Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” explores the colonial roots and the foundational myths of the United States
MARC STEINER, RADIO HOST, WEAA (88.9 FM): So once again I’m talking with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz about her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. And I really want to kind of–this is so important, because when you look at what you’re doing here, when you look at American history through the lens and wisdom and experience of native people of this country, it’s a very different perspective. And you talked about–earlier you talked about the colonial settler philosophy that built this country. But seeing it through the lens of native people is different than kind of analyzing it from inside. Do you know what I’m saying? So when you write about–I mean, you talk about these things, that Columbus [incompr.] discovery connected to the manifest destiny, our first national anthem was “Hail, Columbia” that you write about in the book [incompr.] these are critical pieces about the foundation of this country and how it was meant to be what it is today.
ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ, HISTORIAN AND WRITER: Right. Exactly. This was the trajectory, that it be a world power. You know, Thomas Jefferson really outlined it. And progressives quote Madison and others who say that we shouldn’t have foreign entanglements, but as William Appleman Williams made clear, it’s not that the United States then said they should not be dominant; it’s that they were always unilateral. You know, they didn’t want to share imperialism with others. They wanted to go in their own way and dominate. So, interpreting it as wanting to be like Rand Paul or Ron Paul, this libertarian thing of not being in the world, it’s impossible for the United States to be the United States without being imperialist. That’s why it has to be dismantled internally and in consciousness, because it will continue.
And part of it is colonial powers have a kind of fetishistic attachment to their colonies, like the French in Algeria. Why couldn’t they just let the Algerians–why did they have to kill Algerians for 12 years to hang on to them? Or Vietnam until they were utterly defeated? But they do have this fetishistic thing. The British, they still pine over their former colonies and Burma and Kenya and their memories and everything.
But the United States, it’s an active thing. They still dominate, they still have colonies, not just Puerto Rico and Guam and American Samoa and others that are actually considered colonies, but all the native peoples are still living under colonialism in North America.
STEINER: And from–there’s so much in here, and I think that I want to take it from some of the things you talked about when you talked about in the book the kind of the myth of the pristine wilderness that was inculcated in the very beginning of this country and you tied it into the Calvinistic origin story and how all this kind of built America again from our roots and who we are or who it, what we became his nation. And as you said, we couldn’t get away from it. One of the things you said in there: you quoted another historian whose name was Grenier. Do I have his name right? Grenier?
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yeah, John Grenier.
STEINER: And the quote you use in that book, in your book about John Grenier, is that–let me just read [incompr.] a bit about this. You said Grenier argues that rather than racism leading to violence, the reverse occurred. The out-of-control momentum of extreme violence of unlimited warfare fueled race hatred. Successive generations of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, made the killing of Indian men, women, and children a defining element of their first military tradition, and thereby part of the shared American identity. So with that’s (A) to me a profound switch in the way we look at it, right? And again you’re looking here at the roots of where we are now with all this.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yeah. You know, that writer, he’s a military historian. He’s actually a professor of military history at the Air Force College. I couldn’t believe they allow their people to write these things. But that book came out just in time for me. I knew all this stuff, but it’s very small and dense and well-researched. And it has that perspective. And it was the first time I had those arguments where it’s also connected up with the present. His whole point is that what we see in Afghanistan and Iraq, what we saw in Vietnam, what we saw in all of these U.S. interventions is a playing out again of this American way of war (that’s the name of the book) that was forged before the United States was even a state, with the colonial settlers. Being a settler state, it was the colonial militias. That’s why they were so adamant about putting the Second Amendment in. Those colonial militias were to kill Indians.
STEINER: Let me stop you for a minute, because this is a really important piece. And we’ve talked about it on my program a number of times, the Second Amendment, because we look at the Second Amendment often as coming from the slaveholder South. They could have state militias to ensure [crosstalk] But what you’re adding here to this is an element that affected native people and why they had militias, which I think is critical to the Second Amendment.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: You know, of course, they were used in the whole colonial era and the early republic and invented for Native Americans. But it wasn’t until the really closed plantation, the cotton kingdom, that they started patrolling. They had–all white men were basically police over all African-Americans. So they didn’t necessarily have to have, until the cotton kingdom, when freedom was in the air, the abolitionist movement and people were leaving and marooning in the peripheries of the plantations, that they really started developing formal militias to guard the peripheries of the plantations. But that practice was already practiced for two centuries with native communities. And by that time they had removed all the native people from the southeast, to Oklahoma, to Indian territory, brutal forced removal, to develop the plantation, expand the plantation system into Mississippi and Alabama.
STEINER: [incompr.] the perfect time, since you raised that. There are a couple of things that are really important that have to–I think, to be explored about your thesis in this book. One is about Andrew Jackson. It was a centerpiece in this book in terms of the native view of Andrew Jackson. And you wrote in here that Jefferson was the architect, but Jackson was the implementer of the final solution for indigenous people east of the Mississippi. And he is our hero, Andrew Jackson. He created the democracy and republic that we have, made it a People’s Republic.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: That’s right.
STEINER: So let’s look at the indigenous view of who this Andrew Jackson was and how he was associated with Jefferson and what all that meant.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yes. You know, it’s one of the things that I find people most responsive to when I say–when they say, well, what can we do, you know, since I’ve been on this book tour. And I say, how about we get his picture of the $20 bill [incompr.] I mean, every ATM machine–.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: You have to see this man in handling your money, ’cause the $20 bill is the only thing you get out of an ATM machine. But that’s just a symbol. Every year, the Democratic Party has their Jefferson Jackson dinner, and that is the founder of the Democratic Party, they claim, is Jefferson. And you know and–I mean Jackson. And then they connect, you know, absolutely connect with–Jefferson with Jackson. And then the Republicans get Lincoln, you know, but do not act like that.
But Jackson, I have a whole chapter in here, and I call it populist imperialism, what he created, because Jackson, first of all, from the beginning of the republic, was the head of the Tennessee militia. He was a planter. He had a plantation with slaves. And he controlled Tennessee and formed the militia, got it statehood. He started acting on his own with his own militia, attacking Muscogee Creek native people in the area.
These were another part of my–you know, the pristine wilderness is all of these people. It was densely populated. They were farmers living in towns. You know, this is so hard for people to conceive of, because they’re so–they see, if anything, Hollywood Indians. They see the plains people, the bison people. But they were sparser, as all the nomadic people are, more sparsely populated. The really densely populated area were just like central Mexico. Corn is the center of their diet. The whole Northeast down to the Gulf, to the Mississippi, was an amazing agricultural area for 10,000 years before the Europeans came.
So Jackson had this view–of course, Jefferson had it, too–of expansion, and for both of them, expansion of the plantation economy, expansion of slavery. And the yeoman farmer was meant to give farmers who didn’t have natural wealth, well, like Jackson, to be able to own private property, meaning slaves and land. And so Jackson’s carried on these wars.
And finally the U.S. government, under–I believe it was Madison–just went ahead and made him a major general in the army. He was carrying on campaigns of genocide against the Seminoles in Florida in the Everglades, against the Muscogee, against the Creeks, horrific genocidal–and there’s the documentation of his having or allowing, at least, his soldiers to flay the bodies of the dead Muscogees and make reins, fashion reins for their horses out of their skin.
STEINER: Like Nazis.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yeah, and taking body parts off, and to take them home to the ladies of Tennessee. I mean, this fetishism with–it is, it’s Nazi-like. And that’s how Native Americans see him.
Of course, John Trudell says that the whole founding fathers lined up there. It’s just like they should just put the Nazi uniform on, ’cause that’s what they–.
STEINER: I consider John Trudell one of our great American philosophers.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yes, he definitely, definitely is.