An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
Reviewed by David Etheridge
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Beacon Press, 2014. 296 pages. $16/paperback; $15.99/eBook.
This book is part of Beacon Press’s ReVisioning American History series, which is intended to offer “fresh perspectives on familiar narratives” that are told “from the viewpoint of underrepresented communities.” The editor for the series promises, “each title will both fundamentally challenge but also change how you think about U.S. history.” Authors are asked to make their writing “intellectually rigorous, but relatively brief and written accessibly so it would engage multiple audiences.” Based on my reading I believe the author of this volume has met those objectives.
The author makes clear at the outset that she is writing a history of the United States from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective while acknowledging “there is no such thing as a collective Indigenous peoples’ perspective.” Inevitably, this history is informed by her perspective as a Native American who has been an Indigenous rights activist for over 40 years.
The book begins by describing the often highly complex and developed culture of pre-Columbian Indigenous people in North America as well as the infrastructure they had developed to support their life on the land. Many of us have acquired from popular culture and textbooks the idea that European settlers were invading a pristine wilderness. The author carefully documents how highly developed these lands were to counter that popular notion. Dunbar-Ortiz argues that if the lands had been a pristine wilderness then that land “would possibly be so today for neither the technology nor the social organization of Europe in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries had the capacity to maintain, of its own resources, outpost colonies thousands of miles from home.”
The author then surveys some 300 years of deadly conflict between Indigenous people and Europeans settlers, the British, and then the U.S. government. She documents the brutality of the assaults on Indigenous people—often when they are offering no resistance. Some of that documentation comes from Indigenous sources, but much more of it comes from reports and public statements made by the settlers and government officials who were engaging in that brutality.
At several points in her narrative, the author offers new insights on European and European American actions against Native Americans through analysis of European actions in other parts of the world. She describes European involvement in many oppressions, including the Crusades, feudalism, the Doctrine of Discovery, and the actions of the English and the Scottish in Ireland. This history of oppression is useful in understanding European conduct in North America. She includes commentary on U.S. conflict with Indigenous peoples not only within the United States, but also in occupations of Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii.
Dunbar-Ortiz notes that, even in her own lifetime, the U.S. military continues to invoke imagery from its earlier wars against Native Americans in describing more recent conflicts like Vietnam and Iraq. Most notable is the use of the term “Indian country” to describe areas where the U.S. Military is engaged in conflict. She also describes the federal government’s reliance on the U.S. Supreme Court 1873 decision in the Modoc Indian Prisoners case to justify harsh treatment of persons detained from Iraq or Afghanistan.
Dunbar-Ortiz gives us the Indigenous peoples’ perspective on U.S. history when she describes the idea that the United States had a “manifest destiny” to extend its sovereignty from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and what it meant for the people who had lived for centuries in the land between those oceans.
Popular culture has long attributed to Native Americans the practice of taking the scalps of persons regarded as the enemy. The author documents that scalp-taking was a common practice during the colonial period because colonial government set bounties to promote the killing of Indigenous people and required presenting the scalps in order to collect the bounty. She points out that the corpses that remained after the removal of the scalp were often referred to as “redskins.”
The book concludes with brief accounts of the struggles of Native Americans in the twentieth century. These include successes like the restoration of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo, legal validation of fishing rights for Native Americans in Washington State, and the validation of Native American sovereignty in the Indian Self-Determination Act. It also includes a discussion of legislation terminating the federal recognition of some Native American governments and other legislation transferring law enforcement authority over certain Native American lands to state governments.
U.S. history textbooks have long been written from the perspective of European Americans and have taken care to avoid focusing on the mistreatment of marginalized people within the country. To understand the United States as it is today, it is absolutely essential that our understanding come from sources other than those textbooks. The author does a good job of removing the ignorance induced by reliance on such textbooks.