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BOOKS: “An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States.” My Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz | Mickey Z.
Mickey Z. | World News Trust
Oct. 11, 2014

“The whole country is a crime scene and should be marked with yellow tape.”
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

As I type these words, we are two days away from “honoring” Columbus and exactly a month has passed since the cries of “never forget” echoed on the 9/11 anniversary.

When it comes to honoring and remembering, however, it’s clearly slipped our minds how -- upon encountering the Arawak people in 1492 -- the venerated Mr. Columbus noted that they “would make fine servants,” adding, “with 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Fortunately, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is making certain we “never forget” the realities of Manifest Destiny. Born in rural Oklahoma to a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother, Dunbar-Ortiz has committed her life’s work to education and activism. Her path will inspire you and her latest book,  An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (Beacon Press) will enlighten you. And anger you. And, best of all, educate and motivate you.

I recently had a conversation with Roxanne and it went a little something like this:

Mickey Z.: Is it safe to assume that many readers are approaching your book with heads filled with preconceptions and misconceptions on this general topic?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Yes, U.S. people either think they know a lot about Native Americans, or have little interest or curiosity. The latter especially applies to leftists and progressives, who think Native Americans are irrelevant to politics and strategies for change; they will nod their head in paternalistic sympathy, and that’s it. Those who “know Indians,” as Richard Slotkin emphasizes in his work, often men who have been Cub and Boy Scouts and/or in the military, particularly the Marine Corps, or non-Native people (not only Euroamericans) who live near reservations. In each case, the knowledge and analytical base is wrong, and even the assumptions.

Most U.S. Americans will go a whole lifetime without meeting a Native American (even many of those who will tell you they themselves had a Native ancestor). And in the presentations of U.S. history, in schools as well as popular culture, Native Americans are largely absent. Then, when they are present, it’s often worse than absence; it’s misinformation or distortions. That’s why I present Native American history as United States history. Nothing about the founding and development of the United States can be understood except in relation to the Indigenous Peoples of the continent (and of Hawaii and Alaska).

MZ: As you articulate in your book, a big part of that awakening may start with the acceptance of the official U.S. war on indigenous peoples as a war against foreign nations.

RDO: This is a key factor of U.S. history, the fact that some 500 Native nations existed when Europeans began their colonizing projects. Throughout the British colonial period in constructing the 13 North American Atlantic colonies, the colonizing authorities approached the Indigenous nations as nations, not that they respected them as equals as they did not, but they also didn’t respect Turkey, Russia, and other nations they regarded as nations. The independent Anglo-American state continued the same nation-to-nation colonial practices as the British. But, in all European colonial projects, including the United States, they invoked the Doctrine of Discovery.

From the mid-15th century to the mid-20th century, most of the non-European world was colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the first principles of international law Christian European monarchies promulgated to legitimize investigating, mapping, and claiming lands belonging to peoples outside Europe. It originated in a papal bull issued in 1455 that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa. Following Columbus’s infamous exploratory voyage in 1492, sponsored by the king and queen of the infant Spanish state, another papal bull extended similar permission to Spain. Disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies led to the papal-initiated Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which, besides dividing the globe equally between the two Iberian empires, clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the discovery doctrine. This doctrine on which all European states relied thus originated with the arbitrary and unilateral establishment of the Iberian monarchies’ exclusive rights under Christian canon law to colonize foreign peoples, and this right was later seized by other European monarchical colonizing projects. The French Republic used this legalistic instrument for its nineteenth- and twentieth- century settler colonialist projects, as did the newly independent United States when it continued the colonization of North America begun by the British.

MZ: How was this doctrine exploited and expanded by the United States?

RDO: In 1792, not long after the U.S. founding, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery developed by European states was international law applicable to the new U.S. government as well. In 1823 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. McIntosh, brought by the Cherokee Nation. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall held that the Doctrine of Discovery had been an established principle of European law and of English law in effect in Britain’s North American colonies and was also the law of the United States. The Court defined the exclusive property rights that a European country acquired by dint of discovery: “Discovery gave title to the government, by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.” Therefore, European and Euro-American “discoverers” had gained real-property rights in the lands of Indigenous peoples by merely planting a flag. Indigenous rights were, in the Court’s words, “in no instance, entirely disregarded; but were necessarily, to a considerable extent, impaired.” The Court further held that Indigenous “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished.” Indigenous people could continue to live on the land, but title resided with the discovering power, the United States. The decision concluded that Native nations were “domestic, dependent nations.” This remains the fundamental law that rules the U.S. government’s relationship with Native Nations, a living colonial institution.

MZ: Please talk about how your book connects to larger issues of white supremacy/privilege.

RDO: In Chapter 2, “The Culture of Conquest,” I trace the rise of white supremacy to the Christian Crusades, and particularly the centuries long Castillian crusade against the Moorish Caliphate in the Iberian peninsula. In this process, Christian canon law introduced the concept of limpieza de sangre, cleanliness of blood, and established the Inquisition to investigate the purity of Christians, that they had no trace of Muslim or Jewish religious practices. Then in 1492, began mass deportations of Muslims and Jews. The Doctrine of Discovery itself was inherently white supremacist in that it mandated that Christian monarchies (all European/white) had the right to occupy and dominate any non-Christian/non-white society.

The expropriation of Native land, turning it into private property/a commodity, as well as the savagizing of Native people, and the enslavement of human bodies, African bodies, as private property/commodities as well as a labor supply form the core of white supremacy in the founding, development, and present of the United States. I’ve always thought that the term “privilege” is such a weak word to describe the mindset that possessed European settlers.

MZ: I very much concur. It’s a word designed to be polite and non-confrontational. Yet another reason why it’d be so powerful to see your book become integrated into U.S. history education classes.

RDO: I think this book will be useful to teachers in developing a framework for presenting U.S. history to students at every level. The actual text books will be the last to change, due to the composition of most school boards in the country and the educational industrial complex. I want to see educators turn from thinking they have to “understand” Indians and instead start trying to understand the United States. When they do that, they will understand Native Americans.

MZ: With that in mind, as we descend into the era of ecocide, I feel it’d be useful to have you explain and expand on this passage that appears near the end of your book: “Indigenous peoples offer possibilities for life after empire, possibilities that neither erase the crimes of colonialism nor require the disappearance of the original peoples colonized under the guise of including them as individuals.”

RDO: As the first chapter in the book, “Follow the Corn,” lays out, the multiple forms of democratic governance and social relations developed by Indigenous peoples in North America are breathtaking. For one thing, they are all rooted in matriarchy. Matriarchy is not the opposite of patriarchy, nor simply substituting female people for male people. Rather it is a profound comprehension of the biological factors that can lead to domination and authoritarianism.

Training the male to be part of a community requires extensive ritual and discipline; it is not “natural,” rather socially constructed. It doesn’t happen automatically. And the concept of the earth as the source of sustenance, “mother,” that must be respected and managed. Some of the experiments and results of social developments in North America (and the hemisphere) are adaptable to modern society, perhaps especially in cities. Native peoples built cities, towns, federations of towns, based on the common good. Indigenous socialism, as Evo Morales calls the phenomena, can provide both a goal and a practice, for survival and for defeating empire and structures of domination.

MZ: I’d love to see that concept shared widely as a template for environmental survival. Okay, as we wrap up, I know you’ve been doing plenty of talks and interviews lately but: Is there a question you've been hoping someone would ask you about this book but so far no one has? If so, please share that question and your answer with us.

RDO: The question: Why is Oklahoma unique, and what does its historical experience and present social movements have to offer for the rest of the society?

The answer: The whole country is a crime scene and should be marked with yellow tape, but Oklahoma was the place of distillation of the crimes against humanity created by the Andrew Jackson administration.

Click here to order An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz can be found on the Web here.

Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here.

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