My son recently came home from school with a book he’s not supposed to read, at least if we lived in Texas. If you thought Critical Race Theory was a challenge, prepare to look at your country through the eyes of its first people with An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon Press, 2015).
That is, if you are allowed to.
At the end of 2021, a Texas legislator demanded that a short, abridged high-school version of this book be made inaccessible to the students for whom it was intended. It was just one of 850 on his list. And it’s spreading across the country.
According to The Washington Post, over the last two years libraries and schools have faced an unprecedented number of bids to ban books not just from curricula, but from the premises. In other words, they are targeting books students may want to read on their own, not what a class requires.
What’s the attraction? Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Ph.D., is an academic whom many call a revisionist historian, though she calls it “re-visioning” history — making the descriptive adjective an active verb.
Most Americans, I imagine, have a vague notion of the exploration of North America as the United States pushed its borders west, encountering stone age nomads wandering empty land. This book is a strident and unapologetic thesis arguing that development of the U.S. depended on the deliberate and organized destruction of a vast population of Native American people and complex societies that had thrived for millennia.
“To say that the United States is a colonialist settler-state is not to make an accusation but rather to face historical reality, without which consideration, not much in U.S. history makes sense, unless Indigenous peoples are erased,” she writes.
If that sounds extreme, consider the words of former U.S. senator and one-time presidential candidate Rick Santorum when he addressed the Young America political conference on April 23, 2021: “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
That is the lie Dunbar-Ortiz confronts head on, page after page, example after example, in this passionate, polemic and extraordinarily well-cited work. “In the 12th century, the Mississippi Valley region was marked by one enormous city state, Cahokia, and several large ones built of earthen, stepped pyramids, much like those in Mexico,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes. “Cahokia supported a population of tens of thousands, larger than that of London during the same period.”
These are “the mound builders,” so-called by European settlers. “The people of the civilization had dispersed before the European invasion, but their influence had spread throughout the eastern half of the North American continent through cultural influence and trade.” The Mississippian culture flourished from about 800 to 1450 CE, with trade and cultural links stretching from the Gulf Coast of Florida to the Great Lakes, and from the Rockies to the Virginia coast.
And then there were the great nations to the west and the continent’s edge, among them the Navajo, the Pueblo, the Paiute, Modoc and Shoshone, and the Salishan-speaking peoples of Puget Sound country, who traded up and down the coast and with the interior for centuries.
Dunbar-Ortiz repeatedly stresses — and documents — the U.S. giving itself permission to expand whenever the need arose, if not by treaty than by war, and usually both. She also draws a distinction between war and genocide that is easy to overlook but crucial to understand since the explicit and often recorded purpose of organized settler violence was not just to evict Native Americans from their homes, but to exterminate them.
“We bleed our enemies in such cases, to give them their senses,” said a young Andrew Jackson in 1814, when he commanded a Tennessee militia that betrayed and murdered its own assimilated Muskogee neighbors to confiscate their property, plantations, and Black slaves, before evicting the survivors from their ancestral land.
It was part of a pattern. “Somehow, even ‘genocide’ seems an inadequate description for what happened, yet rather than view it with horror, most Americans have conceived of it as their country’s manifest destiny,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes.
And that’s not by accident. It starts in the literature of the time in works like The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, tear-stained favorites of my own childhood that she says worked to turn myth into fact. The author, James Fenimore Cooper “has the last of the ‘noble’ and ‘pure’ Natives die off as nature would have it, with the ‘last Mohican’ handing the continent over to Hawkeye, the nativized settler and his adopted son. This convenient fantasy could be seen as quaint at best if it were not for its deadly staying power.”
Such efforts gave rise to the fictional birth of a new American race. “But this idea of the gift-giving Indian helping to establish and enrich the establishment of the United States is a smoke screen meant to obscure the fact that the very existence of the country is the result of the looting of an entire continent and its resources.”
Resistance is also well documented, from countering federal efforts to decertify tribes, gaining access to land and resources, to the uprising at Wounded Knee in 1873. While large scale appropriation has given way to assimilation, Dunbar-Ortiz maintains the effect is the same and comes from the same place: denial.
“A ‘race to innocence’ is what occurs when individuals assume that they are innocent of complicity in structures of domination and oppression. … They cannot be held responsible, they assume, for what occurred in their country’s past. … Yet, in a settler society that has not come to terms with its past, whatever historical trauma was entailed in settling the land affects the assumptions and behavior of living generations at any given time.”
Here, I think, is an answer to the anti-woke hysteria of white guilt that has infected so much of our society, down to our classrooms. The crimes of Western Civilization do not blot out its achievements, but neither is the reverse true. Those crimes may be attributed to certain parts of our civilization, but not all. Ignoring inconvenient history leaves the injustice it created unexplained and therefore unreconcilable.
In other words, you don’t have to agree with anything Dunbar-Ortiz says to respect her perspective. How often do you get to look through someone else’s eyes, or walk a mile in their shoes? Doing so, experiencing empathy (to use a another newly fraught term), is the first step to creating solutions.
“The late Native historian Jack Forbes always stressed that while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes. “Assuming this responsibility provides a means of survival and liberation.”
Reprinted with permission from Key Peninsula News, April 2023.