Mohsen Abdelmoumen: In your book “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States”, you show that there has been settlement, plundering of native lands, massacres, etc. Why, do you think, the current American never evokes the words colonialism and genocide about Native peoples? Is this history underestimated by the average American either is it deliberately denied?
Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: United States founders were explicit in spelling out their intention to occupy and colonize the continent from ocean to ocean and even had plans to colonize the Caribbean and Central America. In popular and political jargon, they called their colonialist and imperialist practices “manifest destiny,” that is, they were ordained as Euroamericans to have dominion over the continent. However, in the late nineteenth century, with the continental territory that exists today realized, Euroamerican historians and intellectuals as well as politicians began creating a new origin story that told of a tiny sliver of British colonies breaking free of the mammoth British empire to become the first constitutional republic, the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, a beacon to the world to revere and try to emulate, developing a foreign policy rhetoric of “spreading democracy.” This remains the US nationalist narrative.
Why doesn’t the American who celebrates his revolution against the English and his independence mention the extermination of the Indigenous peoples and colonization? Can we say that the victors write History and that the indigenous peoples are forgotten of it? Did the Native American identity survive the time and the massacre of memory?
In order to support the narrative of the US as founded in liberty, erasure of the Indigenous peoples is necessary, arguing a phasing out of a pre-human population by a stronger one. However, resistance by the Indigenous nations and communities has never ceased and in the past half-century, along with oppressed African-Americans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans, have made themselves visible. Indigenous Peoples remain under US colonization laws, but seek self-determination and have established their presence in the international institutional framework of the United Nations. They certainly remember and document genocidal policy and expropriation, but also their persistent resistance to US colonialism.
American patriotism seems to concern only white Americans. In your opinion, do Blacks and Native Americans have their place in this exclusively white America?
Essentially US patriotism/nationalism IS white nationalism, as are the laws and institutions of governance. Indigenous Peoples and Africans-Americans assert self-determination and human rights and forced considerable reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, but since that time, a massive, white nationalist backlash has come to dominate national politics as well as many local and state politics, especially in the South and Intermountain West. Donald Trump represents the success of these reactionary moves. The liberal party, the Democrats, have always maintained the national narrative of the founding, but sought to make society more inclusive; while the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s were strong, the Democrats could be pushed to make deeper reforms, but they have lost credibility. The one matter that both parties agree on is the right of the US to dominate the world economically and militarily.
How do you explain the return of the white supremacist movements, as we saw in Charlottesville? Isn’t America sick of its memory? The US being not cured of their ills, aren’t the genocide of the Native peoples as well as the slavery a story which still remains to be written?
The white supremacist movements have been given a mainstream platform politically by the Trump campaign and administration, but there has always been an extreme element of white supremacy in the US that serves to allow mainstream white supremacy seem rationale and more desirable. But, the public display of Nazi and other foreign fascist gestures and symbols has little popular appeal to a very insular US white populace.
You are one of the few historians who have written and advocated for the cause of Native Americans and I find your career remarkable, like some of my speakers. Why, do you think, the US left was not really interested in the cause of the Indigenous peoples?
There are many more Native American historians and scholars in related fields now than when I was in graduate school in the mid-1960s, and they are receiving more attention. Most of the arguments and material in my book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, are based in their research and studies. But, yes, the US left has the weakness that any left within a colonial power has, but is much more pronounced in a settler-colonial society like the US. Only in the 1870s, did the US aggressively recruit non Anglo or Germanic immigrants to work in the burgeoning industrial manufacturing and mineral and fossil fuel mining and exploitation, mainly Southern and Eastern Europeans, speaking many languages, with cultural practices alien to Anglo-Americans. They were also darker people generally and considered inferior. The way the children and grandchildren of these millions of immigrants found to be considered “Americans,” was to embrace the US origin story, but also, the virulent anti-Black and Indian/Mexican-hating racism of Anglo Americans. What many of those European workers brought with them though was militant trade unionism and revolutionary socialist and anarcho-syndicalist ideas. From the beginning, trade unions that were formed were exclusively Euro-American, although African-Americans and Mexicans organized their own trade unions. The theories of organizing and revolution developed by the US left had little relationship with US history or institutions and have never entirely been able to comprehend that history. The great revolutionary movements in the US have largely been powered by African-American, Mexican-American, and Native-American resistance, which for a time attracted large number of white youth in the US, at the height of those movements in the 1960s and 1970s.
Your book « All the Real Indians Died Off »: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans » reveals the lies on which are built the United States. Can we say that lies are both fundamental and structural in the US? Doesn’t colonialism need to create myths to expand its domination?
Yes, although they are myths they are woven into the body politic, into institutions at every level, and especially into the educational system and public media.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz?
Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a historian, writer, teacher, memoirist, speaker andsocial activist. She is Professor Emerita of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at California State University, East Bay.
She grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international indigenous movement for more than four decades, and she is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her Ph.D. in history at the University of California, Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was an anti-war and anti-racist activist and organizer throughout the 1960s and early 1970s and a public speaker on issues of patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, and racism. She worked in Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade and worked with other revolutionaries across the spectrum of radical politics, including the Civil Rights Movement, Students for a Democratic Society, the Revolutionary Union, the African National Congress, and the American Indian Movement.
Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz was asked to visit SandinistaNicaragua to appraise the land tenure situation of the Miskito Indians in the northeastern region of the country. Her two trips there that year coincided with the beginning of United States government’s sponsorship of a proxy war to overthrow the Sandinistas, with the northeastern region on the border with Honduras becoming a war zone and the basis for extensive propaganda carried out by the Reagan administration against the Sandinistas. In over a hundred trips to Nicaragua and Honduras from 1981 to 1989, she monitored what was called the Contra War.
Roxanne Dunbar founded Cell 16 in 1968, a militant feminist organization in the United States known for its program of celibacy, separation from men and self-defense training.
Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz is author or editor of numerous scholarly articles and books, including the award-winning An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico, The Great Sioux Nation : Sitting in Judgment on America, « All the Real Indians Died Off » : And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, Outlaw Woman A Memoir of the War Years, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War.
Published in American Herald Tribune, November 18, 2017: https://ahtribune.com/us/2014-roxanne-dunbar-ortiz.html
In Palestine Solidarité: http://www.palestine-solidarite.org/analyses.mohsen_abdelmoumen.191117.htm