Book Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

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Image from my library’s Instagram @jkmlibrary

As part of the ReVisioning American History series, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is critically eye-opening to everyone living in North and Central (and maybe even South) America, most especially if you do not identify as native or indigenous. I’m sure some native folks would learn something from this book as well due to the state of education in this country.

I grew up with a lot of native visibility around me in Upstate New York, and yet there is an enormous amount about the history of European invasion that I was never taught. We got the hits of course…Manifest Destiny, the French and Indian War, the Trail of Tears, Little Bighorn, etc. But we got them with a slant steep enough to Olympic ski jump off of. We definitely were taught about these things with a tone of “this was in the past, the Indians were in the past” despite living not even a full hour away from the reservation of one of the most important tribes of the Haudenosaunee (the Onondaga). Even our class trips to the Iroquois Indian Museum placed our point of learning in the past, looking at artifacts and practices that felt ancient and not at all contemporary (although many of them are). This is not a jab at the museum, it’s just my experience and interpretation as a child (it’s honestly a lovely museum, go). Erasure was happening in our education, and I’m sure it was happening in yours too.

Not only does Dunbar-Ortiz’s work in this book help to undo that education, it also brings forward events and positions that I was never exposed to in high school. First of all, fully understanding how civilizations on this continent operated before European colonizers arrived is a huge deal. We got a healthy dose of Central and South American civilizations in high school history, but I still had a very skewed view of how indigenous people lived and interacted in North America for years until I started seeking out material to educate myself (side note: Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is absolutely awesome with this specific topic). Once you get a full view of this and understand the true timeline of civilizations in the Americas, you start to realize that they were advanced and connected in ways that were severely downplayed in basic education. Once you gain this understanding and context, all the propaganda used for hundreds of years to subjugate the indigenous people of the Americas starts to show itself to you. You see it clearly maybe for the first time. That they were “uncivilized” was the foundational lie propping up all the other lies.

I also didn’t know too much about the surge in native activism in the mid-20th century. I had vague knowledge of Marlon Brando’s acts of solidarity and maaayyybbbee I had heard about the Occupation of Alcatraz. Dunbar-Ortiz brings these contemporary moments of activism and fights for sovereignty front and center. In addition, hearing about contemporary court cases, both wins and losses for native people, was helpful in reminding me that the struggle is very far from over. If you want more on contemporary court cases deciding Indian law, be sure to check out the This Land podcast from Crooked Media. It’s a true crime podcast with massive implications for native land rights. Super good!

Something else I started to learn from this book is that my ancestors, like, specifically MY ancestors, probably had a bigger roll in the terrorizing and oppressing of native people than anyone would like to admit. There is conjecture that my family is Scots-Irish, originating from folks coming over in the late 1600s/early 1700s. There is an entire section in this book about what those people were sent here to do…act as the strong arm of Anglo colonizers. They brutalized native people. I’m not sure if my ancestors were directly involved in those horrific actions, but there are enough puzzle pieces in place to make me feel the full weight of shame and anger surrounding the situation. I’m appreciative of an honest look at my ancestry.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History is so helpful when forming context around how we got to where we are now. Dunbar-Ortiz examines each major act of Native/European relations over the course of the past 400 years and points out the blatant lies, deceptions, theft, and genocide that the Europeans committed well before current geo-political boundaries were established. It began before the United States was a country, it was key to the expansion and creation of that government (land grabs, Manifest Destiny, the Trail of Tears, etc.), and it continues today as the government scrambles for “rights” to precious resources like water, minerals, and oil.

What I appreciated the most from this book was the indigenous perspective. I did learn a lot that I didn’t know before about the history of this land, but hearing it from the indigenous perspective was profound for my understanding. To know why land is not just land, why water is not just water, why capitalism is particularly nonsensical to native people and their governments…knowing those nuances and seeing them used to explain the events of history and their effects on different populations did change how I experienced the content and connected it to other historical events and cultural norms.

Everyone should read this book for many reasons. We need to be reeducated about what our (my) ancestors and this government has done and is doing to the original inhabitants of the Americas (at the very least we owe them an understanding of the truth). We need this reeducation so we can act in allyship with the indigenous people fighting for their rightful sovereignty and rights. And, in my opinion, learning this history from this perspective arms us with the historical knowledge we need to prevent making the same mistakes over. It shows us other ways to live and exist that WORKED. Anglo-American history is a massive case-study of how NOT to move forward, and this book is on the syllabus.

I think it’s pretty clear that I got a lot from this book and feel that it is necessary reading for all Americans. I also look forward to continuing on with the ReVisioning America series! There are so many perspectives that I, as a cis het white middle class woman, don’t have. Luckily, we have many tools to help us understand, hear, and accept each other. We need to use them. Happy Thanksgiving!

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