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Book Review: Where did the Indians go?

By Bhupinder Singh

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Beacon Press (2015)

In my many years of professional life in the US and Canada, I have worked with people from many nationalities but not encountered even one Indigenous person.

As I read through Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, it became easier for me to understand why this is so.

Dunbar-Ortiz delves into the history that is missing from the mainstream US history’s obsession with biographies of great men. Dunbar-Ortiz contends that the depopulation of the Indigenous people from around 100 million when Columbus reached the place was not just the result of diseases that the Europeans brought to the Americas, as is commonly perceived.

It is her well-argued conviction that it was the result of a genocide carried over the last five centuries.

Dunbar-Ortiz traces this bloody history, interspersed with insights that have been gathered over many decades of her work with her people – the Indigenous people of the Americas. She establishes in the book how this settler colonialism was carried out by importing large populations from Europe and letting them colonize large tracts of territory stolen from the natives.

This profit-based religion was the deadly weapon that the Europeans and settlers brought to the Americas even as it was couched under the garb of the “white man’s burden.” The original settlers of Massachusetts adopted an official seal in 1630 depicting “a near-naked native holding a harmless, flimsy-looking bow and arrow and inscribed with the plea, “come over and help us.”

Nearly 300 years later, the official seal of the US military veterans of the “Spanish American war” showed a naked woman kneeling before an armed US soldier and a sailor, with a US battleship in the background. One may trace this recurrent altruistic theme well into the early 21st century, when the United States continues to invade countries under the guise of “rescuing” them.

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian”

The 17th century Puritan settlers waged a war of annihilation with the Indigenous people –   slaughtering old men, women and children and burning down their homes. This kind of war was alien to the Indigenous peoples. According to their ways, warfare was highly ritualized, with quests aimed at attaining individual glory, not annihilating opponents.

This phase of killing was followed by the next phase – scalp hunting – when a price was placed on every dead Indian’s head.

Scalps and Indigenous children became means of exchange, currency, possibly even creating a black market. The settlers gave a name to the mutilated and bloody corpses they left in the wake of the scalp-hunts: redskins. In one instance, the white attackers decorated their weapons and caps with body parts – fetuses, penises, breasts, and vulvas. This way of war became the basis for the wars against the Indigenous across the continent into the late 19th century.

The British novelist and critic, D. H. Lawrence, conceptualized the US origin myth: “You have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

Buffalo hunting, corporatization and colonialism

In an effort to create economic dependency and compliance in land transfers, the US policy directed the army to destroy the fundamental economic base of the Plains Nation – the buffalo. Buffaloes were killed to near extinction. Tens of millions of them were dead within a few decades, and by the 1880s, only a few hundred were left.

The logical progression of modern colonialism began with economic penetration, graduating first to a sphere of influence, and then to protectorate status or indirect control, military occupation, and finally annexation. Growing protectorate status established through treaties culminated in the 1868 Sioux treaty, followed by military occupation achieved by extreme exemplary violence, such as at Wounded Knee in 1890, and finally dependency.

The collusion of big business and government in the theft and exploitation of Indigenous lands and resources is the core element of colonization and forms the basis of US wealth and power. By the end of the 19th century, Indigenous communities had little control over their resources or their economic situations, receiving only royalties for mining and leasing, funds held in trust in Washington. The historian Matthew King believed that his people’s country had been a colony of the United States since 1890. Annexation by the United States was symbolically marked by the imposition of US citizenship on the Sioux (and most other Indians) in 1924.

From colonialism to imperialism

The American act of decimating the Indigenous people has been extended to the rest of the world as the US has invaded country after country, causing devastation and death – all in the name of freedom. Irregular warfare initially waged against the Indigenous people would continue in US military interventions overseas, from the Philippines and Cuba to central America, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The cumulative effect goes beyond simply the habitual use of military means and has become the very basis for US-American identity. Dunbar-Ortiz’s sharp gaze connects disparate incidents into a holistic pattern.

She quotes the Lakota scholar Elizabeth Cook Lynn who spelt out the connection between the “Indian wars” and the Iraq War: “The current mission of the United States to become the center of political enlightenment to be taught to the rest of the world began with the Indian wars and has become the dangerous provocation of this nation’s historical intent.”

History from the eyes of the survivor

Two decades of collective Indigenous resistance, culminating at Wounded Knee in 1973, defeated the 1950s federal termination policy. Yet, another move toward termination developed in 1977, with dozens of congressional bills to abrogate all Indian treaties and terminate all Indian governments and trust territories. Indigenous resistance, however, defeated those initiatives as well.

Eric Hobsbawm once remarked that it is those who lose that understand history better because they need to understand why they lost. He quoted another historian Reinhard Kosselck: In the long run, the gains in historical understanding have come from the defeated.

This is more than borne out by An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

That the Indigenous people of North America have survived five centuries since the arrival of the Europeans is a tribute to their resilience and courage. Dunbar-Ortiz’s well-researched and honest attempt to understand American history from the eyes of those who lost not only brings to light their perspective but enlightens us far more than any perspective from the victor’s eyes would.

Bhupinder Singh blogs at A Reader’s Words.

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3 Responses to “Book Review: Where did the Indians go?”

  1. rashidamurphy

    A chilling, sobering, and sadly familiar account of the genocide of indigenous peoples everywhere – here in Australia, we too, have centuries of despair, mostly unacknowledged. Thank you for this review.

  2. johnberk

    History was written (and is being constantly reinterpreted) by winners. I walk around parks in Vancouver, I see the beautiful nature and I have a sense of wholeness inside of me. We raped more than just the First Nations, we raped the land, animals, and brought us into play. What is done is done, there is no reason to blame anyone – but we need to accept our responsibility in those deeds, at least symbolically. For example, by abandoning the exploitation of the Keystone Pipeline.


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