples’ hoping ‘to overthrow [an] oppressive regime’, should not be blamed for, their cause cannot be used to excuse, the ‘genocidal’ aims of the ‘gold-obsessed Spanish colonizers or the European institutions that backed them.’ By persuasion, force, or guile, every colonial enterprise in history has enlisted sections of the populations it sought to subjugate for the furtherance of its aims (exploiting existing divisions in order to secure whatever form of hegemonic power best favoured its own perceived interests); the racist, resource-hungry killing machine of the Spanish conquest was no exception to this pattern.

Although completed in 2014, Dunbar-Ortiz’s research and approach nevertheless speak to a number of political realities that have evolved in the years since. Reading so unified an account of indigenous life and struggle, indeed, it’s difficult not to interpret the extreme levels and incidence of violence against indigenous women in the US today (‘one in three Native American women has been raped or experienced attempted rape, and the rate of sexual assault on Native American women is more than twice the national average’) as a continuation of a history of state formation for which the murder and brutalisation of native women and children specifically was standard procedure: whether in crimes such as the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 (one of several atrocities that Dunbar-Ortiz rightly posits as precursors to later chapters in America’s imperial story, including the Mai Lai Massacre of 1968) or through federally implemented separation and re-education policies (forcing children into missionary, abuse-laden institutes) of the early twentieth century.

A red banner fills the bottom half of the image with the words: Defend the Sacred. Holding it are members of the Sioux community and behind them a crowd. The issue concerns the Dakota Access pipeline, North Dakota.
Protesters near the the Sioux reservation, Standing Rock, opposed to the Dakota Access pipeline, North Dakota

Dunbar-Ortiz’s prose is also palpably sensitive to the ‘centuries of resistance and storytelling passed through the generations’ of indigenous communities, reminding readers that for native tribes still living under conditions of imposed marginality and social invisibility, ‘[s]urviving genocide’ is itself a form ‘dynamic, not passive’ resistance. From which vantage-point, the Wet’suwet’en nation’s ongoing, militant opposition to the Canadian government’s decision to install a gas infrastructure on their land – like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s resistance (beginning in 2016) to the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US – may be seen as part of the long, many-seasoned trajectory of indigenous self- and environmental protection that Dunbar-Ortiz outlines: protection in the face of settler-colonialist state projects that have always regarded such actions as illegitimate, such communities as disposable. As the preface has it, everything in this ‘history is about the land: who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (‘real estate’) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.’ In that respect, the struggle goes on, drawing on traditions that books like this keep fresh in the memory, vivid as spring.