Reviewed By KAY MATTHEWS
On the heels of her new book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has teamed up with Dina Gilio-Whitaker to take on the ignorant, confused, ridiculous, and downright hateful misconceptions promulgated about Indigenous people in the US. It comes at a propitious time, when Indigenous people from all over the world have gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline from the Bakken oil fields to Illinois. All the “Real Indians” who supposedly died off are out there on the ground putting their bodies on the line to protect their cultural sites, the waters of the Missouri River, and to force a “real” conversation about this country’s efforts to extract and profit from the dirty Bakken oil—at the expense of people’s health and the future of the planet.
This stand-off is only the latest manifestation of Indian resistance, which Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker document throughout their book: the National Congress of American Indians that established its own anti-mascot initiative; the National Indian Youth Council (based in Albuquerque) to fight termination and protect treaty rights; the occupations of Alcatraz Island and Wounded Knee; the formation of the American Indian Movement (AIM); the Idle No More (INM) movement in Canada; and today’s Red Nation and Red Warriors, both of whom are active at Standing Rock.
The necessity of this resistance was established the minute Christopher Columbus and his men set foot in the Bahamas where he immediately “began terrorizing the Indigenous people, taking captives, including women as sex slaves for the men.” He is thought to have enslaved five thousand Indigenous peoples over the course of his trips to the Americas. He set up the encomienda system of forced labor on Spanish estates and contributed to the genocide of millions of Indigenous people throughout the Americas.
But as Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker point out, the most pernicious legacy of Columbus’s influence is in the doctrine of discovery, a “legal principle based on the underlying philosophy that the European ‘discovery’ of the Americas confers a superior form of title to land.” Originating in the Roman Catholic Church, which used it to declare war on “pagans,” “heathens,” and “infidels,” the doctrine became the basis for a body of federal law, “one of the bedrock principles by which the United States administers its relationship with American Indians.” The first articulation of this doctrine of discovery was by no less than Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, who in 1823 in the infamous Johnson v. M’Intosh case, argued that “the superior genius of Europe” was rationale for acquisition of Indigenous lands and that the bestowal Christianity was their compensation.
As Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker discuss, this became the country’s “master narrative,” or state mythology: “All the myths about American Indians emerge out of larger narratives that construct the United States as a place of exceptional righteousness, democracy, and divine guidance (manifest destiny), or what has been called ‘American exceptionalism.’” This then set the stage for removal of the Indigenous peoples through settler colonialism, or the “elimination of the Native in order to gain access to the land.” The myth of the vanishing Native is directly tied to the determination of the state to actually eliminate the Native: “It can be thought of as the central organizing myth from which most other popular myths about Native people arise.”
The twenty-one myths outlined in this book are not only traced to this elimination narrative but also serve to perpetuate non-Native ignorance. Some, although directly refuted by scientific and legal evidence, continue to retain credence. In myth number 2, “Indians Were The First Immigrants To The Western Hemisphere,” the authors discuss how the so-called facts about how Native people arrived in the Americas are only theories, whether it be how they arrived—the Bering Straight Land Bridge—or how long ago they arrived. Myth number 4, “Thanksgiving Proves The Indians Welcomed The Pilgrims,” deconstructs that feel-good narrative. Myth number 12, “Indians Are Wards Of The State,” takes the reader through the convoluted legal history of Native American status that resulted in a trust relationship between Natives and the state, not wards.
The authors explore other myths that are more contested—and more insidious. Myth number 8, “The United States Did Not Have A Policy of Genocide” recalls the arguments today over whether Turkey committed genocide against the Armenians and the often murkier arguments about what constitutes cultural genocide as opposed to “actual mass killing of victim peoples.” Equally controversial is Myth number 10, “The Only Real Indians Are Full-Bloods, And They Are Dying Off.” This obsession with how much “blood” makes an Indian “authentic” is particularly pernicious: “Among American Indians the ‘blood quantum’ conversation is always contentious. It is contentious not only because it can mean the difference between being viewed by outsiders as authentically Native or conversely phony, but also because it can mean the difference between belonging and not belonging within Native communities or even within families.” The authors point out that American Indians are the only citizens who are subject to a state-sanctioned legal identity.
Myth 13 “Sports Mascots Honor Native Americans,” is about cultural appropriation, which the authors deal with more deeply in Myth 14, “Native American Culture Belongs To All Americans.” The authors discuss one aspect of this appropriation that is particularly relevant to New Mexicans and which La Jicarita extensively covered in the 1990s: when environmentalists appropriated the “Noble Savage” stereotype to engender “environmentalism sin gente,” condemning Indigenous land and resource use in northern New Mexico.
Another American controversy emerged just as this book was published that also contests the power of our “master narratives” so woven into society. The football player Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand at the playing of the national anthem at the San Francisco 49ers’ inaugural game this year rejected the patriotic narrative that has become pro forma at sporting events all over the country. As Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker write, this narrative is “designed to undergrid the patriotism and emotional commitment necessary in a loyal citizenry.” And these emotions are amplified during times of national crisis, which we’re certainly seeing today. But Kaepernick and the protectors at Standing Rock are turning this narrative on its head when they reveal the disunity in this country when it comes to the treatment and status of both African Americans and Native Americans. This book supports and helps promulgate these movements with its analysis and accessibility to the broad range of people who should read it.