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Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz speaking at the Left Forum, 20 March 2010. Photo: Thomas Good / NLN via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz speaking at the Left Forum, 20 March 2010. Photo: Thomas Good / NLN via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA).
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The American genocide, indigenous resistance and human survival: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Stephyn Quirke

21st May 2015

The Indigenous Peoples of North America are the survivors of a multi-century genocide that was still being deliberately waged in the 1950s and has still not stopped today, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz told Stephyn Quirke. But the fightback is on, and for the world to overcome both genocide and ecocide, the indigenous struggle must grow to encompass the mass of humanity.

The Indigenous Peoples of the Americas have always known that it wasn't only about their own survival, but also the survival of humanity, of all life and sustenance.

It's been said that education is what you are left with after forgetting everything you learned in school.

And unfortunately for us, American history books already forgot to mention a few things: like human beings inhabiting North America for over 20,000 years prior to Europeans.

In fact, the Europeans our history books call the 'original Americans' and 'Founding Fathers' didn't start calling themselves Americans until they started to see themselves becoming more like the indigenous peoples they encountered - a special kind of free people who belonged to this land.

Inside the US, it is almost impossible to get a standard education in US history and come away with the knowledge that the United States was founded on genocide - the largest in world history up to that time.

And it's even harder to learn about the nearly three million indigenous peoples still living in the United States today, comprising 500 federally recognized Indigenous nations and communities.

These are the issues boldly taken up by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in her new book, An Indigenous People's History of the United States. Dunbar-Ortiz is a renowned activist and scholar who has written extensively on indigenous issues in North America, and has spent years organizing with the American Indian Movement.

US history, rooted in colonialism and genocide

I caught up with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to talk with her about her new book, and to get her views on the state of indigenous resistance today.

Could you describe your background in the indigenous rights movement, and how that has informed your academic research?

I was an anti-war, civil rights, and women's liberation activist during the 1960s while a graduate student at UCLA. It was actually my dissertation research that led me to involvement in the American Indian Movement and the International Indian Treaty Council in 1974.

I was recruited at that time to serve as an Expert Witness in a federal hearing on the 1868 Treaty, which is what the Wounded Knee uprising had been about. That involvement brought me to focus on oral history as the bedrock of my academic research and writing.

You talk a lot in your book about the importance of naming colonialism and genocide, which is not something everyone is accustomed to doing in US history. Could you tell readers why we need these terms to understand US history?

These are technical terms of international human rights law that were codified in the post-World War II period in the response to the massive peoples' liberation movements in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and Caribbean.

They delineate precisely what Native peoples in the North American have experienced under United States colonization.

Give us our land, not your money!

I recently learned about the history of the Black Hills in South Dakota, a natural formation sacred to the Lakota, and the compensation arrangement you described in your book after it was blasted with dynamite and renamed Mt. Rushmore. Could you give readers a brief sketch of this story, and what it says about the kind of justice we need for indigenous peoples?

As the period of decolonization began, the founding of the United Nations, the United States government responded to Indigenous Nations demands for land restitution of self-determination by establishing the Court of Indian Land Claims, but with the proviso that no land would be returned, on monetary compensation for Indigenous lands confiscated without consent by treaties or agreements.

The Lakota Sioux did not file for a claim, since they did not want financial compensation, rather the return of the Black Hills. Militant actions over two decades culminating in the Wounded Knee siege of 1973, and the subsequent founding of the International Indian Treaty Council to take the 1868 treaty to the United Nations, led to the 1980 Supreme Court decision, which acknowledged that the United States had taken the Black Hills illegally, but ordered only monetary compensation, which the Sioux refused.

The US established a trust fund with the funds, which have now grown to over a billion dollars. This is one of many land issues that must be resolved with restitution of land; in nearly every case, the disputed territories are sacred sites for the particular Native Nation, including the Black Hills. And, in nearly every case, these lands are held by the federal or state governments, not private land holders or municipalities.

We are many - and so are our ancient origins

You write extensively about the myth that Native Americans disappeared after European settlement, which seems closely related to the myth that the continent was sparsely inhabited or barely managed before Europeans.

Could you give readers a rough sense for how long and how extensively this continent had been inhabited by indigenous peoples, prior to the start of Official US History?

The estimate for the original population at the onset of European colonialism is 100 million, with 30 million in North America, including Mexico and Central America, some 10 million north of the Río Grande.

Up to the 1960s when Native scholarship developed and questioned the figures, the estimate was 10 million for the whole hemisphere, and 1 million north of the Río Grande. Both the fields of demography and archeology (and of course, anthropology) were highly politicized in their pseudo-scientific attempts to keep numbers low, presumably to lessen the charge of genocide.

Even with the new figures, there remains the master narrative of the 'germ theory' of the horrific initial death rates associated with European colonization, supposed reducing the populations throughout the hemisphere by some 90 percent.

This argument, which ignores the other causes of death and disappearance, particularly genocidal warfare and forced removals, also lessens the charge of genocide, as it's said to be unintentional. However, we know that the majority of Jews subjected to concentration camps died of disease and starvation, not in gas ovens, and this is the case in a genocide.

As to the peopling of the Western Hemisphere, another pseudo-scientific myth remains dominant, the 'Bering Straits' theory, which poses the absurd scenario of a single entrance to the continent from Asia, near the North Pole, and spreading to the South Pole, rather than following Indigenous peoples' trade routes over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The time frame originally posed for the Bering Straits entry was 5,000 years ago, but archeological evidence has steadily increased the time of habitation in the hemisphere, to a present estimate of 20,000 years.

But, it's likely more ancient, considering the highly developed civilizations and advanced agriculture developed in South America, Mexico, and North America.

Genocide can no longer be ignored or sidelined

Do you think the standard narrative of US history reflects an enforced silence on indigenous genocide? What happens when we break that silence?

Yes, the standard narrative has avoided dealing with genocide; one recent book by a notable US historian elaborates on the many atrocities committed against Native people, but argues that there was no genocide, and calls the process 'ethnic cleansing.'

However, more radical historians, following Howard Zinn's lead in his People's History of the United States, do acknowledge genocide. However, as with Zinn, it seems more a way of doing away with the 'Indian question' than tackling the nature of settler-colonialism and its effects on the current US. It's posed as more a moral question, loaded with guilt, rather than a historical question with consequences.

You mention Truth and Reconciliation hearings in your book - something I'm familiar with in the context of South Africa and Rwanda. What do you think this process could look like in the North American context? Are there any positive signs that it could happen?

There are many moves toward apologies and pleas for reconciliation, but not so much truth telling. The Boarding School research projects in the US and Canada are the most important initiatives.

For the past 35 years, Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific and Arctic have been documenting historical and contemporary genocidal practices of governments at the United Nations.

There's certainly enough material and expertise available to hold formal hearings, and in Guatemala they did take place, with actual charges and trials of genocide resulting.

'Public lands are indigenous lands!'

There have been many campaigns recently to support indigenous resistance to environmental destruction: the Seminoles in Florida are fighting a new fossil fuel power plant, tribes in Washington are fighting coal and oil trains, and last year we saw an eruption of tribes physically closing shipping routes to the Alberta Tar Sands fields.

What opportunity do you see in these alliances? Does it reflect a broader movement for indigenous sovereignty, or could it turn into one?

These campaigns are vitally important, and the alliances that are evolving are extraordinary, nothing like it since the early 1970s. For Indigenous peoples, it's a matter of survival, and sovereignty is essential to survival, but the settler population, or at least the youth, is realizing that it is a matter of their survival as well.

No people in the world have fought as hard and long for survival as peoples as North American Indigenous peoples; they have a lot to teach others, and their leadership, finally, in the climate movement is a turning point.

Public lands in the United States were often created out of land recently stolen from indigenous peoples, and environmental protection since then has often retained an amnesia about this history. What would you say to people who assert that environmental needs are our top priority, and that these are too pressing for us to worry about indigenous issues?

Public lands, especially national and state parks and wilderness areas are all stolen from Native peoples, and these are sacred lands. There can be no separation between restitution of lands and self-determination for Indigenous Peoples and protection of the environment. Such protection comes from relationships not stewardship.

Are there important lessons for the environmental movement in An Indigenous People's History of the US? Is there a connection between the disruption of indigenous cultural patterns and the disruption of the Earth's biological patterns?

The system of capitalism that developed in Western Europe through the accumulation of wealth in plundering the Americas and Africa (colonialism) is the same force that has destroyed the ecologies of the planet and now threaten all species, including humans.

Indigenous Peoples warned of this from the beginning of the onslaught up to the present. The environmental movement (and other social movements) in North America needs to pay attention to and learn from the Indigenous Peoples' insistence on land restitution and Indigenous self-determination.

The Termination Act of 1953 - it meant what it said

As your book documents, US policy toward Native Americans has often moved from direct assaults on their existence to the strange idea that the US government is now 'protecting' them. Toward the end of your book you talk about the modern period of 'termination', which began in Oregon with the Klamath tribe, where the government essentially declared that they'd cared for Indians long enough and were no longer going to extend their 'generosity'.

Could you explain this policy of termination and the effects it had on indigenous peoples? How did people fight back?

The US Congress Termination Act of 1953 is an instance of official genocidal policy, which actually falls under the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The official appointed to implement termination was Dillon S. Myer who had been in charge of the wartime relocation and incarceration of US citizens of Japanese descent. It was a two-pronged plan, using the carrot and the stick.

First, the most economically self-reliant Native nations, including the Klamath and the Menominee (Wisconsin) were instantly terminated, their reservations and governments dissolved. Those terminated quickly fell from prosperity to impoverishment, set upon by predatory corporations.

The other part of the plan was one of enticement, called Relocation, which was voluntary and targeted young singles and couples, the expectation being that with only old people left to die off, and the young people assimilated by the exciting urban world of consumer abundance and entertainment, the reservations would simply disappear.

It didn't work out that way. Instead, the burgeoning Civil Rights movement offered new methods of resistance to the 'urban Indians', who at any rate never divorced themselves from their families and communities back home.

The result was the National Indian Youth Council and a little later the American Indian Movement, the Survival for American Indians, and many other organizations. In 1974, following Wounded Knee, the Termination Act was rescinded, and the reservations that had been terminated were reconstituted, although irreparable damage had been done.

Don't support indigenous resistance - join it!

The Activist Group 'Yes Men' recently made national headlines by impersonating State Department officials, and telling weapons contractors that the government was going to start purchasing renewable energy from reservations - which would be fully owned and controlled by First Nations.

What was your reaction when you saw that stunt? Do you think it's viable? Are there real plans like this in the works?

Yes, it was interesting that the weapons contractors found the idea attractive. My reaction to the stunt was "why not?" It's a perfectly viable idea. I don't know of any concrete plans in the works, but I know it's implied in Indigenous aspirations, not only in North America, but the rest of the Americas. The real utopists are those who believe that capitalism can be reformed.

You write a lot in your book about "the American way of war" - one based on unlimited violence and the total destruction of the enemy. You write that this was alien to Indigenous peoples, and that warfare for them was highly ritualized and involved quests for personal glory, but resulted in few deaths.

Why is this important to recognize? Do you think examining the war against Native Americans can affect our willingness to mobilize for war today?

The 'First' way of war, which became the US way of war, was formed in the 13 British colonies with settlers forming militias to terrorize the Indigenous peoples, destroying their villages, food storages, and fields, killing everything that moved.

That phrase, "kill everything that moves", was openly used by commanding officers in Vietnam and is taken for granted in other US irregular wars, that is, counterinsurgent wars and wars of occupation since the founding of the US to the present.

I think that embedded in the texture of US patriotism, which centers on reverence for the military, is the settler-colonial mindset of extermination. And, I do think that if people become conscious of this, including those who serve in the military, many would recognize the truth and be repulsed.

What are your thoughts on the Idle No More movement?

Idle No More is an amazing movement, surging from the grass roots of First Nations in Canada and spreading over the continent, emulated around the world. It theater at the onset, but has continued as a strong and constantly growing base spawning many projects.

Do you see energy from Idle No More coming in to the United States?

Yes, Idle No More infused energy into the Native movements in the United States. Many locales now have INM representatives who network with their counterparts in Canada and each other. INM fused Indigenous sovereignty and environmental issues like nothing had before.

I thought this was visible in the glorious Climate Convergence in New York in September 2014. And it gave more visibility to the 'Cowboys and Indians' alliance in the Northern Plains in opposition to the Keystone pipeline.

The Indigenous struggle is for the survival of all humanity

You emphasize in your book that the survival of indigenous peoples in the United States testifies to successful cultures of resistance - that without it, they would not have survived so many repeated attempts at assimilation and genocide.

What does it mean to participate in a culture of resistance, and what responsibility do we have to support such resistance?

From the beginning of colonialism some 5-6 centuries ago, those first hit by the brunt of it and survived - the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas - have always known that it wasn't only about their own survival, but also the survival of humanity, of all life and sustenance.

They have continued to resist and to survive, but they cannot overcome and transform without the mass of humanity being involved. Everything now is about survival, so it's not so much a question of supporting Indigenous resistance, as joining it.

 


 

Another version of this interview appeared in Street Roots.

The book: Dunbar-Ortiz's 'An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States' is out now.

 

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