In the United States today, there are more than 500 federally recognized indigenous communities and nations comprising nearly three million people. These are the descendants of the 15 million people who once inhabited this land and are the subject of the latest book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Dunbar-Ortiz challenges the founding myth of the United States and shows how policy against indigenous people was genocidal and imperialist—designed to crush the original inhabitants. Spanning more than 300 years, this important bottom-up history significantly reframes how we view our past. Told from the viewpoint of the indigenous, it reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the U.S. empire.
It’s absolutely necessary to know this history of settler colonialism and how it affects consciousness today, in the U.S. and in the rest of the world, because everyone is convinced of this myth of the United States and somehow it’s always going off the path of this destiny that has never been true in the first place.
It’s like a fairy tale except it’s extremely deadly and dangerous.
Other countries have romantic myths as their form of nationalism, but they don’t control the world with this ideology.
The myth is that it was a birth of settler democracy but we know apartheid South Africa, we know about colonialism, particularly settler colonialism such as Israel.
There are so many parallels with Israel because the Puritans had this idea of the new Jerusalem of Zion, and this became embedded in all settlers. They used that terminology, that God had given them this land to settle. It wasn’t just a right; it was a responsibility to destiny, to the world.
This made the native farmer and fisherman, ordinary people like other people in the world, into savages and monsters, sort of like the Israelis to do the Palestinians today.
Throughout the book I have a theme of the militarism and the counterinsurgency that attacks civilians, burns the food, supplies, the crops, burns the houses of the people in their towns, creates refugees. This then becomes the pattern.
Every generation there is this Indian war. Vietnam looked like an Indian war, even the language they use – “Indian country” for enemy territory, all of the weapons they name after native people.
This is not how we think of the United States, supposedly a civilian country, the military is always under control of civilians but that civilian president is commander and chief of the armed forces.
There’s also a theory of the Bering Strait as the one entrance to the whole continent, which is absurd because all of the people on the coast were great seafaring people.
A part of European imperialism says that it connected people up. Actually what it did was separate people from each other and from their traditions.
My specialization is the southwest and central Mexico, Central America. I knew there were complex trade routes and roads all over the place, irrigation canals, how they developed agriculture.
The first chapter, “Follow the Corn,” I did just that. I followed, out of Mexico, the dispersion of corn agriculture all the way to Tierra del Fuego, to the sub-Arctic and coast to coast.
What you find in the Americas is when they get to the point of abusing the environment and become dictatorial, there tends to be revolts to overthrow them; that was happening when Cortez came to Mexico.
The Quetzalcoatl cult that took over the Aztec government became abusive and was doing slave raiding. Had done a wonderful job of dispersing trade routes. Cortez simply allied with the rebels and overthrew the central government.
Of course they couldn’t know his intentions of simply wiping out their civilization.
When British colonialism came to North America with these peculiar characteristics of the Puritan ideology settling in, with two centuries of settler colonialism, they developed this idea of ownership.
It went from owning human beings to the idea of owning the land.
George Washington was a surveyor and you have to ask why was such a super wealthy person a lowly surveyor?
Surveyors got to choose the best land, and got to mark it up. They had already developed this idea of a Platte, creating territories that would then become states once they had a majority settler population.
That’s why it took so long for Oklahoma. Oklahoma was the 47th state. New Mexico, Arizona–these places that had a majority native population.
It was rough being native in the United States, it still is. I grew up in Canadian County Oklahoma. My dad sharecropped, and was a tenant farmer throughout that area until the Depression wiped it out.
The people went to California as refugees.
I’m cautious about the identity because of native nationalism–Cherokee or Onondaga or Shawnee or Creek Muskogee.
There was an instance in 1917; I think its one of the most important moments in US history and hardly anyone knows about it. Jack Womack and I have written about it Monthly Review. It was called the Green Corn Rebellion.
That is the main demand, land base, nationhood, the ability to prosper and exist as people, not just as individuals being assimilated out–that’s another form of genocide.
Guest – Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a farmer and half-Indian mother. She has been active in the American Indian Movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University and helped found the departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indians in the Americas, held at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. She is the author or editor of seven books.
Academic Freedom Case: Professor Steven Salaita
Last Thursday the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Board of Trustees rejected Professor Steven Salaita’s candidacy for a tenured faculty appointment to the American Indian studies program. Initially we reported here on Law and Disorder that Professor Salaita was essentially dehired from the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign because of his statements on social media criticizing Israel’s conduct of military operations in Gaza. Emails within the University revealed under Freedom of Information Act Requests show that it was outside pressure from donors that influenced the University of Illinois Chancellor’s decision to dehire Salaita.
Professor Steven Salaita:
- I received the job offer at the end of September 2013. The first offer was for me to begin in June 2014 but because of my obligations to Virginia Tech and the short timeline for moving we pushed it back to mid-August.
- Everything was good to go, we set up movers, my classes were ready to teach, they had been assigned to me. I ordered my textbooks. On August 2, I received a letter from the chancellor, Phyllis Wise, telling me the offer was going to be withdrawn. So it left me scrambling for what to do, because I had already resigned my position at Virginia Tech.
- So all of a sudden I didn’t have a job, at Illinois or Virginia Tech.
- Publicly released documents indicate that donor pressure played a large role in it.
- There’s been some consternation about my tweets about Operation Protective Edge, that’s Israel’s recent invasion of the Gaza Strip and I think that had a lot to do with the donor pressure.
- I think the university is pressing this idea of lack of civility on social media.
- I think one of the saddest parts of the whole affair is that I hadn’t had the opportunity to join the professors at the American Indian Studies Department and become their colleague and work with them, and they’ve been terrific throughout this entire affair.
- Academic hiring happens at the level of faculty, it happens at the level of department and search committees within departments that will choose the hire; sometimes the entire department has to sign off on it.
- Then it gets kicked up to the dean, then it will get kicked up to the provost or chancellor for their approval. That’s what we call democratic governance on campus.
- It’s kind of an allegory of the position of American Indian nations in the United States and Canada. They’re seen as not being able to make their own autonomous decisions. They’re not allowed to articulate their own practices of sovereignty without the oversight of authorities above them.
- The discourse they used in firing me is remarkable. To describe somebody who has been hired by an American Indian Studies Department as uncivil draws on hundreds of years of colonial discourse that I find shocking.
- It’s an allegory of history and politics that exist in microcosmic form within the framework of the University of Illinois.
- In this case civility means acquiescence to power, and uncivility equates to dissent.
- In lots of ways my case has become something of an avatar, a flashpoint for people’s grievances.
- I could really easily be identified with BDS and I think within the past year, two things have happened that have caused Zionists to step up their game around this issue. One is the string of boycott resolutions that have been ratified by scholarly organizations, by labor unions, by civil rights groups, by churches.
- I think the response to it is not to engage on the issues, not to have conversations or debates about the issues, but to shut down our side altogether. They don’t want to have debates; they want a silence.
- They don’t want to engage in conversation; they want the discussion to be unilateral.
Guest – Professor Steven Salaita, former associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. He is the author of six books and writes frequently about Arab-Americans, Palestine, indigenous peoples, and decolonization. His current book project is entitled Images of Arabs and Muslims in the Age of Obama. Steven grew up in Bluefield, Virginia, to a mother from Nicaragua (by way of Palestine) and a father from Madaba, Jordan.