Today in the United States, there are more than five hundred federally-recognized Indigenous nations comprising nearly three million people, descendants of the fifteen million Native people who once inhabited this land. The centuries-long genocidal program of the US settler-colonial regimen has largely been omitted from history. Now historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers a history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the US empire. In An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, Dunbar-Ortiz challenges the founding myth of the United States and shows how policy against the Indigenous peoples was colonialist and designed to seize the territories of the original inhabitants, displacing or eliminating them. And as Dunbar-Ortiz reveals, this policy was praised in popular culture, through writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Walt Whitman, and in the highest offices of government and the military. As the genocidal policy reached its zenith under President Andrew Jackson, its ruthlessness was best articulated by US Army general Thomas S. Jesup, who, in 1836, wrote of the Seminoles: "The country can be rid of them only by exterminating them."
And so this book is needed. The genocide, the broken treaties, the lies, the programs that blatantly dressed in the garments of unabashed racism (all of which continued much much longer than I had imagined)--all that is spelled out so clearly here. And I must sincerely thank the author for having the courage and insight to put it all on paper.
That said, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States reads a little too heavily like a textbook. And like other textbooks, it is a textbook with an agenda. In some ways, that's good, because we need a textbook that tells the other side of the story; but in the same way school textbooks imply that Indians are uncivilized brutes, An Indigenous Peoples' History... implies that the white man is savage and greedy. This angle doesn't bode well for a work that should educate, not finger point. In fact, this book does little to paint the indigenous people of North America as much more than victims; I would've appreciated learning more about their history sans the white man. If An Indigenous Peoples' History... is indeed meant to counter the school textbook, it is my feeling that it should stand as an anti-textbook and bear as little similarity to the textbook lies as possible.
Additionally, the book is repetitive at times, foreshadowing an event and then, when chronologically appropriate, retelling those details in almost the same words. Surely, this book would not have suffered from tighter editing.
Minor quibbles aside, this book is important. It may not be the most riveting story of indigenous persecution (though it has turned me onto finding some of those works), but it is likely the most complete, relatively concise work on the subject. Those interested in or who feel obligated to learn of the injustices perpetrated by the United States throughout history should consider this one an essential read.
I hope to keep reading in this area as the Native American dispossession and genocide involved in US history is obvious and yet difficult to grasp what it means to understand and see it clearly.
Dunbar-Ortiz presents an articulate, detailed, and fascinating presentation of Indigenous history from the perspective of Native Americans. Though somewhat short, the book tells a variety of historical stories from Native sources, with a primary focus on the late 15th Century to the modern day.
Dunbar-Ortiz's work will be a must read for students of anthropology and Native American history. She expertly weaves various treaties, historical events, documents, and quotes into a narrative of Native interpretation of recent history, which is unique in the field (which often relies upon Western sources). A very authentic work of history and anthropology.
There were a few parts that I did not agree with and had a difficult time reading, notably areas outside of Native American history (the Crusades, Barbary Wars, Global War on Terrorism) and public health (treatment of disease and population health), which I felt were presented in an excessively simplified and pointed way. Being outside of the scope of the work, I felt that Dunbar-Ortiz only focused on excessive generalizations of these areas to fit her narrative, and seemed awkward/did not really fit. Additionally, she offers a brief aside to the Virginia Tech Massacre, which was particularly clunky and unnecessary, and quite off-putting. Other than the Virginia Tech comment, the additional comments fall under something of 'mission creep', where her topic is expanded in a series of asides in interesting yet irrelevant and sometimes biased/possibly inaccurate descriptions of history - which is made distracting by the otherwise detailed and articulate nature of most of her work. The Virginia Tech comments (only 1-2 pages maximum) were just 100% unnecessary - they serve no purpose and will only confuse/anger/turn off readers to what otherwise is a fascinating read.
3/5 for a strong representation of Native American history through their own words and experiences, with some marks off for an oversimplification and unnecessary inclusion of extraneous topics.
Peoples were colonized and deposed of their territories as distinct peoples, at least bordering on genocde and "settler colonialism". "Free" land attracted European settlers, reinforced by the "Columbus Myth" and the questionable "Doctrine of Discovery" that the indigenous inhabitants lost their natural rights to their land after Eurpeans arrived and claimed their lands. She points out that such "settler colonialism" was basically a genocidal policy.
She sets forth that that America was not a "New World". Indigenous
peoples of the Americas had cultivated an agriculture based on corn (which does not grow wild) and had vegetarian diets supplemented by wild figs, fowl, and 4 legged animals. She also contends that the Americas (including North America, Central America and South America were densely populated and actively traded with each other. Thus, "North America in 1492 was not a virgin wilderness".
A chapter entitled "Bloody Footprints" establishes the first introduction of "Scalping"
as a lucrative commercial practice for which colonist mercenaries were paid per scalp.
Stunningly, George Washington's orders regarding the destruction of the Iroquois stated:
"You will not by any means, listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected .....Our future will be in their inability to injure us .....and in the terror
with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them."I
My college history courses covered the expansion of the American, colonies Westward to the Mississippi River, but I was not prepared for the detailed history in chapter 5
covering the withdrawal of the British from their 13 colonies & the subsequent use of "what were essentially vicious killers to terrorize the region thereby annexing land that could be sold to
settlers". The author describes in the colonists as conducting "counterinsurgent warfare and ethic cleansing targeting Indigenous civilians". In chapter 6, she describes Andew Jackson
as " ... an influential Tennessee land speculator , politician, and wealthy owner of a slaveworked plantation ....." Thoughout her book she effectively uses current modern adjectives to
describe, i.e. "....the final solution for the Indigenous peoples ...."
Chapter Six is entitled "The Last Of The Mohicans ..." her subtitles are
"Career Building Through Genocide" & "The Mythical Foundation Of Settler Patriotism".
She unapologetically disputes standard American Historical terminology
normally defined simply as "Westward Expansion". She states "Democracy, equality,
and equal rights do not fit well with dominance of one race by another, much less with genocide, settler colonialism, and empire."
Chapter Seven quotes Walt Whitman: "The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated;
it is the law of the races, history ....A superior grade of rats come and then all the minor rats are cleared out." Also covered are the American invasion and colonization of Northern Mexico & California.
Chapter Eight covers "Indian Country", with sub-titles such as "Lincoln's 'Free Soil'
for Settlers" and "The Genocidal Army of the West"; as well covering the Homestead Act ,
the Morrill Act & the Pacific Railroad Act.
I am giving this 5 stars as an important recording of history that is not otherwise admitted to, although the indigenous peoples' history here is more of a catalogue of the various broken treaties and genocidal massacres & relocations carried by various U.S. State and Federal governments and settler mercenaries and armies. i.e. you are not going to learn a lot about actual indigenous peoples' history here except for how they were impacted by the gradual western movement of the expanding colonial state. Even though it is not all inclusive it is still an important step in the process. The author's overall theme seems to be more the "American Way of War" and how it was honed in the suppression of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and was then exported throughout the world in hundreds of other colonial enterprises as early as African incursions in the First Barbary War of 1801-05 (i.e. the "Shores of Tripoli") through to Afghanistan/Iraq/Syria in the 2000's.
The reference section provides a wide-ranging listing of sources to expand your reading on the subject, many of which are from the last decade. Early sources are often few, but both Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970) by Dee Brown and Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1970) by Vine Deloria Jr. are included.
This isn't really a history of indigenous people. This is a history of what white Europeans did (and are still doing) to indigenous people. More white people are named, and more of their actions described, than indigenous individuals.
Dunbar-Ortiz's main thesis is that the long slow genocide of Native Americans is the defining characteristic of the United States, and has served as the inspiration for many aspects of American culture, and has provided the template for American colonialism abroad (Vietnam, Iraq, etc.). Buried in there is her secondary thesis that Native Americans have survived despite 500 years of systematic destruction of their people and culture, but unfortunately she doesn't have much time to discuss how they have managed to do this.
This book is a merciless condemnation of the history of the United States. Dunbar-Ortiz does not hold back in criticizing American colonialism. For example, in discussing how much the quest for gold was a driving force in colonization, she says "The systems of colonization were modern and rational, but its ideological basis was madness."
This book is part of a series called ReVisioning American History for Young People. I would think that in a book aimed at a young audience, Dunbar-Ortiz doesn't explain more of the basic definitions and characteristics of colonialism. I think this is another effect of trying to fit a lot of information into a small volume - I really wish she had been given free reign to do justice to her subject.
Despite all of these criticisms (which I think are probably a result of the publisher's restrictions, not Dunbar-Ortiz's skill), this is a devastating and important book, and I think all Americans should read it or at least be aware of its narrative.