Reading about the history and ideology of racism, colonialism, and other global projects of oppression seems to be my thing these days. I think it has something to do with the frightening rise of right-wing, white supremacist, and fascist politicians and movements around the so-called developed world, and watching the slow erosion of democracy, compassion, justice, even humanity itself, as I define it. I've always been a left-wing, social justice sort of person, but now I find myself compelled to learn more about my enemies and the ideologies, institutions and actions they have, and still do, espouse, propagate and defend.
One of the books that's been a part of this reading project is An Indigenous People's History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. In this volume, Dunbar-Ortiz seeks to decentre the white settler narratives of the establishment and growth of the United States, and present instead a narrative that centres the indigenous perspective.
In her Introduction, Dunbar-Ortiz states:
"Under the crust of that portion of Earth called the United States of America - "from California... To the Gulf Stream waters" - are interred the bones, villages fields and sacred objects of American Indians. They cry out for their stories to be heard through their descendants who carry the memories of how the country was founded and how it came to be as it is today. It should not have happened that the great civilizations of the western hemisphere, the very evidence of the western hemisphere, were wantonly destroyed, the gradual progress of humanity interrupted and set up on a path of greed and destruction. Choices were made that forged the path of that destruction of life itself - the moment in which we now live and die as our planet shrivels, overheated. To learn and know this history is both a necessity and a responsibility to the ancestors and descendants of all parties."
She goes on to describe the ways in which land - the idea, the metaphor, the physical reality of the soil and water we live on and the resources it holds - is a key concept in understanding American history: "everything in US history is about the land - who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity ("real estate") broken in pieces to be bought and sold on the market."
Dunbar notes that the connection of white invaders/colonists/settlers and indigenous dwellers with/to the land means that the relationship of white and indigenous peoples is not one of racism - or not exclusively so - but also of colonialism and imperialism, and, as a consequence of the outright theft of land, genocide. Recognising this means "rethinking the consensual national narrative." She goes on to say:
"Awareness of the settler colonist context of US history writing is essential if one is to avoid the laziness of the default position and the trap of a mythological unconscious belief in manifest destiny. The form of colonialism that the Indigenous Peoples of North America have experienced was modern from the beginning: the expansion of European corporations, backed by government armies, into foreign areas, with subsequent expropriation of lands and resources. Native nations and communities, while struggling to maintain fundamental values and collectivity, have from the beginning resisted modern colonialism using both offensive and defensive techniques, including the modern forms of armed resistance of national liberation movements and what is now called terrorism. In every instance they have fought for survival as peoples. The objective of US colonial authorities was to terminate their existence as peoples - not as random individuals. This is the very definition of modern genocide as contrasted with premodern instances of extreme violence that did not have the goal of extinction. The United States as a sociopolitical and economic entity is a result of this centuries-long and ongoing colonial process. Modern Indigenous nations and communities are societies formed by their resistance to colonialism, through which they have carried their practices and histories. It is breathtaking, but no miracle, that they have survived as peoples."
Dunbar-Ortiz begins her history of the United States with a discussion of the conditions that prevailed among indigenous peoples prior to the arrival of European colonists. She describes the major groups of nations in North and Central America, and the variety of agricultural and land management practices, trade patterns, governmental structures, and other key aspects of the many civilised nations that covered all the habitable Iand of the continent.
She goes on to examine the European roots of colonialism, from the appropriation of land and exploitation of labour that formed the basis of the feudal system, to the colonisation of states such as Scotland, Wales, Catalonia and the Basque Nation, to the Crusades, which married Christian zeal to conquest for profit. As she notes: "The rise of the modern state in Western Europe was based on the accumulation of wealth by means of exploiting human labour and displacing millions of subsistence producers from their lands."
Having perfected the techniques of colonialism with Europe itself and the lands closest to them, these states set out to increase their wealth, expanding "... overseas to obtain even more resources, land and labour" through the conquest and colonisation of the Americas, Africa, the Pacific, and much of
Asia. The increased need for labour - both at home to convert stolen resources into wealth, and in the colonies as support for the military and developing capitalist classes, and then as settlers to develop the land taken from indigenous peoples - was supplied through the appropriation of the commons and the enshrinement of private property which forced small subsistence farmers off their land.
Dunbar-Ortiz also locates the beginnings of white supremacy in the "colonizing ventures of the Christian Crusades in Muslim-controlled territories and to the Protestant colonization of Ireland" as well as suspicion of Conversos and Moriscos - Iberian Jews and Muslims who has converted to Christianity. As she observes, "The Crusades gave birth to the papal law of 'limpieza de sangre' - cleanliness of blood - for which the Inquisition was established by the Church to investigate and determine." Dunbar-Ortiz goes on to describe the result of this - the imagined alliance of 'old Christians' regardless of class against the potential contamination of the body spiritual by new Christians of questionable devoutness and 'purity' as "the first instance class leveling based on imagined racial sameness - the origin of white supremacy, the essential ideology of colonial projects in America and Africa." A brief discussion of the colonisation of Northern Ireland and the racislisation of the indigenous Irish as lesser products of creation, descended, like people of colour, from 'apes' rather than men demonstrates the ways in which this imperial project - combining land seizure, 'white' settlement, resource exploitation, racialisation of native peoples and religious ideology - is a precursor to the British colonisation of North America.
In discussing the subjugation of the Americas, Dunbar-Ortiz delivers a critique of the 'disease theory' of the massive depopulation of the continents. While agreeing that the introduction of new diseases into the microbiological ecosystem of the Americas played a part in the genocide which literally decimated the population of the Western Hemisphere, Dunbar-Ortiz notes the almost constant state of war, and the multiple conditions of colonialist practice that increased susceptibility to disease in a previously healthy population.
"US scholar Benjamin Keen acknowledges that historians "accept uncritically a fatalistic 'epidemic plus lack of acquired immunity' explanation for the shrinkage of Indian populations, without sufficient attention to the socioeconomic factors ... which predisposed the natives to succumb to even slight infections." Other scholars agree. Geographer William M. Denevan, while not ignoring the existence of widespread epidemic diseases, has emphasized the role of warfare, which reinforced the lethal impact of disease. There were military engagements directly between European and Indigenous nations, but many more saw European powers pitting one Indigenous nation against another, or factions within nations, with European allies aiding one or both sides, as was the case in the colonization of the peoples of Ireland, Africa and Asia. Other killers cited by Denevan are overwork in mines, frequent outright butchery, malnutrition and starvation resulting from the breakdown of Indigenous trade networks, subsistence food production and loss of land, loss of will to live or reproduce (and thus suicide, abortion and infanticide), and deportation and enslavement."
As Dunbar-Ortiz demonstrates, a close examination of the kind of warfare waged by the settler colonists against the Indigenous nations reveals its genocidal nature from the very beginning - violence against women, children and the elderly, and destruction of farms and other sites of food production in order to depopulate the land in preparation for white settlers. Bounty hunting was introduced, with the taking of scalps (originally practiced during the colonisation of Ireland) accepted as proof of kills. Indigenous women and children not killed outright were taken as slaves, their forced labour contributing to resource extraction in Caribbean as well as continental American colonies.
After securing the northern coastal area of what is now the United States, Anglo colonists moved west, warring directly with the Indigenous nations, and to the north and south, attacking French and Spanish colonies and their Indigenous allies. Following the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years' War), which ended in 1763 with the transfer of French colonies in what is now Canada and the Spanish territory of Florida to Britain, the British government attempted to halt the colonisation of the Ohio valley. Anglo settlers, however, refused to be constrained in their westward push, creating tensions which helped to trigger the War of Independence. Wars against Indigenous nations in the Ohio Valley - marked by extreme violence from military forces whose officers were ordered to "most effectually chastise and terrify the savages" - continued throughout the revolution, with the consequence of an expanded land base for the new colonial nation. The litany of total, genocidal wars against Indigenous nations continued over the next century, as the new colonial republic and its militant settlers moved south and west into territories ceded by other European countries (as in the Louisiana Purchase), or still under Indigenous control, and initiated a long imperialist conflict with Mexico. Dunbar-Ortiz describes in heartbreaking detail the resistance of the Indigenous people to the inexorable progress of the colonial project.
At the same time that the new republic was devoting its military resources to exterminating the original inhabitants of the land, the myth of American origins was bring crafted to deny the real processes of colonisation. In The Last of the Mohicans, Fennimore Cooper created the image of the vanishing Indian passing stewardship of the land on to his white adopted son. The idea of Manifest Destiny romanticised those who led settler-colonists into new lands, defeating the unworthy and barbarous savages who dared to oppose the advance of Christian civilisation. Novelist Wallace Stegner wrote: "Ever since Daniel Boone took his first excursion over Cumberland Gap, Americans have been wanderers... With a continent to take over and Manifest Destiny to goad us, we could not have avoided being footloose." An article in a contemporary publication compared European and American imperialism by arguing that European nations "conquer only to enslave" but the United States "conquers only to bestow freedom." As Dunbar-Ortiz notes, the erasure of colonial genocide has been so effective that President Barack Obama was able to declare, in an interview given to the Dubai press shortly after his inauguration in 2009: "We sometimes make mistakes. We are not perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power."
The December 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of over 300 Lakota who had surrendered to American military forces essentially marked the end of armed Indigenous resistance to US colonisation. The shift to cultural genocide had already begun, with the establishment of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, and the cultural repression of the California missions. At the same time, lands that had been allotted to various surrendered Indigenous nations in "Indian Country" were being systematically diminished to provide land for white settlers, railroads, and exploitation of natural resources including gold and oil. The iconography of the 'vanishing Indian' - most graphically portrayed in James Earle Fraser's 1915 sculpture "The End of the Trail" - came to represent the public image of Indigenous peoples.
Dunbar-Ortiz draws a connection between the 'domestic' colonialism of the United States in its dealings with Indigenous peoples and its history of military imperialism abroad. "... it's important to realize that the same methods and strategies that were employed with the Indigenous peoples on the continent were mirrored abroad. While the Indigenous Americans were being brutally colonized, eliminated, relocated and killed, the United States from its beginning was also pursuing overseas dominance. Between 1798 and 1827 the United States intervened militarily twenty-three times from Cuba to Tripoli (Libya) to Greece. There were seventy-one overseas interventions between 1832 and 1896, on all continents, and the United States dominated Latin America economically, sone countries militarily. The forty interventions and occupations between 1898 and 1919 were conducted with even more military heft but using the same methods and sometimes the same personnel."
Dunbar-Ortiz continues with an account of consistent mismanagement of Indigenous peoples' lives and livelihoods in the 20th century under the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with decisions taken without reference to the actual needs of the people, and often made to facilitate corporate interests at the expense of the people. She discusses the 'narrative of dysfunction' used to characterise Indigenous peoples and justify continued paternalistic colonial intervention, a narrative that conveniently ignores the conditions which led to the current situation in which Indigenous communities display a high incidence of poverty and social dysfunction. These conditions include the loss of land and sovereignty, generations of brutal violence and oppression, denial of access to sacred lands, destruction of traditional economies and ways of life, and the legacy of forced assimilation, abuse and alienation from culture, language and history - all part of the genocidal war waged on Indigenous peoples by settler colonists. She quotes Mohawk historian and activist Taiaiake Alfred: "What is the legacy of colonialism? Dispossession, disempowerment and disease inflicted by the white man to be sure.... Yet the enemy is in plain view: residential schools, racism, expropriation, extinguishment, warship, welfare."
Moving forward to the 1960s - the era of multiple civil rights movements - Dunbar-Ortiz discusses the new resistance movements among Indigenous peoples and their goals, from return of sacred lands to recognition of treaty rights. She notes the increase of high-profile resistance actions among young Indigenous people, including the occupation of Alcatraz, the AIM protests at Wounded Knee, identifying these as the 'beginning of Indigenous decolonization in North America.' More recently, Indigenous nations have begun to establish systems of governance to replace the colonialist oversight of the past. In her conclusion, Dunbar-Ortiz restates the premise that the United States' undeniable history of imperialist violence abroad and domestic violence at all levels of society is inextricably linked to its genesis in colonialism and genocide; at the same time, she speculates that the process if decoloniation may offer new ways of imagining the American polity leading to a more humane culture.
This is a profoundly important book. The importance of understanding the processes of colonisation which resulted in the modern white settler states of the United States and Canada (which shares much with its neighbour in terms of the colonisation of Indigenous peoples) is vital if we are to move toward a more just society - and knowledge is the first step to understanding.