An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz is, as its subtitle says, a “revisioning (of) American history,” revealing as it does the ugly truth of U.S. expansion as it swept across the continent (“from sea to shining sea”), slaughtering the indigenous people and stealing their land. It is a searing, horrifying read revealing, as one reviewer put it, “the toxic, hidden lies that linger on” in our society and culture.
We like seeing and portraying ourselves as God’s chosen people, whose destiny it is to “liberate” others from bondage and set them “free.” In truth, what we set out to do from the beginning was label the millions of civilized Indigenous people living successfully on the land as savages whom we could exterminate so we could take their land. Looked at from a indigenous point of view, US history is an appalling record of ethnic cleansing, naked greed, war, and contempt for people who are not only not white, but are considered in the way. Looked at from the standard US history point of view, everything that happened was and continues to be justified as necessary. Indians were “in the way”, so we removed them, using every means possible.
When white Europeans first arrived in what they thought of as the “new world,” the Indian population in the Americas was estimated at 100 million, a figure that fell to 10 million following the onset of colonising projects, a reduction of 90% (page. 40). That is a mind-numbing figure. More mind-numbing is the fact that it was achieved deliberately by declaring indigenous people to be savages, and setting about to get rid of them and take over their lands. Viewing a people as “savage” justifies their slaughter and mistreatment. Make treaties with them, then violate them at every turn. Give them land to live on (Reservations), then take it away without asking them; after all, the people are “only Indians.” To clarify what this means in reality, the U.S. military refers to enemies as “Indians” and enemy territory as “Indian Country.” When Indian troops complain about it, don’t bother to respond; after all, they are “only Indians.” If this strikes you as unjust, it is, but it happens all the time. Recently the US Congress okayed an oil pipeline through a Sioux reservation without asking for permission (the land was “protected” by treaty), once again showing contempt.
“I did not know then how much was ended,” wrote Oglala Sioux Black Elk reflecting back on the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. “When I look back now from he high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along he crooked gulch as plain as when I aw hem with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream. The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead” (1930
The central question of Professor Dunbar-Ortiz’s book is “How might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform society?”
Perhaps by shedding light on what some of the most significant consequences of our history are. Professor Dunbar-Ortiz names two of them. (1) “In employing the force necessary to accomplish its expansionist goals, a colonising regime institutionalizes violence” (p. 8), (2) conquest, “expropriation, destruction, and dehumanisation” (p. 32). A third appears in the way the US treats its allies, whom it sees as dependencies. Living in Japan as I do, it is painfully obvious. Here are two examples of what I mean.
Several years ago I attended a presentation by a representative of the US Embassy in Tokyo. He ended his talk by telling his listeners how many men the US had lost in World War Two’s Pacific Theatre (111,606). Not once did he mention Japan’s losses, which were around two million (civilian and military), including over 150,000 civilian casualties. I was shocked by his insensitivity and arrogance, given the fact that most of his listeners were Japanese. It was clear that he said what the US Embassy wanted him to say.