An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Reviewed by Victor

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014)

This book should be widely read, discussed, and diffused. Building on generations of struggle and scholarship, it provides the basis for a full understanding of the United States as a colonial-settler state. Although the elements of such an understanding have long been present, the latent full-scale narrative has not, until now, become widely available. Dunbar-Ortiz’s book can stimulate a rethinking of the entire cultural setting in which the US Left strives to build opposition to capitalist rule.

Coincidentally, this book appeared in the same month (September 2014) as Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. The coincidence is fortuitous, as both works suggest the depth of the changes that are required if society is to be reconfigured along lines that are at once ecologically sustainable and humanly respectful. Where Klein documents the tyranny of the capitalist market, Dunbar-Ortiz focuses on the related phenomenon of colonization, with its ingrained dehumanization of the “other.” The two approaches converge directly, as Klein emphasizes the key role of indigenous peoples in resisting the extraction of fossil fuels and in embodying a way of life more in harmony with nature.1

Another contemporary issue that will frame reception of the Indigenous Peoples’ History is that of Israel and Palestine. Zionists commonly respond to their US critics by saying that Israel’s practices toward the Palestinians are merely reenacting what the US Founding Fathers did to the Indians. The parallel is presumed to justify what the Israeli state is doing; on the contrary, it underlines the extremity of what was done – with effects that continue to cause harm – in North America. In Israel as it has evolved since 1948, one can see the genesis of the same supremacist mindset that over a longer period came to define the dominant culture of the United States. How the latter process unfolded is what Dunbar-Ortiz has now laid out for us.

It has long been widely known that the European settlers in North America decimated the native population, condemning its survivors either to forced assimilation or to living in scattered agglomerations on barren land that might later be invaded for its subsoil resources. But this very marginalization of the indigenous peoples has made it easier for the rest of us to view what we thought were the main lines of US history as though these evolved on their own, largely disconnected from that process of conquest.

Dunbar-Ortiz explodes such compartmentalization. Her book is rich in revelations, many of them half-familiar already, yet taking on added force through discovery of the little-known detail or by placement in a long train of events. Most young US-Americans, for example, learn that George Washington was a slaveholder, but how many know that he advocated (his words) the “total ruin” of Indian settlements, and saw “our future security” as depending on inspiring “terror” in their inhabitants? (77)

More generally, the culture and language of this colonial subjugation, including in particular its demonizing stereotypes of the peoples on whom it was imposed, have been carried over into the jargon of the US’s current globe-straddling armed forces, with their “Apache” helicopters and their routine characterization of hostile territory as “Indian Country.” (193)

Every stage in the formation of the United States was marked by ferocious assaults on the various Indian nations. The war of independence from Britain, long hailed as the “American Revolution,” was in fact, like its later Latin American counterparts, more in the nature of a step by the colonial elite to consolidate its power and extend its dominion. Gerald Horne’s recent study makes this same point in relation to the preservation of slavery.2 With Dunbar-Ortiz’s treatment elaborating on the anti-Indian dimension of the Independence struggle, what until now has typically been viewed, even on the left, as a shared revolutionary heritage emerges instead as the expression of a whites-only separatist movement, albeit with a significant popular component.

The perverse blend of racism with democratic ideology – fused together in what Dunbar-Ortiz calls “an enduring populist imperialism” – reached a kind of peak in the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who had made a career of anti-Indian brutality but who touted himself as a man of the people, setting the decisive example, as she puts it, of “how to reconcile democracy with genocide” (109). Concluding her chapter on Jackson, Dunbar-Ortiz juxtaposes Obama’s scripted denial of the US’s colonizing origins with his ritual tribute to US troops fighting overseas wars.

The book is noteworthy also for its attention to literary expressions of the colonizing impulse, from the novels of James Fenimore Cooper to the not-always-poetic rhetoric of Walt Whitman, whose unabashedly racist remarks (117) will come as a shock to those who think of him as the great apostle of democracy and openness to the world. For his part, Wizard of Oz author Frank Baum expressed the perverse stance of a collective guilty conscience when he wrote, in 1891, “Having wronged [the Indians] for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.” (156)

As notable here as the raw racism is the assumption that the best response to a seemingly insoluble conflict lies in annihilating its perceived source. Dunbar-Ortiz notes this belief as a persistent strand of US military doctrine, first applied overseas against Filipino insurgents at the turn of the 20th century. Its evolution goes back, however, to the frequent official practice of exterminating indigenous communities – whether by military order or through bounties to private agents.

A more surprising target of Dunbar-Ortiz’s polemic is present-day multiculturalism. This points to a dimension of her book beyond her thesis of the colonial-settler state. The book’s title has a double meaning. It is not only a reconsideration of US history from the perspective of indigenous peoples; it is also a history of the indigenous peoples themselves. The accent here is on their plurality. What the European settlers encountered was not an ethnicity or a “race” (here meaning a segment of society defined as meriting the attention of multiculturalists); rather, it was a multiplicity of distinct indigenous nations, each with its own language, institutions, and culture.

In a splendid early chapter of the book, entitled “Follow the Corn,” the author gives an overview of these nations as they existed prior to the European invasion. This chapter should be required reading for anyone who thinks of the indigenous peoples simply as hunter-gatherers with no ties to particular lands. In fact they not only engaged in agriculture; they lived in villages (sometimes in multi-story dwellings), and built roads and irrigation canals. In one notable case, that of the Cherokee in the Southern states, they made a concerted effort to adapt to the ways of the colonizers, with some members of the community even acquiring private titles to their land. This did not save them, however, from massive deportations westward, under harsh conditions (the “Trail of Tears”) that resulted in thousands of deaths.

Despite centuries of such devastation, however, Dunbar-Ortiz refuses to treat the Indigenous just as victims. Given the hardships they have suffered, she draws encouragement from the fact that any of them at all have survived. She views this survival as an expression of resistance. And she finds, in recent years, evidence of a reversal in fortunes.

With the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, US policy pushed toward full assimilation, which Dunbar-Ortiz characterizes as “a form of genocide” (174), in the sense of being designed to cause the disappearance of entire communities. The process was called “termination” because it was to terminate recognition of Indian nationhood. Its machinery was administered by the same federal official who had been in charge of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Indigenous resistance gained strength, however, with global decolonization in the 1950s and with the revival of domestic radicalism in the 1960s. This brought an end to termination as an official policy. Since that time, with some encouragement from the international arena, modest steps have been taken to recover collective identities. The book’s last two chapters recount the still uncertain outcome of this process.

In her introductory chapter, Dunbar-Ortiz asks, “How might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform society?” What I think she demonstrates is the need for a sea change in US-American culture. How this can happen, she does not spell out. But certainly a part of the process will consist of learning – with the indigenous peoples as examples – that it is possible to live by different rules than those imposed or fostered by capital.

Reviewed by Victor Wallis Liberal Arts Department Berklee College of Music


1. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 322, 370.

2. Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York: NYU Press, 2014). See also Richard Gott, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression, Revolt (London: Verso, 2011), 66-67.