An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2015)

Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Professor Emerita, California State University, Hayward) argues the exclusion of the indigenous perspective in mainstream American history distorts our understanding of how the United States came to be and how this history continues to negatively impact our society.

A point Dunbar-Ortiz repeatedly hits home is the prevailing myth of terra nullius, or that the continent was empty when Europeans settled here, and the inevitability of U.S. expansion. These assumptions are used to justify colonial squatting and nullify native nation resistance, she argues. For example, colonial governments signed treaties with native nations and prohibited settlers from immigrating into native lands, but did not supply the resources to enforce such treaties. Countless settlers disregarded these prohibitions and continued to press westward, leading to war with natives. This was one example of how a time-honored component of American doxa – in this case, the prized "go-it-alone" frontiersmanship – framed natives as enemy combatants on their own land.

On top of that, there were overwhelming challenges facing indigenous nations upon European immigrants’ arrival that Dunbar-Ortiz explains, like exposure to new diseases, European trade practices and goods, pressure from competing European powers for indigenous loyalty, privatization of warfare within American frontier communities, incentives for indigenous removal, and government corruption. For example, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign, and that Georgia had no rights to enforce state laws in its territory. However, then-President Andrew Jackson refused to uphold the ruling. He rounded up the Cherokee and expelled them to modern-day Oklahoma on what we refer to today as The Trail of Tears. According to a Feb. 19, 2018 New York Times op-ed, Jackson was ranked the 15th-best president in U.S. History. (This was, however, a six-place drop from 2014. Authors Rottinghaus and Vaughn credited the decline for “evolving attitudes on [Jackson's] treatment of Native Americans.”)

What I like most is Dunbar-Ortiz's explanation of native leaders and their interactions with the U.S. government – a narrative all-but ignored in mainstream American textbooks. Shawnee chief Tecumseh (1768-1813), for example, called for indigenous peoples west of the Mississippi to unify, presenting a program that would end land sales to settlers. His strategy and philosophy established a model for further resistance, Dunbar-Ortiz said. At the end of the book, she calls for restoring treaties and sacred sites (“starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks and land and all stolen sacred items and body parts, and by payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations” (p. 236)).

My biggest beef with the book was how often the author made broad statements of fact, with no citation. Or when a source was credited, it was usually a secondary or tertiary source. For example: “After his brutal war of annihilation against the Muskogee Nation, Jackson continued building his national military and political career by tackling the resistant Seminoles in what are known as the Seminole Wars. In 1836, during the second of these wars, US Army general Thomas S. Jesup captured the popular Anglo attitude toward the Seminoles: ‘The country can be rid of them only by exterminating them.’ By then Jackson was finishing his second term as the most popular president in US history to that date, and the policy of genocide was embedded in the highest office of the US government” (p. 97). The source of this information? A June 1987 newsletter published by The Archaeological Society of Southern Florida. There were more, too. Statements about the Ulster Scots, Calvinists, and Confederate soldiers stated as facts, with no reference to the information's origin.

Things like this gnawed at me. And I was sorry that it did, because there is a discussion here that has merit. I applaud her undertaking. I am sympathetic to the difficulty of locating primary sources in historical research. Overall, it was an informative read and it challenged assumptions I didn't know I had. The narrative would be stronger, though, with a clearer distinction between verifiable fact and her synthesis of scholarly arguments.