An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read a portion of the Project 1619 publication in the New York Times Magazine. Which was really eye opening. I hadn’t realized the economy legacy of Slavery (or the cotton price crash related to slavery). I didn’t know about the immediate resurgence of the former slaves during the Reconstruction of the south with the swift and sudden destruction of that community. So, I was talking with my wife about how we needed a similar project for Native Americans. I happened to see a tweet from a writer I follower on Twitter, Eve E. Ewing about differences in coverage of Indigenous Peoples in other countries and the U.S. I tweeted how there needed to be a 1619 Project and she suggested I read this book. I really appreciated that, because I understand it’s not the responsibility of advocates to educate me on these topics. It’s my own.
So, on to the book. This book was a lot to read. It was a slow read for me. It’s not a very long book, coming in at around 250 pages. However, there’s a huge amount of information packed in to this book. As a reader, you get the impression that this is a survey of the histories of Indigenous Peoples. It has to be.
The book starts by setting the record straight on the science and cultures of the Peoples ranging from South America, Central America, and then into North America, before the first contact between Spanish and Portuguese conquerors and the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. After explaining how the Indigenous Peoples cultivated the land, including farming and creating deer parks (which were managed forests where it was easy to raise deer and hunt deer), Dunbar-Ortiz moves onto migratory patterns of people over the course of centuries and various trade routes. This set the stage that this was a very inhabited place whereupon colonizers usurped the land from the peoples living here.
Dunbar-Ortiz then moves on to the first contact with the Spanish, Portuguese and other Europeans. From then on, it is an unblinking look at the hard truths of the slaughter of Indigenous Americans. As most of you know, historians use lenses to explain specific events. To me, it felt like the lens used here was the interaction between Settlers/Colonizers/US citizens and various native nations. For example, the Sioux were introduced at two points, once to explain their migratory history (which shows migration from South and Central America to North America has been happening for centuries) and when there was land theft and aggression by illegal settlers and/or the US Government.
I think this is the appropriate context for an accurate understanding of the relationship between the US and Indigenous Nations. So much of the US’s history is predicated on exterminating the Indigenous Nations preventing Manifest Destiny. George Washington called for the elimination of Native Americans. Andrew Jackson built his personal brand on the slaughter and flaying of Muskokee (Creek) villagers. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan and you like Ramsay Bolton, Andrew Jackson was your President. He literally flayed villagers and turn their skin into tack for his horse. He was proud of doing this.
Throughout history classes that were taught at my conservative high school, we glossed over much of the interaction between the US Government and Indigenous Nations. Things like the Trail of Tears (perpetrated by Jackson) were sad things that happened, but weren’t the norm, according to my 10th grade history class. However, reading this book, it’s clear to me, that was the norm not the exception.
Even in cases where the forced migration wasn’t as obvious as that, there was forced migration to avoid war with illegal settlers or the US Army. Going back to the Sioux, that Nation was forced away from it’s holy land, The Black Hills. You might know that as where Mt. Rushmore resides. I cannot imagine what it would be like for something so foundational to me as a people being destroyed with the faces of your oppressors.
You might say, “But Lincoln is on there! He was a good guy!” Well guess what, DURING the Civil War the US Army was attacking the Navajo in New Mexico and Arizona. Every person on that monument is someone that made it their goal to destroy native peoples while they were President.
This book was brutal to read. I’m sitting here drinking my tea enjoying the legacy of these atrocities. While reading this book, I would oscillate between disgust and a desire to help the Indigenous Peoples of the various Nations in North America. Fortunately, the author gave some recommendations at the end of the book.
First and foremost, encourage the US Government to honor the treaties (that are still in effect) they made with the Indigenous Nations. That includes repatriating portions of land back to those Nations. Treat them as true Sovereign Nations with all the rights that gives.
For US Voters, that also means supporting candidates that don’t pretend they are Native Americans of any kind, unless they are literally recognized by that Nation as a citizen.
This book should be required reading for all seniors in high school. It’s important that we have honest discussions about where the US came from. Because, as the last chapter explains, all our wars with other foreign nations use the same Total War tactics as we did against the Indigenous Nations of America.
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