Wednesday, July 5, 2017
Book Review: 'An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States' by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
"Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism since 1492" This was the caption on a "tee shirt" I purchased in Lake Tahoe in 2007. It aptly summarizes this book. In bold and defiantly certain strokes, the author paints an unsubtle picture of what confronted Native Americans when the English settler-colonists arrived here more than a century after Columbus landed in the Caribbean. [And for the record, Columbus never once set foot on the land he was supposed to have discovered.]
Professor Dunbar-Ortiz leaves the finesse and nuances to future historians. Her's is a brutal straight ahead approach to history: She marshals the facts, most of which we have seen before in other sources, and makes the only sensible unbiased interpretations that can be made from them. And what they say, does not square with the tidy "patriotic myth-making history" that makes heroes out of the founders of this country.
The Erasure of Violence as a form of Nation-building
Dr. Dunbar-Otrtiz paints a vivid, gory and often a very disturbing alternative picture of the founding of this nation. She fashions her own indigenous interpretation of all the facts that we have seen elsewhere, but that are embedded within an entirely different more heroic context. What results here is a passionate, well-researched, robust and convincing alternative rendition of America's founding myths, one that strips away the false heroism of our founding generation, and thus one that stands in stark contrast and relief to the often suspect and always less than convincing orthodox version of our founding national story.
Whatever the reader may think about the orthodox version of American history, this rendition will prove to be interesting, enlightening and thought-provoking. One reason this is so is because the author's story is more complete, more congruent with the known facts, and her logic is more consistent with the geopolitical context of the times than is the orthodox story.
Another reason is that this research converges neatly with, and cross-confirms, other narratives that challenge the canonical interpretation -- narratives like that of Professor Gerald Horne's of the University of Houston, in his excellent recent book "The Counter Revolution of 1776."
As this author notes with uncanny astuteness, it is not that the facts are always wrong in the orthodox version, but the very essence of the truth, that is. And without saying so, the proper context also is always missing.
Summarized in broad strokes, Dunbar-Ortiz claims that it was not small groups of poor, hardy, adventuresome and pious people, fleeing from lack of religious freedoms that had randomly stumbled upon the shores of the North American continent (as the orthodox version of American History teaches us). Instead, according to her, it was members of the landed gentry of England who came here --at least on the first few ships -- with the same "top-down" destructive plan for colonial exploitation and conquest that they had already perfected on the Irish in the UK, and that Spain and Portugal had used with mixed success in the "New World" for nearly a century before the English arrived.
An essential part of this "top-down" -- rather than "bottom-up" -- plan was to lure and snare as many "wayward" and "down-and-out" poor as possible from the streets of London and other European cities onto a ship bound for America. They set their traps by promising them adventure, fame, wealth and land in the New World. However, now that we know the rest of the story, we know that the real purpose of this "street-wise urban recruitment program" was to use these "down-and-outs" as slaves to do all of the manual labor needed for the landed gentry to colonize the new continent -- while the landed gentry continued sipping their tea.
Somehow, our American history books failed to mention that the ships were chartered by ruling cliques of the landed gentry? Or, that these colonial settlers came armed with a plan that they had xeroxed from the "Spanish and Portuguese colonial playbook?" It was a diabolical plan of "white men gone wild" (appropriately, in New York, they call this "wilding"): that is to say, it was a plan that involved wanton killing of millions of peoples of native nations, stealing their lands and then exploiting and raping it for fun and profit. In normal International Politics, we do not call this process discovery, but the conquering of indigenous peoples and taking their lands by force.
Thus, the rest of the "top-down" plan was no secret. What had to be, and what was in fact done over the next three centuries, was spelled out in excruciating details in the plan: The English settler-colonists were sent to North America to mimic Spanish and Portuguese colonialism by taking over the continent from the indigenous people by any means necessary. Full stop. End of the story of the founding of North America.
Arming the reader with this valuable bit of information about the ulterior motives of our founders, serves like a new over-arching meta-theory for unravelling and understanding everything else that occurred on the continent for the next three hundred years.
The cute patriotic notion hatched after the fact -- that exploration to North America was a "bottom-up" affair, self-instigated by a group of poor but hardy adventuresome and pious people, seeking more religious freedom, now must give way to Dunbar-Ortiz's much more robust claim that the plan, from the very beginning, was little more than a belated "run at colonialism" following in Spain's and Portugal's bloody "top-down" footsteps. Like their predecessors, Britain too sent royal bureaucrats as an integral part of the contingent on their ships. This included land surveyors, tax accountants, and a religious contingent from the newly formed Church of England.
Only this time, the English settlers would execute the plan of taking over the continent by force to perfection: They would take no prisoners, leave no fingerprints at the crime scene and lie forever to the judges of history about what had actually happened? Their theory of the crimes against Native Americans, our orthodox American history, does not pass the laugh test.
When all of the ugliness is tidied-up, forensic evidence removed. When everything is put in a neat package with a red, white and blue bow ribbon tied around it, the slavery, violence, wanton killing of upwards of 10 million people, and ten times as many Buffalos in less than two decades. When all of this mayhem has been sanitized well enough to turn it into a Williamsburg theme Park, and into canned patriotic cant from Mr. Obama, only then does it qualify as socially acceptable (but inauthentic) American History.
Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz's meta-theoretical rendition of the motives of the founding of the American Republic has the logic of the geopolitical competition (the search for more wealth, more virgin lands and new markets) build into it. (No one came here to install democracy and expand freedom for all people?) As well, her meta-theory underscores the overriding imperative that England had: It was behind in the "colonizing racket" and had to catch up. What better way to do so than by using as a template the century of colonial exploitation laid out by Spain and Portugal.
The author makes it clear here that, except for minor innovations, the English settler-colonists followed the Spanish/Portuguse template almost to the letter.
And for three hundred years blood, state-sanctioned murder and mayhem poured forth from the land. However, for any Historians (or anyone else) who cared to look, the blood-letting had an unmistakeable Machiavellian rhythm to it, one that betrayed the clear existence of a plan that had been carefully vetted and was now being just as carefully, executed. The execution of the plan involved the kind of strategic violence that adapted and evolved, became more efficient and brutal and unforgiving as the settler-colonists got stronger and as the Indians got weaker.
The cynical cyclic rhythm of the violence began only after the settlers became strong enough to make threats to local Indians that would stick. Invariably they amounted to little more than extortion demands: "give us provisions from your food stocks on a continuous basis; hand over your cultivated lands and animals, and make your labor available to us for free, or else?"
The inevitable Indian refusals to state-sanctioned extortion, resulted in settler raids on Indian camps, raids that rarely discriminated between men, women and children, raids that involved burning camps, crops, killing and scattering animals, and always moving the Indians further back into the forrest and always further West.
No matter how weak, Indian honor and yearning to maintain even a vestige of their cultural existence alone guaranteed a reprisal to these white extortion attacks.
However, once the Indian reprisals came, the settlers re-framed the reprisals as if they had been the initial triggering event? And thus these Indian reprisals were met with an even more voracious and brutal settler counterattacks, ones in which they doubled-down on the violence and brutality, and now included scalping, rape and taking women and children as hostages -- obviously to be used as bargaining chips in the inevitable negotiations, which in truth were little more than asymmetric surrender terms for the weaker Indians.
The perfidy and dishonesty of settler negotiations with Indians is already a part of both American history and legend, and little else needs to be said about them here except to add that they too were a part of the original plan. False offers of peace, was an important of the foreground to hide the unimaginable crimes killing and suffering by Indians occurring in the background.
So too were divide and conquer strategies a part of the original plan. The settlers were masters at pitting Indians against each other by offering monetary as well as symbolic rewards for supporting settler causes, including instigating internecine wars against other tribes. A third stratagem was of course the old standby of racism, divide the poor whites against themselves, the Indians against themselves and blacks against themselves, and the landed gentry against them all, and there was no way the landowning white males could lose.
The fourth part of the plan that evolved once it was recognized that whites were actually bringing diseases to the continent that killed Indians in very large numbers, was to then wantonly spread small pox and influenza among the tribes by giving them infected articles and infecting their water supplies, killing off their food sources, etc.
This was the basic rhythm of the so-called "Indians wars" that raged across the land for the better parts of three centuries with the only variation being, that, as the settlers got stronger, they added new more gruesome innovations to their tactics: such as adding rangers made up whites with Indian scouts from rival tribes who served as mercenaries against their own people. Together, they carried out preemptive "seek-and-destroy" missions.
If killing Indians was a crime, then why were all the Indian fighters turned into heroes?
Since the most notorious "Indian fighters" were all eventually made into American heroes, that is became, Presidents, Generals popular legends, or other high governmental officials, it made it a bit difficult for American Historians to claim that the founding generation was innocence of the kind of crimes, that (to use Frederick Douglass' words) "would disgrace a nation of savages?"
And indeed had there been a United Nations Convention against a whole host of crimes such as genocide, use of germ warfare, the wanton killing of non-combatants, including women and children, or against the wholesale slaughter of 50 million buffaloes, the crimes of our forefathers would be etched in history as one of the most brutal of all times. Yet, nothing is more American than to live peacefully in racist denial. Ten Stars
Dr. Herbert L. Calhoun and has been reposted with permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.