Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, discusses the racism of some of America’s storied poets and scholars
MARC STEINER, RADIO HOST, WEAA (88.9 FM): So we’re talking here with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz here on The Marc Steiner Show and The Real News Network, talking about her book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.
And [incompr.] kind of segue into something here. We talked about Andrew Jackson, but nothing happens in America or anywhere else politically unless there’s a cultural backbone to it.
ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ, HISTORIAN AND WRITER: Right.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: It’s a democracy.
STEINER: Right. And part of your cultural backbone. And this is also again–when I read your this part of your book, it struck me because it’s sort of challenging my sense of who some of the people I love to read, who they were.
STEINER: Right? So you talked about James Fenimore Cooper and the Leatherstocking and all the great poets and transcendentalist poets, Whitman and Emerson and the rest, and the role they played culturally establishing the right to do what we were doing, to have genocide against native people in this country.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yes. A lot of that came out with the invasion of Mexico in 1846, that they showed their true colors of being–Walt Whitman in particular–in being totally racist. And, of course, they considered Mexico a country of Indians. They call them Indian. They used the N-word, injuns, and the N-word. This was whole diatribes that Whitman published in his own newspaper of why Mexico should be taken, the whole of Mexico, and colonized and treated like the Indians and African-Americans, putting them under tutelage and a kind of paternalistic regime and take their wealth, because they didn’t know what to do with it and there was very rich resources there.
But, yeah, they came out of the Jackson era that you can’t de-link the Leatherstocking Tales, creating–really created, artificially created an origins story that hadn’t yet gelled. And it’s basically the origin story is so much like apartheid South Africa, where the–or Israel, where this God-given manifest destiny handing over from the native people, you know, in The Last of the Mohicans, handing over the kind of keys to the country like it’s yours now, we’ve had our time here, we’re dying out, so now you the settler–of course, that’s Daniel Day-Lewis in the movie–and you know everything we know, you’re the woodsman, you’re the hunter (not the farmer; a Hunter), and therefore you have to carry on, and it’s a gift.
STEINER: As if the Indians were dead people. It was over.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yeah, they’re dead people, but they’re very generous. You know, as we leave, we want to hand over the keys to the country to you and you be the caretaker now.
STEINER: I think that that, setting that relationship up between the two, is kind of very critical in understanding who we are and why we are the way we are. And I think you segue into so many interesting things here with that. There’s a portion of this book later on where you talk about President John F. Kennedy.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Right, the “New Frontier”.
STEINER: The “New Frontier”. And I was really–this is a wonderful chapter, a ghost town’s prophecy and a nation is coming, and you have this piece about Kennedy in here where, when he’s addressing America at the Democratic national convention in 1960 and he says that he asked his audience to see him as a new kind of frontiersmen confronting a different kind of wilderness–I stand face–tonight facing the West, which was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch 3,000 miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort, and sometimes their lives by building a world here in the West. We stand today on the edge of a new frontier, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths, a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats. And tie that back to the historian Frederick Jackson Turner and others to talk about there’s–interestingly, I want you to explain to the listeners from your perspective, tying that to the settler roots, to the genocide of native people and where America’s going. You see that as all tied into the perspective on native people and from native people.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yeah, and fighting communism. You know, that’s the new frontier, defeating communism. And it took 20 more years, but they did it, or 30 more years.
STEINER: Yeah. Yeah.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yeah. And that was repeated almost verbatim by Obama in his 2009–
STEINER: Which you also talk about.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: –inauguration, almost word for word plagiarized that–another new frontier. And, of course, he was riffing on Lincoln, which we should also mention, because Lincoln was a free-soiler, and that meant he followed in the tradition of Jackson as wanting to give this possibly volatile, landless, white class of settlers a land so that they would be satisfied. And they’re just–the native people were resisting fiercely being driven off their lands and being colonized. And then always the land, when it was given, like under Jackson, given to smallholders, unless they could purchase slaves, which are very expensive, they couldn’t compete with the big planters, so they would go broke, and then they’d move on to get some new land somewhere else. And I say [incompr.] Oklahoma, where my dad and others ended up, were the losers, because they just kept losing land, and they end up there, you know, a bunch of sharecroppers and then dustbowl Okies on the West Coast, that they–there’s just–you know, under that system, there’s really no way; it always floats to the top. But Lincoln thought he wanted to take that plantation land and divide it up among–he wasn’t really thinking of African-Americans; he was thinking of these landless white settlers getting land. But that was the free-soiler movement, was to take land that was in Minnesota and the Great Lakes area. And that’s where wars were going on during the Civil War, number of wars against native people, against the Navajos, against the Miniconjou Sioux in Minnesota. So there are these parallel wars going on with the Civil War. And that’s another thing that I put in there. I follow where the Native Americans–and here’s Lincoln trying to implement this free land.
And then freedmen, freed Africans, also were given land grants, those who fought in the Civil War were also given land grants taken from native lands in Oklahoma and elsewhere. So everyone [was] complicit in this system, because it is a system, and it’s a system of if you make the native people kind of invisible and not as players, well, this land is just to be doled out.
STEINER: And you’re saying it’s implicit because–it’s implicit in the system because it can’t help itself. That is the system,–
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: It is the system
STEINER: –that’s how it’s designed, is what you’re saying; looking at it through native eyes as a historian,–
STEINER: –that’s what you’re saying.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: It’s the way it’s designed. And for the first–more than a century of–the United States was a rural country, so land was the main commodity. And still today real estate is–you know, it’s called real estate–is still the bulwark. It’s not in every country in the world, but in the United States it’s still the bulwark of wealth is real estate. And that’s peculiar to making all land divisible and sold in plots as a commodity–something unique to the United States now.
STEINER: And, I think, as we come to a conclusion of some of this, that there’s so much in this book, and especially the beginnings when you write about the native world and what was here before the Europeans got here, and the open forests that were cleared, and the roads that went all through America that allowed native people to trade and meet with each other, and that’s how corn moved from Latin America to Mexico up to the rest–.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Upstate New York.
STEINER: Upstate New York, right?
STEINER: And the world that existed, that was very different, and in some native cultures a very democratic world that existed with varying degrees, with men and women, all kinds of issues, but a democratic world.
And I wonder, when you look at all the contradictions, from America’s great barge of freedom and transcendental thought, [incompr.] [some of the (?)] abolitionists who wanted to move the Indians out so the land could be opened up, and all saw America’s destiny kind of wrapped up in colonizing the continent, which meant getting rid of native people. So what do all those contradictions lead us to now, and the complexities of indigenous people and African-American folks and that complex relationship, from Bacon’s war to today? Right? So I mean how you see that kind of playing out as a conversation for the 24th century.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yeah, the interpretation of, like, Bacon’s Rebellion in the colonial Virginia, this was one of the aristocratic people that Nathaniel Bacon, in the House of Burgesses, who became sympathetic with the landless white people–and there were a good many, then, free blacks who wanted land too. So progressive historians of the present are very excited when they find here’s a black and white alliance to fight the power that was, the House of Burgesses. Then, [when] you look underneath, it’s that what were they demanding? There were demanding the House of Burgesses form a militia and go out and drive the Indians off so they can have this land. And so it’s–yeah, it’s so filled with every story that seems like an exciting moment of some kind of progressive moment in U.S. history, you scrape away the kind of–.
STEINER: Unless you’re a native.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Unless you’re native.
STEINER: It’s not so progressive.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yeah, and then you’re, oh, wait a minute.
STEINER: Right. Right.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: So even Howard explained that in his People’s History. But you still see it popping up.
I think I feel very optimistic because the United States is–those of us in the ’60s that began dismantling the empire–intellectually, anyway–we were looking at, at least those of us who were–put imperialism in the forefront, which I think was the most important part of the ’60s movements–we saw–and I think that was led by people like Malcolm X, it was led by the civil rights movement. It was Paul Robeson who went to the United Nations and we charge genocide, and Malcolm went to Africa and the Middle East. So that gave a momentum to the anti-imperialist movement. And I think we began to dismantle it, but we really didn’t then look at the continent as the platform for imperialism, that that was imperialism, taking of the continent, not just Mexico. That used to be just called manifest destiny, taking Mexico. It was even called imperialism,–
STEINER: Right, right.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: –taking half of a whole independent country, not–.
STEINER: It was a good thing, manifest destiny,–
STEINER: –a positive term.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Right. It’s very positive. Right. And so we didn’t really question U.S. history, and even as I was doing Native American history, more and more North American native history, rather than Latin American, and then I got back to Nicaragua in the 1980s, to Central America, but really focusing on how do we reframe the whole of the United States history in the world. And I’m hoping this book is a–of course, all native people, all the books they write, have the native perspective. And there are so many great native historians and scholars right now. It’s just when I got my doctorate in 1974, there were about five Native American PhDs in the United States, and now there are hundreds, and others on their way, and they’re brilliant and putting out wonderful books, and a lot of them tribal histories, so with the native perspective.
And so I thought this is really important, to have something that’s like the overview and putting the United States in a world system too, the sort of Wallerstein thing of you always have to look at the world system. Ever since Columbus, it’s been a world system. It didn’t just happen, globalization, you know, in the 1990s. And you have to relate all of these things, the United States in the world, but also in–the taking of the continent has to be a part of that world, a changing system. You know, even in the 19th century, Europeans were commenting on, before the United States had become the dominant power in the world, which it did by the 1990s–you know, people think it is only post-World War II. But at the end of the frontier, 1890, sort of marked by the Wounded Knee Massacre, and then they moved to the Caribbean and the Philippines and overseas and Hawaii and overseas imperialism, it was already the dominant economic power in the world and dominant military in the world. And that’s minimized as well in U.S. history as–like it was this–you know, it’s kind of this accident that the United States just kind of fell into being the policeman of the world. We don’t really [crosstalk]
STEINER: It’s just an accident.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: We hear this congressman arguing about ISIS and whether or not they should fund them, and they said, well, we’ve got to do it, it’s our responsibility, we’re making these sacrifices. And people believe this. I mean, U.S. people believe this, and they say, why aren’t they funding our communities? But so much of the–I mean, the wealth that we have as 6 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of the world’s GDP comes from–you know, just fell from the heavens, just some kind of natural–.
STEINER: It came from our manifest destiny.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Yeah, or we’re–you know, just really good luck. But it was like fighting tooth and nail. Every inch of land that was taken had to be fought for. And that formation, we really have to look at it in every way why this is the most violent country in the world, not just why it’s the richest and most powerful. Why is it the most violent country in the world, and deeply, deeply violent? And that–you know, the number of guns in Canada and Switzerland, where there’s virtually no homicide at all, is the same as per capita in the United States. So why is that, that the guns seem to kill more in the United States than they do elsewhere?
STEINER: And I think the [incompr.] finally [incompr.] this has been great conversation, and I think that the importance of this book for me and I think for anybody who picks it up and reads it, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, is that it’s one of the first encompassing native views of America and who we are and why we are who we are today, and not pulling punches about the mythology that we create around ourselves, but why the system of imperialism and colonialism and the racism we have in this country is rooted in what started us as a nation. And I just think, first of all, this is a book all should look at, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
And, Roxanne, it’s been a pleasure to have you with us. Thank you so much for coming to the studios here–
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: It’s wonderful to be here.
STEINER: –at the The Real News Network. Thank you.
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Thank you.
STEINER: And I’m Mark Steiner for WEAA 88.9 FM, the voice of the community, and The Real News Network.