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.

Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People

The following review appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 edition of News from Native California.

With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Cherokee/Scots-Irish) examines U.S. settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experiences. A recent adaptation, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People, provides a similar critical lens for middle- and high school students.

Curriculum experts Debbie Reese (Nambe Owingeh) and Jean Mendoza maintain the overall scholarly essence of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States while reformatting its structure to include chapter subheadings, discussion topics, activity prompts, maps, informational text blocks, and bullet points.

These additions serve the modified structure well, providing context and opportunities for critical thinking. For example, in the subchapter titled “Indigenous Peoples of What is Now California,” Reese and Mendoza briefly chronicle Spanish colonization of the state from 1769 to 1823 with a focus on California missions.  The “Did You Know?” section of this subchapter highlights the discrepancy between the sanitized version of California mission material usually taught, versus a more historically accurate approach the Native community pushes schools to teach.

A “Consider This” section in the chapter titled “A Critical Look at Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson” asks readers to unpack the term ethnic cleansing. A portion of the section reads:

“Bringing a critical lens to words we use is important. Generally speaking, people think of cleansing as a good [sic]; the removal of something bad or dirty. But people are not bad, dirty objects that can be moved or done away with, without regard for their humanity. The term cleansing hides the motives and actions of powerful governments or groups who are deliberately harming many people. What other terms can you think of that might be more accurate?”

In these increasingly divisive times replete with echo chambers and “alternative facts,” An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People is a reminder of the importance of critical thinking. Even though the title references an “Indigenous Peoples’ History,” the material encourages readers to think, consider, and investigate for themselves in order to come to a well-rounded view of United States history. In this spirit, the closing chapters “For Further Reading” and “Some Books We Recommend” provide readers with respective lists of Indigenous women and Indigenous writers as starting points to address historical inaccuracies and underrepresentation.

As with the original, the adaptation offers a periodization of U.S. history in roughly 230 pages and demonstrates the active nature of Indigenous survival through organizing and storytelling.  While the level of analysis in the adapted version is not as academically dense as the original, critical content remains and is presented in an engaging style.