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The Blind Spot of United States History

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

An 1899 chromolithograph of U.S. cavalry pursuing American Indians, artist unknown, Werner Company, Akron, Ohio
An 1899 chromolithograph of U.S. cavalry pursuing American Indians, artist unknown, Werner Company, Akron, Ohio

This essay appeared originally on the Powell's Books Blog.

The most frequent question readers ask about An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is: "Why hasn't this book been written before?" I'm flattered by that question, because it's the one I ask about texts that deeply move me; at the same time the information, argument, or story is new to me, it seems that it was already hidden in the recesses of my brain or heart, a truth. I knew the story I wanted to tell when I set out to write the book, part of Beacon Press's ReVisioning American History series, but that didn't make it easier to transfer to paper. Writing and rewriting, I discovered the story, just as my readers do as they read it.

But why hasn't this book been written before? We believe we don't suffer censorship in the U.S., but we do. Rather than being mandated by the government, historians self-censor in response to institutionalized policing of the parameters of what's acceptable and what will be marginalized. William Burroughs's narrator in his 1984 novel, The Place of Dead Roads, observes that "people are not bribed to shut up about what they know. They are bribed not to find out...Now, Americans are told they should think. But just wait until your thinking is basically different...You will find out that you AREN'T supposed to think." This is particularly true in the writing of our history. It's not a free speech issue but one of asking questions that challenge the core of the scripted narrative. Historians are validated to the extent that they remain guardians of the United States origin myth.

Many complain that even the educated general public doesn't know basic facts about the structure of government, the constitution, the rights of states and division of powers. Yet there is a widespread acceptance of the greatness and goodness of the United States, along with extreme mistrust of government. The military is the only unifying government institution, the only one trusted and loved, even when the Army itself was divided during the Civil War. That is the blind spot.

Why is there so little about the origins and development of the military in history and political science texts and teaching? The premise of my book is that from earliest settlements in the 1600s, to the adhesion of the thirteen British colonies into an independent nation-state, and up to the present, the military has been the engine of United States development and the core of patriotism. Yet generations have had little knowledge of and interaction with the military; it is nearly invisible in everyday life. But the annals of military history reveal the architecture of its formation and function.

This is what I discovered when I was struggling to write U.S. history from the perspective of the Native American nations' experiences, and it's what readers discover when they read the book and wonder why it hasn't been written before. It's no secret, but akin to the king's new clothes.

Air Force officer and military historian John Grenier isn't the first military historian to locate the roots of the U.S. military in the English/U.S. settlers genocidal wars against Native Nations, but his book, The First Way of War, is the most succinct, well-documented, and accessible for civilians. Grenier writes: "For the first 200 years of our military heritage, then, Americans depended on arts of war that contemporary professional soldiers supposedly abhorred: razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders...In the frontier wars between 1607 and 1814, Americans forged two elements—unlimited war and irregular war—into their first way of war." From this period, Grenier argues, emerged problematic characteristics of the U.S. way of war and thereby the characteristics of its civilization, which few civilian historians acknowledge.

There's a strong tendency in U.S. history writing to focus on the individual actor, rather than individuals functioning within a system. Surely there are "bad" and "good" people in every society, and there's "bad" and "good" in each individual. But that doesn't tell us much except that social institutions can allow the bad in people to emerge or the good in people to predominate. That is, a society sets standards for behavior and isolates that which it considers "bad." In addition to the good-bad binary, since the surge of the Civil Rights movement, historians writing U.S. history claim to be exploring "warts and all," with "balance," of course, with "violence on both sides." But warts can be removed from the body and leave it intact, which this kind of history does.

Here is an example of the matrix that is uncovered when a thread from the weave of consensus U.S. history is pulled: in July 2015, the California legislative Black Caucus called on the residents of Ft. Bragg, California—the site of a former military base 170 miles north of San Francisco—to change the town's name, General Braxton Bragg the offending historical figure. In the course of his long military career, Bragg, an 1837 West Point graduate, was commander of the Confederate army in the Civil War, and owned over a hundred enslaved Africans. The Black Caucus rightly raised the issue in the wake of the June 17 Charleston, South Carolina, assassination of senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney, along with eight worshipers, at the oldest historically black church in North America, Mother Emanuel. Shocked attention quickly turned to the continued presence of the Confederate flag on the South Carolina state house in Charleston, the assassin being a self-identified white supremacist whose Internet photos show him toting the Confederate flag.

A national debate ensued, not only about the proliferation of Confederate flags throughout the South and in white supremacist enclaves all over the country, but also public monuments and place names, particularly army bases named after Confederate officers. There are, in fact, nine other U.S. military bases in addition to Ft. Bragg that are named after Confederate officers, mostly in the South.

Few in California knew that their state hosted a base, now a town, named after a Confederate General, but the argument began immediately. Those opposed to changing the name pointed out that General Bragg was a decorated Army officer in 1857 when Ft. Bragg was built and named, three years before the Civil War. That's certainly different from those bases in the South named after Confederates, which occurred in the 20th century. The naming honor recalled Bragg's heroic actions as a captain serving under Major General Zachary Taylor in the Mexican invasion and occupation of Mexico City in 1847. And the purpose of establishing Ft. Bragg? To enforce the confinement of Indigenous Californians forced into the newly established Mendocino Indian reservation.

The Black Caucus statement asserted that it was inappropriate to honor an individual who committed treason against the U.S. in defense of slavery. Nearly everyone who has argued for the change of names of military bases has invoked treason. Yet all of the West Point graduate officers who led the Confederacy, after whom bases are named, had been honorably recognized for their feats in the invasion of Mexico, including Robert E. Lee, and several also in the wars against the Seminole Nation in the Everglades (1816-1858). But, it seems, it would have been appropriate had these officers not chosen the Confederate side and stayed in the U.S. army to slaughter Native Americans during and after the Civil War, like nearly every military officer of the Union army: Sherman, Fremont, Grant, Custer, to name the most famous. In fact, the majority of U.S. army bases on the continent were initially outposts for wars against the Indigenous nations—Forts Snelling, Hays, Kearney, Leavenworth, Sill, and Riley, the latter the base of George Armstrong Custer's 7th Cavalry, now the 1st Infantry Division, all named after U.S. Army officers who commanded the genocidal wars.

For most of the period from the U.S. War of Independence to the 1890s, the sole function of the U.S. military was to kill, round up refugees, relocate, and confine Native Americans and appropriate their land and resources to place Anglo settlers, particularly slave-owning planters involved in mono/cash crop production. The army officers of both the Confederacy and the Union had made their careers in genocidal campaigns against Native nations and Mexico, annexing half its territory, and including three major wars against the Seminole Nation before the Civil War. Both Union and Confederate armies posted regiments west of the Mississippi to invade territories of the Dakota, Cheyenne, Navajo, and Apache nations. Wars against the Native peoples did not miss a beat during the Civil War, after which it was total war to destroy the Native nations in the Northern Plains and Southwest.

As the title of a new collection of essays asserts: You Can't Teach United States History without American Indians. My book, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, is such a history.


About the Author

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of seven other books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @rdunbaro.