Meaningfully Discomforting: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Audiobook. Tantor Media, 2014.

Last summer, Supreme Court-watchers, indigenous rights activists, and other interested parties were shocked to learn that the United States Supreme Court re-ordered an oral hearing session in the pending landmark Carpenter v. Murphy (now Sharp v. Murphy) case. The implications of the case are historic, potentially reasserting half of Oklahoma as tribal land and fundamentally changing the role reservations would play in the future. The case is due to be re-argued this court term.

To learn more about the historic case, I listened to the phenomenal This Land podcast by Rebecca Nagle, which answered many of my questions about the case but ultimately forced me to confront how little I knew about indigenous history beyond what I learned in high school history classes (which was close to nothing, and certainly not culturally responsive). Over the years, I’ve collected quite a few books on many topics related to indigenous life and events, but I thought it might be more appropriate to start with a more introductory view. I found Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States in my local library’s “always available” section on the Libby app and dove in.

As with Jill Lepore in These Truths, Dunbar-Ortiz was ambitious in her goals for this project. In many ways, this project is even more ambitious, as it is not a history of one single nation but rather a history of an entire continent’s indigenous inhabitants, divided into countless tribes and communities without sharing a common language, social structure, or political objective. I think given these challenges Dunbar-Ortiz does a pretty good job of offering a compelling narrative, but I still found myself often wanting more.

Dunbar-Ortiz begins with an elaborate, region-by-region look at the communities that lived across North America prior to first contact with Europeans. She covers everything from foodways to migration, community social strata to intercontinental economies. It is undoubtedly the best and most informative section of the book in my view. Most importantly, it conveys both the massive scope and incredible amount of flux that defined human history on the North American continent before 1492. Throughout the following chapters, I craved this level of depth and breadth but was denied for one main reason: after European contact, the book becomes a history of indigenous-European (and mostly Anglo at that) interactions rather than a history of indigenous peoples themselves. 

Of course, this interaction was (and is) the defining theme throughout indigenous (and arguably European colonial) history over the past several centuries, but it is not at all the only piece. How did the elaborate intercontinental trade networks described in the first section fare in the ensuing decades? How did population loss and forced migration affect social structures? What did indigenous communities eat after 1492? How did different communities interact with each other under rapidly changing conditions? I could infer some of these answers from parts of the book, but usually only as this information became available through the narrative of colonial-indigenous interaction. At best these omissions were just a result of a (intentional? content-reflective?) tonal shift between the pre- and post-contact history; at worst they deprive indigenous peoples of agency in shaping their own daily lives throughout a period of time in which historians have almost always neglected to seek out or consider this perspective.

All this being said, I think Dunbar-Ortiz does a phenomenal job outlining a mostly strictly political history of indigenous peoples from coast to coast, using indigenous voices as often as possible and refusing to operate within an American exceptionalist framework. In that regard, it accomplished exactly what I had hoped to get out of it when I set out to read it: a survey introduction to indigenous history. Moreover, Dunbar-Ortiz does not stop at Wounded Knee in 1890 or even Wounded Knee in 1973. She incorporates the two-way feedback between the Black freedom struggle and the indigenous rights movement as well as recent (up to the book’s publication) court cases and settlements involving land rights, most notably the ongoing dispute between the Sioux nation and U.S. government over the Black Hills region of South Dakota.

Perhaps most compellingly, Dunbar-Ortiz shines a light on the ways in which the U.S. military was crafted and continues to be defined by often genocidal wars against indigenous people in North America and around the world. She notes (fairly often) that the modern U.S. military lexicon “in-country” (meaning behind enemy lines) does not refer to being “in a foreign country,” but rather “Indian country.” Moreover, she argues that the U.S. military’s adoption of a counter-insurgent strategy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries was not—as has usually been interpreted and understood—a new adoption necessitated by the changing face of global conflict, but rather more natural to the U.S. military’s traditional role and history than conventional warfare. For most of the U.S. military’s nearly two and a half centuries of existence, it has fought insurgent wars against indigenous communities. This is the norm rather than the exception.

Furthermore, Dunbar-Ortiz ties this legacy to the U.S. current entanglements abroad. The Indian Wars of the 19th century were the opening salvos of American imperialism, with later wars in the Philippines, Latin America, and the Middle East merely a broadening of the idea of the American “frontier.” Dunbar-Ortiz relates the current American military presence abroad—with bases on every continent except Antarctica—to the forts of the Old West established to assert U.S. control of indigenous lands, many of which are still important facilities today. Dunbar-Ortiz even explores John Yoo’s infamous torture memo, finding it relies largely on the (mis)treatment of indigenous combatants throughout the 19th century. 

As you can probably guess, reading this book will make you feel uncomfortable—and for good reason. Dunbar-Ortiz does not mollify or equivocate and nor should she. She makes her case with a fair amount of snark, which is not unjustified. If you do not enjoy acerbic history, this may not be for you (though I might argue that this only means you should read it more). Occasional deficiencies notwithstanding, this is an important and necessary work.

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