Colonial State of America

In a new book, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz unearths our bloody origins.

Jeremy Gantz September 23, 2014

Westward expansion was neither as peaceful nor angelic as John Gast’s 1872 painting ‘American Progress’ made it out to be. (George A. Crofutt/US Library of Congress)

A few weeks after his first inau­gu­ra­tion, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma sat for an inter­view with the al-Ara­biya news net­work. We have not been per­fect,” he said. But if you look at the track record… Amer­i­ca was not born as a colo­nial power.”

The 19th-century wars to ‘close the frontier’ were the crucible in which the U.S. Army came of age and staged its first counterinsurgency.

The idea of the Unit­ed States as a peace­ful democ­ra­cy at heart, occa­sion­al­ly pulled into over­seas wars, is a com­fort­ing verse in the nation­al gospel. It’s part of the ori­gin sto­ry told in high school text­books: A fledg­ling nation threw off the yoke of British colo­nial rule and set­tled the West to become the world’s indis­pens­able demo­c­ra­t­ic nation. Spo­radic impe­r­i­al fits notwith­stand­ing (e.g., the inva­sions of the Philip­pines, Viet­nam, Iraq), the soul of Amer­i­ca goes not abroad in search of mon­sters to destroy,” as John Quin­cy Adams once said.

In An Indige­nous Peo­ples’ His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States (Bea­con Press), Rox­anne Dun­bar-Ortiz dis­miss­es this sto­ry as patri­ot­ic cant” — a piety recit­ed by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and his pre­de­ces­sors to cov­er up the country’s vio­lent colo­nial DNA. A retired Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor who is part Native Amer­i­can, Dun­bar-Ortiz served as an expert wit­ness for Amer­i­can Indi­an Move­ment activists put on tri­al fol­low­ing the dead­ly 1973 protest at Wound­ed Knee.

Cul­mi­nat­ing her near­ly half-cen­tu­ry career as an activist-aca­d­e­m­ic ded­i­cat­ed to jus­tice for Native peo­ple, her con­cise and dis­turb­ing new book dis­man­tles cul­ture nation­al myths to reveal the country’s true foun­da­tion: a land grab that required the gov­ern­ment-spon­sored era­sure of mil­lions of indige­nous peo­ple. Before the start of Euro­pean col­o­niza­tion, an esti­mat­ed 15 mil­lion Native peo­ple lived in what is now the Unit­ed States. Their descen­dants num­ber 3 mil­lion today, spread across 500 dif­fer­ent fed­er­al­ly rec­og­nized nations. A lack of immu­ni­ty to Euro­pean virus­es accounts for much of the dev­as­ta­tion, but not all. Rebuk­ing the trope that Indi­ans were doomed to die from epi­dem­ic dis­eases, Dun­bar-Ortiz writes: If dis­ease could have done the job, it is not clear why the Euro­pean col­o­niz­ers in Amer­i­ca found it nec­es­sary to car­ry out unre­lent­ing wars against Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in order to gain every inch of land they took from them.”

For exam­ple, to accom­plish George Washington’s goal of secur­ing south­ern Ohio for set­tle­ment, in 1790 Sec­re­tary of War Hen­ry Knox told an army com­man­der that no oth­er rem­e­dy remains, but to extir­pate, utter­ly, if pos­si­ble,” the sav­ages.” Vol­un­teer mili­tias made up of set­tlers, hun­gry for land or scalp boun­ties, pro­ceed­ed to wage total war, mur­der­ing women and children.

Slav­ery is called the Unit­ed States’ orig­i­nal sin, but the dis­place­ment and geno­cide of Amer­i­can Indi­ans is tru­ly that — in the sense of orig­i­nat­ing. But because cel­e­brat­ing democ­ra­cy requires con­demn­ing colo­nial­ism, Amer­i­cans have been unable to face the country’s true ori­gins. Dun­bar-Ortiz writes, The myth per­sists, not for lack of free speech or pover­ty of infor­ma­tion but rather the moti­va­tion to ask ques­tions that chal­lenge the core of the script­ed nar­ra­tive of the ori­gin story.”

An Indige­nous Peo­ples’ His­to­ry isn’t just ask­ing ques­tions. It is a fierce­ly argued polemic con­cerned less with uncov­er­ing the his­tor­i­cal record than dis­till­ing it into some­thing that Amer­i­cans can­not ignore. Dun­bar-Ortiz has writ­ten a slen­der book that aims to replace the mas­ter nar­ra­tives and pol­i­tics that…have large­ly cov­ered the fin­ger­prints of cen­turies of genocide.”

While she high­lights less­er-known fig­ures like Knox, the chief vil­lain in these pages is far more famil­iar: He’s on the $20 bill. After becom­ing a nation­al mil­i­tary hero by killing and evict­ing Indi­ans across the South, in 1828 Andrew Jack­son brought an unre­lent­ing pol­i­cy of eth­nic cleans­ing into the White House, forc­ing the remain­ing Indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties east of the Mis­sis­sip­pi to head west. Unlike most gov­ern­ment-spon­sored atroc­i­ties toward Amer­i­can Indi­ans, the Trail of Tears” is rel­a­tive­ly well-known today. Dunbar-Ortiz’s treat­ment of Jack­son, how­ev­er, goes beyond the awful details, and is a provoca­tive high point of An Indige­nous Peo­ples’ His­to­ry. Jack­son, she writes, was the Dark Knight in the for­ma­tion of the Unit­ed States as a colo­nial­ist, impe­ri­al­ist democ­ra­cy, a dynam­ic for­ma­tion that con­tin­ues to con­sti­tute the core of U.S. patri­o­tism.” In oth­er words, Jackson’s simul­ta­ne­ous aggres­sion and pop­u­lar­i­ty forged a tem­plate that suc­ceed­ing pres­i­dents would fol­low: Make war, win votes.

In her esti­ma­tion, Oba­ma is fol­low­ing Jackson’s suc­cess­ful play­book by advanc­ing pop­ulist impe­ri­al­ism while grad­u­al­ly increas­ing inclu­sion of oth­er groups beyond the core of descen­dants of old set­tlers into the rul­ing mythol­o­gy.” But how exact­ly is he advanc­ing impe­ri­al­ism” today, and which groups are being brought into the rul­ing order? We’re left wondering.

Yes, the 19th-cen­tu­ry wars to close the fron­tier” were the cru­cible in which the U.S. Army came of age and staged its first coun­terin­sur­gency. But the idea that cur­rent Amer­i­can mil­i­tary habits stem direct­ly from that expe­ri­ence stretch­es the imag­i­na­tion (Her proof: Sol­diers still some­times refer to ene­my ter­ri­to­ry as Indi­an coun­try”). At a deep­er lev­el, though, Dun­bar-Ortiz is right to trace Amer­i­cans’ com­fort with an aggres­sive glob­al mil­i­tary pres­ence back to an unac­knowl­edged but for­ma­tive colo­nial his­to­ry. Born through war, the colo­nial­ist set­tler-state,” as she calls it, goes abroad to spread democ­ra­cy, often through vio­lence. The book’s biggest prob­lem is a con­clu­sion titled The Future of the Unit­ed States” that offers a hodge­podge of recent his­to­ry fol­lowed by only two para­graphs that lay out a vision of jus­tice for Native peoples.

Is there rea­son to hope? As this book makes clear, the colo­nial project of mar­gin­al­iz­ing indige­nous peo­ples lives on today in reser­va­tions heav­i­ly depen­dent on the U.S. gov­ern­ment, in deeply impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties suf­fer­ing from rates of unem­ploy­ment, alco­holism, sui­cide and domes­tic vio­lence far high­er than nation­al aver­ages. Repa­ra­tions from Wash­ing­ton are beyond far-fetched when Con­gress can bare­ly allow trib­al courts to pros­e­cute non-Native men who com­mit rape on reser­va­tions, as it did in last year’s reau­tho­riza­tion of the Vio­lence Against Women Act. When only three pres­i­dents since Franklin Roo­sevelt have made an offi­cial vis­it to Indi­an coun­try — one of them being Oba­ma, this June, more than five years into his pres­i­den­cy — it’s clear that jus­tice for native peo­ples isn’t a nation­al pri­or­i­ty. Even Con­gress’ first-ever offi­cial apol­o­gy to native peo­ples — avoid­ing the word geno­cide,” of course — was insert­ed into an obscure 2010 defense appro­pri­a­tions bill to gain passage.

That sub­par, pure­ly sym­bol­ic mea cul­pa is fit­ting for a coun­try so bad at look­ing back­wards and so good at feel­ing good about itself. If you want to bypass the offi­cial sto­ry and learn how the Unit­ed States col­o­nized a con­ti­nent, Dunbar-Ortiz’s anguished his­to­ry is a good place to start.

Jere­my Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/​Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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