Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, August 31, 2023

Thursday August 31, 2023: Maximum Shelf: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

Beacon Press: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (10th Anniversary Edition) (Revisioning History #3) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Beacon Press: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (10th Anniversary Edition) (Revisioning History #3) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Beacon Press: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (10th Anniversary Edition) (Revisioning History #3) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Beacon Press: Revisioning History Series

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (10th Anniversary Edition)

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

A bold, expansive and detailed documentation of the founding of the United States from the perspective of Native communities, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (10th Anniversary Edition) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz challenges readers to reconsider the official version of U.S. history celebrated in popular culture and taught in schools, while shattering long-established myths. Dunbar-Ortiz (Not a Nation of Immigrants; Blood on the Border) is a formidable, mesmerizing storyteller, her writing distinguished by an unflinching confrontation with the country's white supremacist roots and their modern-day impact.

Historian and activist Dunbar-Ortiz strives to inspire in readers "liberation from a false national story," so that recent trends, such as the ascent of armed nationalist militias in the past decade, can be understood in their true historical context. Cross-referencing past events with present realities, she aims to provide a frame of reference from which to make educated decisions about the direction of our country, including ongoing military warfare strategy, the long-awaited return of sacred sites to Indigenous nations, and challenging the white supremacist foundation of United States institutions. With the present informing every chapter, the central question she pursues is, "How might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform our society?"

Dunbar-Ortiz distills four centuries' worth of oral histories of Indigenous peoples, and combines these valuable narratives with meticulous archival research to present a devastating, utterly fascinating account of the United States as a "colonialist settler-state... [that] crushed and subjugated the original civilizations in the territories it now rules." With violence as its strategic essence, the colonial army threatened Indigenous communities with two equally untenable options: unconditional surrender or complete annihilation. This history is "a tale of the Indigenous peoples' resistance, a tale of their constant fight against a barbaric ethnic-cleansing enterprise, from its beginning until today."

Extermination of Indigenous nations by genocide as the accepted national policy of the settlers was justified by a Puritan belief in a covenant with God to take the land. Here, the author shares in breathtaking detail the untold story of the stealing and appropriating of Native harvest fields, their roads, their raw material, their infrastructures, their lives and their futures. In the process, she lays bare the vast disconnect between the documented, violent reality of how the United States came into being and the rosy narrative celebrated in popular books and movies. Novelist James Fenimore Cooper's blatant reinvention of the birth of the United States in his novel The Last of the Mohicans has become the preferred origin story, describing the nation's founding as a natural merger between Native and European worlds, with the last Native dying off ("as nature would have it") after handing the continent over to his adopted son, Hawkeye, a nativized settler.

Dunbar-Ortiz illustrates how colonial powers controlled Indigenous societies through Christian missionaries, and deployed alcohol as a "weapon of war." Citing a petition by a Catawba leader in 1754 asking North Carolina authorities to stop selling the deadly and addictive drink to his people, the author makes devastatingly clear how alcohol contributed to a breakdown in social order among Native communities.

Noting that Indigenous peoples thrived for millennia before they were displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated, Dunbar-Ortiz offers examples of bold historical resistance, pointing out that Native communities persist in their acts of resistance to this day. This includes asserting land rights, a prominent example of which is the Lakota Sioux's attempt to restore the Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, where the Mount Rushmore carvings have scarred the sacred site. Though the site is referred to as the "Shrine of Democracy" by the federal government, Dunbar-Ortiz calls it "a shrine of in-your-face illegal occupation and colonialism." The November 1969 seizure and subsequent 18-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay offers a spectacular example of heroic resistance, as Native activists attempted to reclaim the island under the terms of the 1898 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Acknowledging that today there are more than 500 federally recognized Indigenous communities and nations, comprising nearly three million people in the United States, Dunbar-Ortiz reasons that reparations made to Indigenous peoples for reconstruction and expansion of Native nations, including the enforcement of treaty rights and the return of sacred sites, can only strengthen the country. The way forward, she concludes, is an honest reckoning with a horrific past, a past that continues to cast menacing shadows. For a just future to be realized, it will require extensive educational programs and support from all who claim the United States as their home. In that vein, and with an extensive updated introduction, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States offers readers an enlightening perspective on history, with in-depth coverage of white supremacy's deep, structural roots in the colonial foundation of the United States. --Shahina Piyarali

Beacon Press, $28.95, hardcover, 328p., 9780807013076, October 3, 2023

Beacon Press: Revisioning History Series

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Turning U.S. History Inside Out

(photo: Barrie Karp)

A renowned historian, professor and activist, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has authored numerous books, including Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006) and Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment (City Lights, 2018). An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States was first published by Beacon Press in 2013 to phenomenal literary success. The 10th anniversary edition of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (Beacon Press, October 3, 2023) includes a compelling new introduction by the author, taking stock of national events over the past decade.

What inspired you to become a historian, and when did you adopt the mantle of activism?

During my first year at the University of Oklahoma, 1955-56, I had a part-time job reading to an unsighted graduate student in philosophy who was writing his dissertation on how Hegelian dialectics influenced Marx's theory of dialectical materialism. When I transferred to San Francisco State, I declared philosophy as my major, but I also enrolled in a course on world history. It was during the height of decolonization of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and also the United States war in Vietnam and antiwar activism. So, for me, the study of history and activism were intertwined and permanent.

The initial printing of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States sold out in the first week and went on to unimaginable success. To what do you attribute this eagerness, even hunger, of people to learn about Indigenous American history?

Librarians, independent booksellers, word of mouth, and the brilliant Beacon publicity team account for it reaching many readers. Clearly, people were hungry for the truth rather than the official origin story. The field of ethnic studies emerged from the '60s' student movements, especially Black studies and the reality of racial slavery and its consequences. But slavery didn't tell the whole story of the origin of the United States. Native American studies [was] founded and built by Indigenous scholars who created courses and published articles and books, especially the early work of the great Vine Deloria, Jr. My book is a product of that work and, as Indigenous journalist John Kane says, has a "one-stop shopping" effect.

Much of the formidable impact of the book derives from the oral histories and individual stories you meticulously document, especially those of courageous female leaders. Is there a particular story that has stayed with you and impacted you profoundly?

In 1974, I was asked to be an expert witness in a federal court case to dismiss all the charges of crimes and misdemeanors stemming from the 1973 Wounded Knee protests at the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota. The event gained national and worldwide attention as then-President Nixon sent in federal troops and tanks to crush the protests, more than two months' stand-off. During the two-week hearing in Lincoln, Nebraska, hundreds of Sioux people established an encampment of teepees, where the lawyers and witnesses would spend hours in the evening explaining the day's testimony and collectively plan for the next day. Other than the few expert witnesses, most of the witnesses were Sioux elders [who] told oral histories of the 1868 Sioux treaty with the United States. I was asked by the Sioux delegation to put together a book of the testimony, based on the court reporters' dictation, which was some 5,000 pages. The book was published in 1977 as an oral history of the Great Sioux Nation. One long chapter in An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is devoted to a case study of the Great Sioux Nation resistance.

You mention that the book turns everything about United States history "inside out." Where are we, on a national level, at accepting the reality of the genocide and ethnic cleansing that is an integral part of our history?

Certainly, great strides have been made in education at every level. The learning curve increases in response to dramatic actions on the part of specific Native nations, most recently the year-long protests of the Sioux people of the Standing Rock federal reservation against a proposed oil pipeline that would be built under the river that runs through the homeland. Although the protests had been going on for months in 2014, there had been little publicity until the fall, when various police forces attempted to stop them. This violent action became prime-time news, and thousands of Native people and other supporters, including United States military veterans, poured in to join the protest.

Each of these large protests advances the knowledge and support for Native demands for land back and for sovereignty and, although episodic, increases the knowledge and support for Native rights. Although there are constant Native protests taking place, right now is pretty much a low point for general consciousness.

The potential reparative steps you describe, steeped in compromise, appear fair and reasonable. Do you expect to see much progress on these issues in your lifetime?

I am hopeful that great swaths of land that were guaranteed in Native nations' treaties with the United States and were subsequently unilaterally taken in violation of those treaties will be returned. The principal slogan of Native movements in the present is "Land Back!" With the truncated land bases that exist on reservations, there can be little movement to build housing, infrastructure, agricultural and industrial projects, education and language development. This results in young people having to leave their homelands in order to work and start families. There is a strong international Indigenous movement within the United Nations' system, initiated by the Native peoples of the Western hemisphere, that have developed international law rights that grows stronger every year.

So much political and social change, including the resurgence of the white supremacy movement, has occurred since your book first came out. What do you hope today's readers will take away from the 10th anniversary edition of An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States?

I hope they will better understand the white supremacist roots of the United States. The nation was founded as a white republic, growing rich from sales of stolen Native lands and codified white supremacy with racial chattel slavery. With slave revolts and abolitionism leading to the Civil War and the end of legalized slavery, and the powerful Black civil rights movement that opened the 20th century and made great gains that spread to other oppressed peoples and women, including Native American movements, a backlash of white supremacy rose in the mid-1970s and came to power with the election of Ronald Reagan. While I was writing the book, the writing was already on the wall, and I think that's why it appeared prophetic when it was already history. So, I think with the 10th anniversary edition, those who didn't read the book at the time, along with those who have read the book, will have a clearer view of how the deep white supremacy in the nation's DNA would emerge in the form of Donald Trump, with a considerable mass base. --Shahina Piyarali

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