U.S. history obscured

AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Beacon Press. 296 pages. $27.95.

Most histories of the United States tell how Europeans discovered a wild world and established a new form of government under which all people would be free — a true democracy.

Not so, say the indigenous North Americans. They say that version of history is a national myth, a bald-faced lie.

In her important new book on the history of indigenous people in North America, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes: “The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism — 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. ... The affirmation of Democracy requires the denial of colonialism.”

To be sure, Dunbar-Ortiz, who is part Indian, is prejudiced. She writes with unrestrained glee when she describes how the indigenous people’s newfound soul has led them to demand the return of great swaths of land that the U.S. government stole from them. Her prejudice becomes even clearer when she capitalizes the words “Indian,” “Indigenous,” “Brave” and “Black” in all their usages, but “white” always appears with a lowercase “w.”

Dunbar-Ortiz’s writing is powder-dry, not unlike a history textbook, which it virtually is. Like a textbook, her book includes 60 pages of footnotes, attributions and recommended readings, which helps establish its authenticity.

Despite the dry writing, this is riveting reading, and often very uncomfortable reading for those of us who grew up with names like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson burned into our minds as heroes. It’s uncomfortable because you know deep down it’s true.

Dunbar-Ortiz says indigenous people don’t dispute the facts of the white man’s version of history — the who, what, when and where — but they do very strongly dispute its essence, its truth.

Begin with the supposedly “wild” world that greeted the Europeans. She writes: “European colonialists shoved aside a large network of small and large nations whose governments, commerce, arts and sciences, agriculture, technologies, theologies, philosophies, and institutions were intricately developed nations that maintained sophisticated relations with one another and with the environments that supported them.”

Therein lies one of the book’s few weaknesses: If they were so advanced, why were they so easily conquered? Dunbar-Oritz only hints at the answer — the Europeans had far superior weapons — but she never specifically names it.

Nevertheless, records prove the newly arrived European settlers tried to exterminate the indigenous people, and they almost succeeded.

They stole the native land; starved the locals by burning their crops and slaughtering their main source food, the buffalo; unmercifully massacred their unarmed women and children; and purposefully introduced diseases they knew would kill large numbers of Indians. Dunbar-Oritz writes that genocide is “too nice a word” to describe what white supremacist Europeans did to the indigenous North Americans.

She names some of the worst offenders, and uses their own quotes and actions to back up her words. She names George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Calvin, Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, John Smith, William Sherman, Robert E. Lee, L. Frank Baum and Theodore Roosevelt, among others. Even John F. Kennedy bragged about the colonialism.

But the indigenous people’s war against white supremacy is not over. Beginning in the 1960s, those who remain have been demanding that the U.S. government return land it stole from them, including most of the national and state parks. And although they are alarmingly poor, they fiercely refuse the government’s generous offers of money. They only want their land back, and they’ll accept nothing else.

This book is certain to disturb everyone who grew up sainting our Founding Fathers, but they are the very ones who should read it.

Reviewer Skip Johnson is a free-lance writer and editor based in Charleston.