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Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz Wins the 2017 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize!

A Q&A with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Photo credit: Barrie Karp

We were absolutely thrilled to hear the news that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was awarded the 2017 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize! With this prize, the Lannan Foundation has honored her activism with global indigenous people’s movement for national sovereignty, international recognition, environmental rights, social movements for women’s equality, and the rights of oppressed nations in Central America. It’s been a privilege for us to publish her American Book Award-winning An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States as well as “All the Real Indians Died Off” And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, co-authored with journalist and scholar Dina Gilio-Whitaker. We caught up with Dunbar-Ortiz to ask about the prize and what it means to her.

Christian Coleman: Congratulations on winning the prize! Tell us what winning the prize means to you.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: The Lannan Lifetime Achievement Prize for Cultural Freedom is a prestigious award that I never imagined being bestowed upon me. Only eight other individuals have received it since it was initiated in 1999 to honor the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Subsequently, Arundnati Roy and Cornel West were among the awardees. I personally know and know of dozens of cultural freedom warriors whom I feel are more deserving than I am, so I am humbled as well as overjoyed.

CC: How did you find out you’d won?

RDO: I had been invited to speak in the Navajo/Diné nation at Diné College and was being driven there from the Flagstaff airport when the call came, Patrick Lannan himself on the line. When I woke the next morning, I didn’t believe it had happened.

CC: The Lannan Foundation awarded you the prize for your lifetime of tireless commitment to national and international social justice issues. What are some highlights from your work you can tell us about?

RDO: I was involved in the 1960s movements against the Vietnam War and US imperialism and was one of the founders of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s. After receiving the doctorate in history, I devoted by teaching career to the development of Ethnic Studies as an activist/academic field. In the wake of the Lakota resistance at Wounded Knee in 1973, I began working with the American Indian Movement in defense of those wrongly charged with crimes; this led to my bringing the testimonies in the trials together in an oral history of the Great Sioux Nation treaty and struggle for sovereignty, and these testimonies were collected in the first published book of its kind in 1977. While continuing teaching Native American Studies, I researched and worked for Indigenous land and resource rights and political self-determination, and helped build the international Indigenous movement. During the 1980s, I was also involved with refugee rights issues related to the US interventions in Central America, monitoring refugee camps in Honduras in cooperation with the UN High Commission on Refugees and filing reports and complaints to the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission.

CC: The Lannan Foundation also recognizes how you’ve helped to develop and explain the theory of settler-colonialism, perhaps more than any other scholar. It’s a prominent theme in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Why is it important for us to understand the effects of settler-colonialism in our current troubled times?

RDO: I think it’s more important than ever to understand the effects of settler-colonialism now, with the current backlash of white nationalism. As well, it’s necessary to understand settler-colonialism to comprehend the US settler descendants’ resentment of immigrants, criminalization of Black men, and a renewed surge to privatize public lands, which means eradicate the remaining Native American nations’ land bases. In the original thirteen British colonies and inscribed in the original US constitution, only Europeans were allowed to enter, and only white men who owned property (land or enslaved Africans) could be citizens of the United States. White nationalists are “originalists,” as is the majority of the justices of the Supreme Court—that is, advocating the original provisions and meaning of the Constitution as legitimate. White nationalism is original settler nationalism. But, the fact is that the content of US consensus nationalism that is woven into the fabric of the culture and institutions is based in celebrating the triumph of settler-colonialism, so the issue is far more serious than the current vocal domination of white nationalism.

CC: Now that you’ve won the prize, what comes next? You also have a new book out on the racist origins of the second amendment. Do you have any other books or projects planned that you can tell us about?

RDO: Yes, my book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment was published in January 2018 by City Lights Books Open Media Series and is being well received. I’m presently working on another book for Beacon Press on the question of the United States being “a nation of immigrants.” In this work, I again focus on the nature of settler-colonialism in relation to immigration with special attention to the instable Mexican border and the human rights of Mexicans entering the United States, given that the US invaded, occupied, and annexed half of Mexico.


About Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz 

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 and visit her website.