Tuesday, July 17, 2018

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Today I'm looking at a history book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz that seeks to redress the problem of Native Americans, (alternately called American Indians, the First Peoples, or Indigenous Peoples), who are largely written out of standard American history and when they are included at all it is an entirely inadequate representation of the peoples and cultures. This book is not an exhaustive exploration of the indigenous people who lived in the United States. That would be a difficult if not impossible task for a number of reasons including a scarcity of surviving written and archaeological records, often wantonly destroyed by European colonialists, and because the sheer number of Indigenous nations that populated the modern United States. This book focuses largely, instead, on the policy of the Anglo-American settlers starting with the colonies of Jamestown and Plymouth going into the twenty-first century. Dunbar-Ortiz makes a compelling argument that the United States has, and continues to pursue, a policy of genocide against American Indians through a variety of methods and provides suggestions on how to remedy this state of affairs.

Throughout this book Dunbar-Ortiz utilizes the definitions of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as her rubric for defining genocide. Although most people usually associate genocide with the wholesale killing of members of an ethnic group or religion, such as in the Holocaust, the UN Convention includes within its definition the forced transfer of children out of an ethnic group, preventing births within the group, and imposing conditions of hardship on groups calculated to bring about their destruction. Although she uses the term retroactively from its creation, by the modern definition the actions of European colonials from their first contact with American Indians matches the textbook definition of genocide.

Dunbar-Ortiz catalogues the methods utilized by European colonists from the overt to the more insidious as a series of tools utilized through five centuries to wage an ongoing genocide against indigenous peoples. Regular warfare, smallpox, liquor, and the practices of head-hunting and scalping factor heavily in the early years of European contact with American Indians. The only point of concern I actually had at this point was Dunbar-Ortiz's assertion that smallpox could not have killed 90% of the population of the Americas. The current historical consensus is that the total population for the Americas was as high as 100 million people, but around 90% of those died of diseases carried by Europeans that American Indians had no resistance to. Smallpox is often pointed to as the biggest, but blame is also assigned to diseases such as measles, typhoid, diptheria, and pertussis which could have had equally high mortality rates. Dunbar-Ortiz argues it's highly improbable that diseases could have wiped out such a great chunk of the population, but admits that they had their effect. Obviously the evidence available to historians is highly fragmentary so a definitive answer is unlikely.

Aside from the obvious methods utilized by Europeans, Dunbar-Ortiz explores some of the less overt but equally deadly methods Anglo-Americans used to try and wipe out indigenous nations. She places a good deal of emphasis on trade, where natives could provide goods (usually pelts) to whites, and whites would offer food, tools, clothing, firearms, and most dangerously liquor in exchange. By replacing traditional crafts with European-manufactured goods, whites made native communities dependent on trade for their continued survival, providing a powerful lever against native communities. This became even more overt with the American reservation system where many natives were dependent on government supplies to provide food, clothing, and other basic necessities just to survive.

Another horrific practice was the means of ''educating'' native peoples ranging from the Spanish mission system to the infamous Indian Academies of the United States, typified by Carlisle. In these cases young children were ripped away from their families and sent to live in distant boarding schools. Their hair was cut, they were forbidden from speaking in their native tongue or practicing their own religions, and severely beaten for any infractions. This was a concentrated effort by Europeans to force natives to adapt to the dominant Anglo-American culture and did untold damage to the life of native communities in the United States.

Even as recently as the mid-twentieth centuries there have been attempts by the American government to renege on agreements with Native American nations, many of whom had sovereign status recognized in treaties signed with the United States government. Native communities have resisted such efforts to strip them of their rights, but obviously with mixed results. Even issues as recent as the Dakota Access Pipeline underscore the struggle Indian communities still face when dealing with the federal and state governments. However, because there are only around five million American Indians in the United States (making approximately 1.6% of the population), it is unlikely they alone will be able to force change. Dunbar-Ortiz says that it will require African-Americans, Hispanics, and Euro-Americans to cooperate as allies for American Indian communities and allow native voices to be heard. American Indians will speak for themselves, but it's the rest of us that have to be willing to listen.

On a final note, I thought it was interesting in how Dunbar-Ortiz talks about the American Army and how it owes its existence to the need of the American Government to kill Indians and make room for European colonization. The oldest units of the American Army can trace their origins to units in the Regular Army whose ''peacetime'' purpose was to expand the frontier and kill and control Indians. Dunbar-Ortiz even illustrates how the American colonial project, the expansion and domination of the North American continent, made use of colonial troops in the guise of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-Americans enlisted in the regular army and deployed in the Western Frontier to fight Indians. To this day, the American Army refers to territory behind enemy lines as ''Indian Country'', part of the Army's institutional heritage fighting native nations.

I definitely think this book is worth a read because of how Dunbar-Ortiz shifts the perspective and provides an in-depth explanation of how American colonialism continues to affect native communities.

- Kalpar

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