Last week after Native American activists successfully lobbied the city of Seattle to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote an open letter to President Obama urging him to put an end to the federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus—a man linked to the enslavement, mutilation, and genocide of the Indigenous people he encountered on his exploration and subsequent conquest of the “New World.” A corresponding WhiteHouse.gov petition has generated tremendous response, confirming that support for the idea of honoring Indigenous people over Columbus Day’s “metaphor and painful symbol of [a] traumatic past,” as Dunbar-Ortiz describes in the letter, has spread throughout the general public. Dunbar-Ortiz, whose An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States was published last month, spoke with us recently about the book and about how Indigenous people remain a dynamic, diverse, and necessary force in the world today.
Beacon Broadside: What are a couple the most enduring myths about Indigenous history?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: I think the myth of disappearance—the myth of not being here now, of being people of the past. That’s a kind of unspoken, unconscious genocide that takes place over and over and over again, not just in the past. But of course, genocide doesn’t mean the total elimination of a people. It can mean that but in world history it’s not meant that. There are still Jews in the world. There are still Armenians. There are still Cambodians. Even though we call each of those cases genocide. But with Native peoples it’s different. So I think that’s the main myth, this idea of eliminationism, to do away with the Indians. And it’s sort of confusing and painful for people who don’t know US history, or know only a version of it—that is the settler colonial narrative—don’t know what to do with the fact that there are still Indians because the narrative really does away with Native people.
BB: What do you think will surprise readers most about what you’ve uncovered?
RDO: Well, linked with the eliminationism, I think people will be surprised with how resilient and dynamic Native society is right now. It’s almost under the radar. Some people witness it. Mostly, Native people on their original territories are outside of large cities, so there are very racist little border towns. So what you see is the dysfunction. But there’s also this dynamism, and especially this younger generation now is just absolutely amazing. I think most people don’t have the opportunity to actually get to know Native people, to meet them. Sometimes they’re in situations when they see a false image of Native people dancing or performing. It’s not that it’s totally false, it’s that its only one tiny aspect that plays into a romanticized performance of people from the past rather than vibrant people of today. Native nations are writing new constitutions. They’re at work at the United Nations, constructing new international law that’s going to benefit humankind, not just Native people.
RDO: I think we’re in a situation today that everyone recognizes as quite dire due to climate change, global warming. We’re seeing the results with extreme weather everywhere in California, where I live, extreme drought. On the East Coast, there is extreme winter weather, winter hurricanes and tornadoes all over the place all times of the year. Of course, the ice cap is melting very quickly. Native people have been warning about this. The first United Nations conference on the environment was in 1974 in Stockholm, Sweden. A delegation of Hopi people went to that because they had a prophecy and were extremely concerned because their prophecy made it very clear, and they know their earth so well, or their piece of it, that they could see the changes. That was quite a while ago that they were warning of ecological disaster.
I think it’s a very important time to have a Native voice really making clear what’s going to happen, but also the means of survival. One thing Native people have really been about for the last 500 years is surviving an onslaught of continual genocide, warfare, suppression, near extinction of languages, of cultures, of sacred items. Survival is an active word. It’s not just passively surviving. That takes an enormous amount of resistance and cultural continuity, and that has allowed for the survival. Everyone’s going to have to learn how to survive because we’re already to the point that there’s going to be dire consequences even if we very quickly did a whole lot of things to slow it down. Things are already happening. In a way, everyone on earth has become the Indian from these five centuries of destruction of the earth through industrial, corporate profits to get more and more things out of the earth and devastate it. I think Native people have a lot to teach, and people will start listening.
BB: What is the most important thing for people to understand about Native people’s history?
RDO: I talked about it earlier, that eliminationism, why it’s very hard for people to remember that there are still Natives. It’s often past-tense when people talk about Native Americans and often with great admiration. There are two poles: one is the noble savage; one is the savage savage, attacking the settlers and the pioneers and soldiers. The other is this romantic warrior and a kind of character that never existed. So the important thing to remember is that Native nations are very diverse. It’s a huge territory that’s now the United States. There were an estimated 500 distinct cultures, distinct languages. So, I think for people to know that, first of all, anyone who is attacked for their land—they fight back in various ways, however they can. About 80% of the land taken from Native people was not by legitimate treaties, it was with a gun to the head or just seizing the territory. But there are very important treaties, and these are of the utmost importance to Native people, these legal agreements and that the United States live up to them. Most people in the people in the United States have no idea they exist. Or if they do they say, “Oh, Indian treaties, that’s a joke, they’re just made to be broken.” I think that’s the most important aspect is that Native people still insist on autonomous governments, self-determination, their own sovereignty and culture, and not assimilation.
BB: One of the arguments you make is that while Native Americans are often portrayed as victims, they have for centuries actively resisted colonialism. Why do you think their acts of resistance aren’t well known or acknowledged?
RDO: I think victimry is something people can handle without doing anything about it. They can feel badly. US American citizens are famous—if there’s a famine, drought, tsunami, or whatever if they see it on the TV—for giving and contributing money. They don’t really have to do anything. You can feel sorry. You know the phrase: “low, the poor Indian.” But once the Native person is presented as a fully sovereign human being and a part of a culture, and insisting on being that as a form of resistance and not assimilating, it’s very threatening. I think that’s why the narrative is repeated over and over. So they’re not really then dealing with the reality that the Native people are here; they’ve resisted, they’ve survived, they haven’t changed their mind about who they want to be and how they want the future to be.
I think it then links in to the whole origin narrative of the United States that does away with the Native people and it’s very hard then to insert them in any way except in the victim category.
BB: You note that “multiculturalism became the cutting edge of post-civil-rights-movement US history revisionism” and that this approach required Indigenous nations and communities “to be removed from the picture.” Say more—what do you mean by that?
RDO: Well, multiculturalism was an advance over previous exclusion, basically what was very much an Anglo WASP narrative of the United States, even kind of leaving immigrants out entirely. So the Civil Rights Movement that was going on ever since the end of slavery but really got, after World War II, regenerated into this massive, amazing, really almost a revolution in the United States with the changes it made. And these were very basic things—voting rights, being able to live anywhere, integrated schools—the very basics.
As those things were won, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then the demands started for changing textbooks, establishing programs of black studies, ethnic studies. The response to those pretty radical demands that people be able to write their own history and present it from their perspective, what the textbook makers came up with was a multiculturalism that includes some of [those] histories—the taking of Mexico, Manifest Destiny, the study of slavery, immigration and especially Asian immigration, the Japanese-American relocation. These things just weren’t even in textbooks before.
So the Native American was already included in the narrative because they couldn’t be left out in the early period of all that warfare—there must have been some Indians century after century, three centuries of warfare. It didn’t quite fit in because they’re the only people with territorial and national and cultural—not just ethnic—entities. It doesn’t fit into the multicultural narrative of equality of all these different peoples and having their own culture. It does, in a way, and Natives were included, but only in the cultural aspects, and not going very deeply into the demands there, which was about the treaties and the United States living up to the treaties. They would go back into that history and see it as a story of tragedy and then kind of just end at 1890 at the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
So almost every field where you can insert the multiculturalism, you had to make big changes to incorporate the Native reality. And that’s never been really successful. It’s still a problem. In the 90s they came up with this new national narrative of a “nation of immigrants” and younger people think that’s just how it was always written. But that was a big breakthrough, starting from the slave-owning founders to various elites and presidents to a kind of peoples’ story—everyone was an immigrant. But it didn’t acknowledge settler colonialism. It put the burden on later immigrants from around the world that they, too, were settlers. And they weren’t. They came late. So the Anglo settler class descendants could kind of hide behind this immigrant narrative.
But that left the Native people out entirely. And what they started doing is making them the “first peoples” instead of the aboriginal, original, Indigenous, or Native peoples; they were the “first peoples” and it put them in the narrative as immigrants, when Indians had already been farming for 10,000 years in the Americas. So it stretches quite a bit, the idea of being “immigrants,” the first immigrants. But that’s how hard it is. They want to keep the logic of a national narrative, and it just kind of messes it all up when you bring the Native American in.
Professor Dunbar-Ortiz has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades, is author or editor of seven books including the recently published An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.