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Review of Dunbar-Ortiz's *An Indigenous People's History of the United States*

NOTE: I found this review in my drafts bin. It was written months ago when I read the book in question  and missing only a conclusion but, because of work/organizing/childcare, I must have forgotten about it. Indeed I only have a vague memory of writing it! In any case, I think some of the substance of this review has found its way into other things I've written but it's still worth putting out in full. It's worth reading this kind of critical scholarship in light of the *The Continent* controversy or, more productively, for writing the kind of politically charged literature that the left sorely needs.

I recently finished Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People's History of the United States and was not at all surprised by its quality and content. It is pretty much what I expected it to be, but I would be shocked if Dunbar-Ortiz had failed to live up to the expectations that she set in her previous work. While there is not a lot of new material that she has presented in this historiography, and I had arrived years ago at the same understanding because I read so much of the same sources, the synthesis itself possesses a freshness and accessibility that was altogether lacking in this field of history. Moreover, considering that some of the foundational material that lies behind this synthesis was produced by Dunbar-Ortiz herself years ago, she was the perfect historian to put it all together in one comprehensible read. And it's a read that is not turgid. The title is apt: taking her cue from Zinn's historical work, Dunbar-Ortiz is concerned with producing a counter-history that will be accessible to the lay-person without being so populist that it an be easily be dismissed by academic reactionaries. It has been a gripping read––often making me want to pound my fist on the desk and exclaim "fuck yeah"––and the gamut of its synthesization (from multiple historiographies, revolutionary theory, military theory, discourse analysis) is impressive.

An Indigenous People's History of the United States is also a massive middle finger to anyone and everyone who would fall back on the core USAmerican mythologies, which for Dunbar-Ortiz are intrinsically settlerist and she demonstrates why. But just getting to the end of this book, and having read a lot of the same source material (including her own previous work), here are some of my thoughts…

1) Rejection of "revolutionary" identity of settler-state nationhood.

With the popularity of musicals such as Hamilton there is now a remythologization of the US for everyone. This is bullshit, and should be treated as such, but it is still compelling to those who think that the "American Revolution" was not just a secession of colonial slavers (or what Dunbar-Ortiz calls "settler-separatists") but actually meant something more. Dunbar-Ortiz is pretty clear that a general ideology of colonial extermination was the political line of the American War of Independence. Every Indigenous nation, minus the Oneida, sided with the British against the settler-separatists simply because they preferred to deal with an enemy from afar than the enemy of genocidal settlers who had spent the last 100 years murdering and raping their people. (As an aside what the hell's with that Assassin's Creed game where the protagonist is a Mohawk fighting on the side of the settler's against the British? The Mohawks, like the vast majority of first nations, were opposed to the American Nation and for good reason.)

As Marxists we are supposed to make a distinction between "the world seen from below and the world seen from above" and Dunbar-Ortiz is clear that any valorization of the American War of Independence is part of seeing the world from above––from the position of the oppressors and exploiters. Indeed, all of the myths that were incorporated into what can be called "the American Dream" were cultivated by settler ideologues (such as James Fenimore Cooper) interested in ethically justifying colonial expansion and slaughter as well as slavery. They mythology became so powerful that the US could claim that its Revolution was a beacon of freedom for the world so that, by the mid-20th century, revolutionaries elsewhere would take the mythic aspect of this event as the truth (i.e. even Lenin praised it, confusing the mythologization with the reality), when in fact there was no revolution of oppressed peoples close in time to the American Revolution that treated it as such. For example, while we are told that the Bolivarian Revolution was inspired by the American Revolution, Dunbar-Ortiz argues that there are no documents that prove this connection, aside from what US historians will say generations later, and that Bolivar and his ideologues in fact referred to the French Revolution. Haiti also ignored the American War of Independence. Hence the truth is that this event was one of settler-separatism and its mythologization not only conceals this fact but in fact is plugged into an ideology of American Exceptionalism that needs to be undermined.

2) The connection between settler-colonialism and neo-colonialism.

This connection was something I interrogated in my doctoral thesis, using some of the sources Dunbar-Ortiz used, but she uses a lot more and makes the connection much more concrete. Since the emergence and foundation of the US was tied to the destruction of other nations, and since an ideology of "security" was developed to justify this manifest destiny (i.e. the white settler state would not be safe unless the Indigenous nations were either exterminated or placed under the laws of the US), an approach to international law that gave the US the right (a self-given right) to interfere in the business of other nations because it understood itself to be exceptional and its destiny to be synonymous with freedom was developed. Obviously "American Exceptionalism" is a doctrine that possesses a circular logic: its manifest destiny is proved by the ways in which its manifest destiny is accomplished, it is the most free because it subjects others to its laws which simultaneously proves that it possesses this right.

But the connection becomes more concrete when we examine, as Dunbar-Ortiz does with various sources, US military history. As she points out near the beginning of the book, the military term "Indian country" is not racist in a pithy sense––it is not an unfortunate term used by ignorant white generals who are too old-fashioned to respect Indigenous recruits––but in fact possesses a historical and conceptual meaning beyond some individualistic racist quirk. Counter-insurgency tactics were developed in the "Indian Wars", systematized into normative US military practice. By the time that the US invaded the Philippines all of the generals were veterans of the late 19th century "Indian Wars" and had succeeded in codifying the tactics of total war upon enemy populations as a regular part of military operations. The US military thus rose to prominence globally because of a foundation of tactics it had learned and systematized––developed further from the Philippines and every other international encounter––after centuries of waging exterminatory war upon the nations it had usurped in order to become a nation. Settler-colonialism at home was easy to translate into imperialism abroad, and the ideology accompanying this history, where America mythologized itself as the protector of the freedoms of everyone (the myth of the "American Revolution" being essential to this ideology), could popularize imperialism.

3) The puritan roots of US settler-colonialism

The fact that the US emerged as a settler-colonial formation from colonies originally composed of puritan immigrants is something that Samir Amin has often highlighted, seeing it as a significant ideological basis for contemporary US mainstream politics. While I have always found Amin's assertion compelling, he never fully explored the basis of this claim preferring, instead, to focus on what it affected. Dunbar-Ortiz, however, explores the ways in which the puritan religious ideology overdetermined the practices of the settlers that would become the founders of the US vis-a-vis their relationship to the nations they encountered in the Western Hemisphere.

Faced with the fact of the systematic and unrelenting extermination of Indigenous peoples that quickly became an uncontroversial practice for the original colonizers, it is worth asking why these people would be so obsessed with the complete annihilation of the Indigenous other from the outset. Why they would incorporate this obsession into the construction of their colonial nation, why they would relegate entire peoples to a historical dustbin composed of the corpses they would create. The puritan ideology justified these practices, leading to the doctrine of manifest destiny: God's elect possessed the right to clear the promised land of those deemed semi-human and "insensible to ethics."

4) The continuing significance of national self-determination

Years ago Dunbar-Ortiz wrote the definitive treatment of Indigenous nationhood, Indians of the Americas, so it's really no surprise that she retains an analysis of national self-determination. It was definitely heartening, though, to read her taking the piss out of analyses of pseudo-decolonization, such as the work of Sharma and Wright, for denying the national question.

More importantly, Dunbar-Ortiz demonstrates how Indigenous peoples in the Western hemisphere resisted as nations, were even recognized as nations by their colonizers, and as nations set the tone for the way in which the US would approach, through their counter-insurgency against Indigenous resistance, other nations. That is, the US emerged as the US by militating against the nations that lived upon the lands the US needed in order to be the US. The settler-colonialism that would found the US was a violent expansion against Indigenous nationhood that would develop its imperialist ethos.

5) Scalping and the buffalo

Really, this shouldn't be controversial but while reading this book I was yet again reminded of the fact that "scalping" is treated in pop-culture as a native practice and that the same pop-culture weirdly assumes that Indigenous people are responsible for the near extinction of the buffalo. The point, here, is not that Dunbar-Ortiz brought up something new when she asserted that scalping was a practice instituted by the colonizer and mainly aimed at the scalping of Indigenous peoples, and that the Buffalo were hunted into near extinction by colonial ethos that was designed to starve the Sioux, but that she again raises the question that is still not answered by colonial ideology: why is there this persistence in blaming Indigenous peoples for colonial conventions when the historians of the time were aware that these conventions were mainly pursued by the colonizers? (The question is rhetorical, yes I am aware that this is the upshot of colonial hegemony.)

Those of us who are old enough to have followed the sitcom Seinfeld when it was still airing will remember the episode where the titular character is dating an Indigenous woman and is worried about offending her based on multiple turns of phrase. One of the turns of phrase he avoids, however, is scalper (referring to the kind of parasite who buys tickets to events and sells them at an inflated price) because he thinks this is offensive to his girlfriend's culture. But scalping, as Dunbar-Ortiz YET AGAIN reminds us is a colonial convention; this liberal worry of offending a colonized girlfriend should always be treated as out of line since the scalper has mainly been the colonizer. At least the cynical westerns get it right, despite their Hobbesian indulgences: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian locates the practice of scalping in a group of settler-colonial filibusters; the television adaptation of the Preacher comic depicts, in the second episode, scalped Indigenous bodies hanging from a tree. How was this practice specifically attributed to the colonized when it was a colonial convention? How did right wing pundits start to claim that the Buffalo were hunted to extinction by Indigenous peoples when the term "Buffalo Soldier" indicates a colonial practice (that, yes, used former slaves) of species eradication? Dunbar-Ortiz's book reminded me that these conventions merit further investigation.

6) The settlers thesis?

Although Dunbar-Ortiz doesn't outright promote Sakai's settlers thesis but she does provide a historiography of colonialism that leads the reader to grasp the reasons why the colonizing working class will have a cache in the persistence of settler-colonialism. Her analysis cannot help but lead the reader to be somewhat cynical about traditional working-class attempts to force unity between poor whites and the colonized. This is not to say that she believes such unity is impossible, only that the historical facts make it difficult due to the fact that poor settlers imported from Europe had a lot to gain from pursuing a white supremacist project and that their descendants, and other people who would benefit from the white power structure they built, thus have a reason to defend colonial-capitalism.

Now, as far as I recall, Dunbar-Ortiz does not fully agree with Sakai on this issue (i.e. she does not think there is no white proletarian) because I recall, though foggily, talking with her about this at the 2010 Historical Materialism conference. Still, whether or not you agree fully with Sakai you will have to accept (if you bother to read Settlers) that there is some truth to his analysis. Dunbar-Ortiz's historiography signals that truth.


The book is accessible and rigorous but is also a tragic and angry read. Not that Dunbar-Ortiz writes in the tenor of a polemic; she does not sacrifice academic tone for accessibility (though I would have no problem with that). Rather, if you care anything about a progressive politics and are opposed to genocide this book cannot help but make you enraged about the USAmerican project from its very emergence, even if you already know the basic details. I'm looking forward to the next thing Dunbar-Ortiz writes, I would really like to see a reprint of Indians of the Americas, and I am very happy that a scholar of this level was kind enough to write a blurb for my upcoming book.