An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States: Book Review by Super Star Agni

THE INDIGENOUS EXPERIENCE has long been absent from colonial histories, which either dismiss or rationalize the existence of and fallout from European imperialism. With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz examines the American settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experience.

AnIPHotUS Cover

The daughter of a Cherokee-Irish mother and a Scots-Irish tenant farmer father, Dunbar-Ortiz embraced her “fragmented” Native heritage and became politically active in California in the 1960s, joining the civil rights, anti-apartheid, anti-Vietnam War, women’s liberation, and Red Power movements, which, she writes, helped her gain the critical perspective presented in the book.

In an intelligent, comprehensible style, Dunbar-Ortiz outlines the culture of European conquest cultivated centuries before would-be settlers crossed the Atlantic. With a Christian, white supremacist zeal that justified colonialism, she writes in the chapter “Sea to Shining Sea,” a militaristic heritage developed in Western Europe during the crusades, that was later brought to the Americas with its policies of destruction and dehumanization.

“The establishment of the missions and presidios…traces the colonization of California’s Indigenous nations. The five-hundred-mile road that connected the missions was called El Camino Real, the Royal Highway. These California Franciscan missions and their founder, Junipero Serra, are extravagantly romanticized by modern California residents and remain popular tourist sites. Very few visitors notice, however, that in the middle of the plaza of each mission is a whipping post.”

Dunbar-Ortiz explains that not only were warfare and forced removal exercised with the intent to erase Indigenous peoples from the Americas, but effective use of terminology also aided in the conquest of the continent. She illustrates how popular culture perpetuates and justifies the disappearance and conquest of Indigenous peoples through the Columbus Myth, the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the concept of “firsting and lasting” ― which directs the national narrative to speak of civilized Euro-American founders on one hand and “Ishi, the last Indian” on the other ― and popular songs, such as Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Dunbar-Ortiz decolonizes the American founding myth by examining how early Anglo-American literature worked to justify the uprooting and elimination of Native peoples, and why authors, such as James Fennimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville remain revered and studied today as national and nationalist writers instead of colonialist.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States challenges readers to rethink the national narrative of Manifest Destiny and ponder how society would be transformed if the reality of U.S. history were to be acknowledged on a wider scale.

In roughly  three hundred pages, spanning more than four hundred years of history, the book offers a new periodization of U.S. history and demonstrates the active nature of Indigenous survival through organizing and storytelling.

A version of this review originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of News from Native California.

The Great Xanadu of Race Politics by Super Star Agni

mixed-raceI’ve been in the practice of storytelling through art since elementary school. I didn’t begin to tell my own story, however, until graduate school, where I wrote about the adventures of a dark-skinned mixed boy and a Russian-American girl in rural Kansas. After two years of study, I managed to complete my thesis, but was well short of a finished first draft.

After spending several more years writing a mixture of what could be described as The Little Prince meets Pedro Paramo, I realized the main character’s search for identity and purpose in a world that regarded him as anomalous because of his skin color and unorthodox beliefs were, in essence, my own.

Knowing my heritage, I managed to confounded the color line and mass-mediated stereotypes as a child. “You don’t sound Black” and “You are not the usual Black” are comments I’ve heard most often, the runners up being: “I can tell you’re mixed because your hair is different” or “What country are you really from?”

I’ve developed a series of responses over the years—some of which mention I’m of African, Cherokee, and Scottish ancestry—but, no matter how I respond, I always wonder why people from seemingly all backgrounds police Black identity so zealously, especially in regard to dark-skinned people of African descent.

An ex-girlfriend was of a similar mix type, but her appearance was notably different than mine. She had pale skin, blue eyes, and straightened brown hair with natural blonde highlights. I identified as mixed because of my upbringing and knowledge of my ancestry; she identified as Black because of her upbringing, adherence to the one-drop rule, and what I assume to be disinterest in her Native and Anglo ancestries. While our inevitable split was not due solely to identity politics, the policing of Blackness played a large part in our relationship’s demise.

Until recently, I was in the occasional habit of defending my ancestries with genealogical records, DNA test results, and family photographs, but I stopped all together because the act of proving serves to trivialize my experience and existence. I also stopped because identity police are annoying. Now I tell them “I am who my ancestors are” and let their minds silently explode.

The novel I mentioned earlier has actually become a memoir in verse even though the characters and happenings are fictional. If the concept of a poetic fictional memoir seems contradictory, blame artistic license, cultural inheritance, and the subversive nature of poetry. I was brought up to know storytelling is more about getting to the underlying truth than simply relating details. Given that, I’ve come to realize the concept of being both dark skinned and mixed is difficult to convey accurately without writing about in academic detail the usual suspects of colonialism, colorism, racism, and general human cruelty. Writing my truth in essence seems more natural and meaningful beyond mere details of record, and has become an effective way to transcend identity politics.

F3b1 haplogroup

My Mother’s Haplogroup – Region: Southeastern Asia