An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Nov 8th, 2015 | By | Category: 27-2: American Indian Law, Media Reviews

indigenous-peoples-historyBy Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Beacon Press (2014)
296 pages

Review by Jennifer Denetdale

Native histories are mostly placed within American historiography, which makes it difficult to appreciate Indigenous nations as sovereign and their peoples as citizens of their own nations. Indigenous peoples are still seen as part of the cultural diversity of the United States and as evidence of American exceptionalism. As Dunbar-Ortiz shows, sweeping Indigenous peoples into American narratives denies, sanitizes, and erases the United States’ foundation that is built upon stolen Indigenous lands, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of people of color.

Dunbar-Ortiz delivers a far-reaching indictment of U.S. practices and policies against Indigenous peoples that can only be called genocide and ethnic cleansing. She begins with a broad overview from the south and into what is now the U.S. Southwest, and then east toward the Mississippi, to show pre-contact Indigenous societies with sophisticated trade, social, and cultural networks that worked well for hundreds of years. The history then concentrates on the establishment of the United States as a nation through its systematic use of terror and violence to steal Indigenous lands and then cast Indigenous peoples as citizens of the U.S. settler-state. Dunbar-Ortiz draws upon a multitude of secondary sources and primary documents, literature, and more recent U.S. military histories to illuminate the process and consequences of U.S. colonization on and for Indigenous peoples. She takes Patrick Wolfe’s observation that settler colonialism is “a structure, not an event” to connect the past to the present, thereby indicating that colonialism has not ended, but takes multiple forms—including capitalism.

The final chapters look at the end of the 19th century, when the Wounded Knee massacre was still cast as “the end of the Indian wars”; move to the early 20th century, when Indigenous peoples faced unremitting U.S. savagery in the form of laws and policies that kept them impoverished and relegated as second-class citizens; and finally examine the possibilities of addressing Indigenous grievances in an international forum. Dunbar-Ortiz’s grand study of Indigenous nations’ and peoples’ experiences under U.S. rule illustrates what Muscogee scholar Jodi Byrd calls “the transit of empire,” that is, how the U.S.’s original relationship with the “Indian” is the metaphor for how the U.S. continues to dominate the rest of the world with savagery and ruthlessness. Dunbar-Ortiz argues that a world based upon peaceful co-existence is possible, but only when the U.S. and other settler-states accept accountability and responsibility for the present condition of Indigenous nations and their peoples. This book is a must-read and should be a primary text in high schools and for undergraduates.

Jennifer Denetdale, Ph.D. (Diné), is an associate professor at the University of New Mexico and author of Reclaiming Diné History.

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