Through the Eyes of the Dispossessed

An Indigenous People's History of the United States

Our nation was born in genocide…. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade.

— Martin Luther King Jr.1

Somehow, even “genocide” seems an inadequate description for what happened, yet rather than viewing it with horror, most Americans have conceived of it as their country’s manifest destiny.

— Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz2

Given the title, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, anyone familiar with Howard Zinn’s œuvre, A People’s History of the United States, would be expecting a forceful depiction of colonialism, imperialism, and genocide. Author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz does not disappoint. The publisher claims the book is: “The first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples.” Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous bloodline is a little thin, and even she refers to her Indigenous roots as “fragile.” (p. xii) Nonetheless, the sensitivity and the boldness of her narrative is steadfast throughout the book, which she sees as a “springboard to dialogue about history, the present reality of indigenous people’s experience…”

RDO_DVThe author settles into a narrative that reveals religion-fueled, profit-seeking peoples backed by the development of weapons technology that imposed privatization, land ownership, classism, colonialism, sexism, and the White supremacism of the genocidaires. The Original Peoples resisted the capitalist order of the European dispossessors for which the Indigenous peoples were demonized and their traditional communal way of living outlawed. This hard-heartedness of US capitalism continues till the present day, as exemplified by making it illegal to feed the homeless.

According to Dunbar-Ortiz, the colonization of Turtle Island was genocidal by design. Examples such as the destruction of foodstuffs and the deliberate spreading of deadly disease among Indigenous peoples bears this out.

Understandably, the author calls into question the motivations of feted explorers who led Europeans to Turtle Island — among others, Columbus, Balboa, Magellan — and presents them as functionaries in the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples. Moreover, Dunbar-Ortiz thoroughly repudiates the fallacious Doctrine of Discovery.

This racist attitude was pervasive among the colonialists who were greedy for land in the “New World.” Writes Dunbar-Ortiz, “… the processes of wealth accumulation and the power that comes with it … mobilized settlers to cross the Atlantic to an unknown fate … was madness.” (p. 44)

Among the earliest invaders were the Scots-Irish who sought escape from poverty back home. These Calvinists “formed a human wall of colonization” (p. 54) and “perfected” scalping of natives for bounty. (p. 52)

This signalled the beginnings of the American way of war: breaking down any resistance by targeting the supply system and children, women, and the elderly with “unlimited violence.” (p. 58)

In contrast, Indigenous warfare, writes Dunbar-Ortiz, was “highly ritualized” with “few deaths.” (p. 63)

Dunbar-Ortiz buttresses her wording — “federal government’s final solution” — by quoting ranger general John Sevier who warned, “war will cost the United States very much money, and some lives, but it will destroy the existence of your people, as a nation, forever.” (p. 90) This hearkens to David Stannard’s American Holocaust3 which tells of a genocide of up to 100 million Indigenous persons.

ThisIsWhiteHistory_DVDunbar Ortiz exposes the racism of US presidents, in particular Andrew Jackson who she calls a “genocidal sociopath.” (p. 94) Abraham Lincoln, she points out, was responsible for the largest mass hanging in US history — 38 Dakota Sioux – to free the Land west of the Mississippi for settler-colonialists. (p. 138)

The Dawes and Curtis Acts stripped sovereignty from Indigenous nations to facilitate land grabs. Furthering this end the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was an act of assimilation that deepened the loss of sovereignty. The Indian Land Claims Commission, which exposed the illegality of seizing Indigenous land held by treaty (p. 173), and the Termination Act furthered the dispossession.

This was not the end, however. An Indigenous People’s History chronicles how over the years resistance built up again with the National Congress of American Indians and later the American Indian Movement, the return of Ba Whyea (colonial designation: Taos Blue Lake), the continuing refusal by the economically destitute Lakota Sious to accept money amounting to over $1 billion for the theft of Paha Sapa (Black Hills), the Alcatraz “occupation,” the Bureau of Indian Affairs office “occupation,”4 and Wounded Knee, a site that carries an ineluctable blot of racism, bloodlust, and murder. That the US military has not deviated from this bloodthirsty path is demonstrated by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the scorched earth campaign in Korea, My Lai and other Vietnamese massacres, Fallujah, and the Convoy of Death in Afghanistan.

The racism is attested to by the military’s use of the wording “Indian Country” to designate a target for attack because that is what the “USA” is: Indian Country. It is the homeland of many First Nations that were killed and dispossessed – a dispossession that continues to this day.

An Indigenous People’s History relates vicious colonialism, dispossession, imperialism, corporatism, extermination, termination, divide-and-conquer, disinformation, alcohol as a weapon, false treaties, impoverishment, sovereignty denial, occupation, annexation, assimilation and genocide on a staggering scale. This formed the backbone of Manifest Destiny and wars abroad. Foreign lands, referred to as Indian Country, have been transformed into battlefields for US militarism and imperialism.

Dunbar-Ortiz writes that there is “life after empire.” How to undo the undoable crimes of a genocidal empire? Dunbar-Ortiz writes “the process starts by honoring treaties the US made with Indigenous nations…” (p. 235-236).

An Indigenous People’s History is history bristling to the present day with the warmonger’s mantra, spoken or tacit, that “might makes right.” In any morally conscientious universe, such an aphorism is anathema. As Dunbar-Ortiz’ historical account on the genocidally derived geo-political entity known as the United States from the perspective of dispossessed Indigenous peoples illustrates, the past is not completely buried; it has not been completely forgotten. The past is being exhumed. The skeletons of colonialism and imperialism are coming out of the closet (or perhaps more aptly, casket). It is a history of which every person on Turtle Island should be aware.

  1. Quoted on p. 78 of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2014). []
  2. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2014): p. 79. []
  3. Although I agree with a holocaust having taken place, I would dissent from depicting it as “American” since (1) this is a colonial designation imposed upon the landmass of an Indigenous peoples, and (2) it elides the genocidaires from the wicked deed. I submit the European-cum-American holocaust of Indigenous peoples is an apter descriptor. []
  4. It is perverse to characterize Indigenous people as being “in occupation” (which carries with it connotations of dispossession) on their own territory. []
Kim Petersen is a former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimohp@gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.