Thursday, November 24, 2016

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

As I write this, thousands of individuals are engaging in peaceful protests alongside the inhabitants of the Standing Rock Native American Indian Reservation. They are protesting the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline that would traverse directly through the Reservation's only water source. The building project would also desecrate sacred lands including burial sites and ritual grounds. The response by local and state law enforcement has been harsh, violent, and inhumane - following the historical precedent for treatment of Native Americans - as described by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in her book An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States.

American schoolchildren are taught a specific narrative when it comes to the beginnings of the United States. Based on the concepts of Virgin Land, white supremacy, and Manifest Destiny, they learn that the pilgrims fled religious intolerance in England and came to the New World in search of a better and more tolerant way of life. These pilgrims found vast, untouched wilderness all around them, and took it as self-evident that God wanted them to claim this land to build, conquer, and prosper. Other than a few natives who helped those pilgrims in their first year of life in the new land, the indigenous peoples they encountered were savage, bloodthirsty, war-wagers who had to be annihilated. This narrative, categorized unquestionably by Dunbar-Ortiz as a fairy tale, has been used to justify the treatment of Native Americans for hundreds of years. However, when looked at the situation from a historically accurate, objective perspective it can only be called genocide.

The nations of indigenous people of the Americas had sophisticated, respectful, advanced systems of culture, science, religion, and agriculture. They maintained peace with each other unless war was absolutely necessary. The interstate highways and other major roads that Americans drive upon originated as Native American-built trade and migration paths. By most accounts, they were quite modern. However, because their traditions and methods were vastly different from the Europeans who came to claim the land, they were deemed sub-human and savage. Either they were forcibly removed from their lands, so as not to interfere with the settlers' work in colonizing, or were destroyed through violence, intentional spreading of disease, alcoholism, and mandatory assimilation. Large populations of Indian children were regularly kidnapped from their parents and placed into boarding schools meant to deprive them of their indigenous way of life.

The fledgling American government would often make treaties with the Native American nations, on-paper allowing for some self-governance and land rights. However, when the treaties became inconvenient for the government, politicians and military would often either not enforce the rules or would invalidate or remove them altogether. All the while, under the guise of Manifest Destiny, white settlers decimated the natural resources and lands. Whole species of animals were destroyed to near-extinction. Poor agricultural practices led to the destruction of topsoil, which resulted in the Dust Bowl. Any indigenous people were considered hostile to the growth of the nation; settlers and military members were rewarded with monies for presenting Native American scalps. The bloody bodies left behind, after the scalps were collected, form the basis for the term "redskin" that has been used as a racial slur towards the indigenous people.

While the focus of this non-fiction work is the history of the USA from an indigenous peoples point of view, the author also includes information about the conquest and domination of other areas including North Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Mexico, and the Pacific.  She also incorporates other historical genocides, like the Crusades and the Holocaust, drawing connections between them and the Native Americans.  She draws a direct comparison between the early settlers' imperialistic ideology and the brutal military response to the indigenous peoples, with the fact that American military maintains bases on countries around the world. The budget for these forces is larger than the military budgets of all other countries combined. The fact that the generic term, used by American forces, for enemy lands is "Indian Territory" or more commonly "In Territory", should not be forgotten.

In An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz challenges the enduring national narrative of the founding of the country. Instead of the heroic settlers taking on the savage and brutal Indians, the research has proven that the opposite was true. Indigenous peoples lost their land due to illegal seizure and genocidal activities of the white settlers, with no concern for the legacy and impact of their activities. Native Americans have historically been seen as an inconvenience to be either assimilated or destroyed. They represent non-Capitalist traditions and ways of life, which go against American "progress". This is why the protests at Standing Rock have been dealt with so harshly by law enforcement. To remove the dominant origin myth and replace it with a historically accurate portrayal of the country's founding and development would mean a significant change in mindset, and coming to terms with the genocidal activities of our founders and family members. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't take place.

This is an important book, with a vital message, and is the perfect compliment to today's Thanksgiving holiday.   

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