An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

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An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States Summary

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States is an award-winning 2015 nonfiction book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz that reinterprets American history from the perspective of Native peoples.

  • Ortiz analyzes the motivations and beliefs behind European colonialism and argues that the United States was founded upon racism and genocide.
  • The book explores Indigenous resistance to colonialism and how the domination of Native lands became the new nation's primary goal, later feeding into US imperialism overseas.
  • Finally, Ortiz considers relations between Indigenous and white Americans in recent times, concluding that a vast ideological gap remains between the two groups' perspectives on history.


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Last Updated on April 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1078

As the title suggests, Ortiz presents the history of America from the point of view of the Indigenous peoples. The work offers a perspective that differs greatly from the common narrative, or the way the story of American history is most often told—that is, from the point of view of European settlers. Ortiz sets out not to challenge the facts as they are presented, per se, but rather to point out that “US policies . . . related to Indigenous peoples . . . are rarely depicted as what they are: classic cases of imperialism and . . . settler-colonialism.”

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The author contends at the outset that settler colonialism represents “the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy . . . genocide, and land theft.” Overall, she contends that the “consensual national narrative,” or the history as it is accepted, ignores these ideological underpinnings. The author sets out to explore much of American history more or less in chronological order, examining the experience of the Indigenous peoples and relating each chapter back to her thesis about the true founding principles of the United States. In doing so, she sets out to ask, “how might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform society?”

Ortiz presents clear evidence of the extent of civilization in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. The land mass was divided into regions of interconnected civilizations, such as the Mississippi Valley, the Caribbean Islands, and the Great Lakes region. Central to these civilizations’ success was the discovery and cultivation of unique and nutritious foods, namely corn, beans, and squash. The author lists impressive accomplishments in agriculture, architecture, art, mathematics, astronomy, and government by these large and advanced populations, which matched the Europeans of the time.

Turning to examine the underlying ideology of the arriving Europeans, Ortiz argues that a “culture of conquest” had long been established within the European psyche before arrival. She reviews the history of Europe and asserts that most conflicts, from the Crusades to the expulsion of the Moors from Iberia, were actually forms of early colonialism and methods for “deportation, and expropriation of land.” Ortiz contends that the contests between peoples and the social and political shifts that took place across Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East over centuries are best understood as the formation of a culture based on racial supremacy, all of which laid the psychological groundwork for colonial thinking.

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Ortiz examines the notion of “providence” (God's will), which became part of the founding myth promulgated by Calvinist settlers. She contends that these people saw themselves as “chosen” and felt “commanded by God to go into the wilderness and build the new Jerusalem.” Through this deeply flawed thinking, Ortiz contends that what was once “sacred land” later became “real estate,” altering the conceptual relationship between people and land in the Americas.

The eighteenth century witnessed the independence of colonies from British rule and, Ortiz contends, marked the beginning of a culture of “resistance to total domination” on the part of Indigenous tribes. The United States began to follow two paths. On one hand, the new government established the mechanism to form treaties with Native peoples, while on the other hand, through military policy, it sought total domination of new territories. In the end, the conquest of Native lands proved to be the goal of the new nation.

The author continues to review the chronological advancement and expansion of the United States into a nation stretching from “sea to sea.” She explores the war with Mexico, which resulted in the United States gaining territory from California to Utah and Texas. She points out while this is often considered the US’s “first war” with a foreign nation, that could only be considered true if the Indigenous peoples already living on the land had not been organized into nations, which they very much were.

This was a time in which the term “Indian country” became synonymous with “enemy territory,” something that Ortiz believes persists to this day. Ortiz explores the underlying thought process that took place behind this language, contending that what may have once appeared as a justification for the colonial conquering of land quickly descended into a race-based, genocidal hatred that crystalized within the settler psyche. This lead to atrocities that extended well beyond the purposes of claiming territory. This hardened racial bias, Ortiz contends, remained solidly in place as the settlers expanded.

Ortiz goes on to explore the age of American foreign intervention and imperialism that followed the decimation of the Indigenous civilizations. She argues that the same pattern of conquest that was used and refined in dealing with Indigenous peoples was then turned toward international shores. The US military, which had developed so extensively in conquering Native lands across the West in particular, was now put to use conquering lands and policing US interests abroad. Ortiz examines the five major wars since World War II and points out that while the American people are taught that their military culture does not abide the killing of civilians, history consistently shows otherwise, and this ultimately dates back to the time of the conquering of Native lands.

In drawing conclusions and imagining a future for Indigenous relations, the author revisits the time of the Kennedys, pointing out that the language of a “new frontier” used by Kennedy in his campaign was a direct echo of a colonial settler sentiment that had not changed in the seventy years since the Wounded Knee massacre. Ironically, this was followed by a rise of American Indian activism during the civil rights movement of this same era, although with little in the way of positive results for Indigenous peoples.

In closing, Ortiz contends that a deep rift still exists between the Indigenous peoples of the United States and the descendants of the settlers who claimed it. This can be seen clearly, she argues, in the “gaffe” that took place at the United Nations in the early 1990s. As the 500-year anniversary of European expansion and “discovery” approached, many European national representatives wanted to celebrate what they referred to as the “encounter” between Europeans and Indigenous peoples. In response, however, a great many representatives from former colonies walked out in protest and otherwise rejected the idea outright. For many peoples, the anniversary represented nothing to celebrate. This, she aptly points out, demonstrates how great the ideological distance is between what are very different perspectives on history, and what the true meaning and impact of many important events has truly been.

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