Every nation has its creation myths, a set of tales and heroes that sum up the ethos of its people. For those of us raised in the United States, our folklore can seem hazy. Is it the pioneers? Is it George Washington’s army and the first anticolonial revolution against the oppression of empire? Or is it the first pilgrims themselves and their search for religious freedom?
In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the founding myth of the USA is the idea of Manifest Destiny, the belief that European settlers were destined by God to take the North American continent from sea to shining sea, even if it meant erasing the people who already cared for the land. Dunbar-Ortiz calls the history of the United States “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.”
If this sounds too negative or dramatic to you, consider this interesting point raised in the book. Most people blame the mass deaths of the American Indigenous populations on exposure to foreign diseases. If that’s the case, then why did the European colonizers in America spend nearly three hundred years carrying out unrelenting wars against the Indigenous nations? This seems to say that disease was not quite enough to do the job.
Or consider this: Of the 16,000 Cherokee who were forced to march the Trail of Tears in the dead of winter, only half survived. When we count the death toll for the Holocaust in Germany, we include those who died of starvation, overwork and disease as victims of genocide, in addition to those who died in the gas ovens. If the American colonists maintained conditions that led to Indigenous deaths through relocation or disease, why don’t we call it genocide today?
Dunbar-Ortiz, through detailed research and a thorough reading of other subject experts, brings these and other observations to the conversation on the history of Indigenous people in the United States. If you aren’t well-versed in the Indigenous nations that once maintained the land we now call the US, you may find sections of the book hard to follow, as Dunbar-Ortiz spends a significant amount of ink detailing the crimes done to each nation. Then again, if you live in the US today and aren’t familiar with these nations, it may be worth the time to ask yourself why you haven’t been taught the history of these peoples.
About the only criticism I have for the book is that there were few mentions of the fierce and violent nature of the Indigenous nations. The dehumanizing depiction of the native people as brutal savages may be wrong, but I think it’s historically inaccurate to pretend that they didn’t war with each other and with the pioneers. They weren’t submissive people that rolled over when they encountered the pioneers, and I think it’s fair to say that the early settlers were probably terrified and ignorant as often as they were malicious and murderous.
The subtitle of Dunbar-Ortiz’s book is ReVisioning American History. The story — the origin myth — has been one-sided for so long, at the expense of nations that are not gone, no matter what book titles like The Last of the Mohicans imply. Why did the first European settler colonists think it was all right to come take this land that was clearly already taken? Whose perspective is more important to hear than the people whose lands they took? If the story they tell skews in their favor and depicts Europeans as the true savages — so what? Haven’t our history books done the same to them for enough years?
There are so many myths that we believe today. The idea that the US began as a people’s fight for liberty collapses once you take a hard look at the unjust oppression its founders perpetuated from the beginning. In Dunbar-Ortiz’s own words, “The affirmation of democracy requires the denial of colonialism, but denying it does not make it go away.”
Other posts in the Fighting for History series: