Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz image by Beacon Press
As a hard, hard rain fell outside, fifty or so people, including dozens of Native Americans, gathered inside Bluestockings, a small independent bookstore collective in New York City, to hear scholar, activist, and author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.
The event on December 6 capped off a two-month, twenty-three-city book tour for All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, co-written with writer and researcher Dina Gilio-Whitaker. The tour overlapped with celebrations of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (also known as Columbus Day), the poll-defying presidential election, and the surreal Thanksgiving-week attacks against Native American water protectors in North Dakota.
The audience listened as the authors described their work to dismantle “state mythologies” about native peoples. Myths which, in Gilio-Whitaker’s words, “tell us more about the non-native mind than about native peoples.” Across the book’s 21 chapters, which can be read in any order, different analytical strategies come into play. In “Thanksgiving Proves the Indians Welcomed the Pilgrims” the authors turn to primary texts—Edward Winslow’s Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation—and conclude that “neither of the accounts are detailed enough to surmise the familiar tale.”
In “Indians are Anti-Science,” the authors challenge the presumption that only “positivist, Cartesian-based Western systems” are science, pointing to Indigenous knowledge about astronomy, hydraulic engineering, agriculture/permaculture, transportation and road building, water navigation and vessels. The humble teepee is offered as an engineering feat: “It’s a very aerodynamic shape that can withstand high winds and snow loading, with strong convection heating and cooling properties.”
The book, published by Beacon Press on October 4, has already sold out its third printing, and is well into its fourth. Its success, no doubt gained some uplift from the wide wings of Dunbar-Ortiz’s “breakthrough” book—An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.
Its 236 pages convey our foundational American tragedy in unemotional, lucid, and economical writing. Her meticulous research and use of quoted material allows the record to speak powerfully for itself, as in the following passage by Andrew Jackson commenting on the crushing of the Muskogees (even those who had cooperated): “We bleed our enemies in such cases,” he stated, “to give them their senses.”
As An Indigenous People's’ History of the United States makes clear, the main commodity the settlers came to colonize was land. And because people do not willingly cede the land upon which their very survival is based, a whole host of terrorizing violences were unleashed on the Native Americans to wrest it from them. An Indigenous Peoples’ History concludes by calling for an amends process that would acknowledge our country’s genocidal policies and practices and propel us toward “life after empire.”
Both Dunbar-Ortiz’ books flesh out what Australian anthropologist and ethnographer Patrick Wolfe has called “settler colonialism.” As Dunbar-Ortiz describes it, the concept provides a rubric for understanding “the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.” And with the imminent specter of a Trump presidency, Dunbar-Ortiz is speaking in even more stark terms:
“They can do anything they want,” said Dunbar-Ortiz. “They can dissolve the reservations. Anything. In America, genocide is always just around the corner.”
Frances Madeson is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist and the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village.