An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

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Last Updated on April 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

Perhaps the best way to understand Ortiz’s work and its importance is to put it in context as a “history book.” This work does not follow the template of what is traditionally considered a historical work, nor is that the author’s intention. This book does not report on new factual information, nor does it attempt to establish a chronology of events.

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Ortiz says this explicitly in her introduction:

[The American] narrative is wrong or deficient, not in its facts, dates, or details but rather in its essence. . . . How might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform society? That is the central question this book pursues.

In essence, Ortiz presents a reinterpretation of the traditional, accepted narrative of American history, particularly as it pertains to Indigenous peoples. Therefore, what she presents might be better understood not as a classic work of history, but as a critique of the accepted historical narrative. She does not present a new chronology of facts and events, but rather asks the reader to understand how an Indigenous person might interpret the established historical facts and events quite differently.

This contrast is well demonstrated in the story she shares near the end of the book regarding the 500-year anniversary of European expansion. In that case, the European countries that did the exploring and emerged victorious from this time saw the anniversary as something to celebrate. The Indigenous peoples whose land was colonized and whose cultures were destroyed saw the anniversary as a reminder of a great tragedy and a moment in which all that was meaningful to them was lost. To celebrate this, then, would be considered tactless, at the very least. This is a very different perspective indeed.

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The title of this book is An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, but that title might need to be put in context to a certain extent. In comparison to other highly regarded historical works that focus specifically on Indigenous peoples’ experiences, Ortiz’s book is an opinionated interpretation of not just how the settler-colonialists conducted themselves, but their hidden motivations as well. Examining this more deeply, it is a series of assertions about the ideological motivations that were taking place within the personal, societal, and national arenas for European colonialists, whether they were fully conscious of these deeper motivations or not. It is this aspect of her work that both sets it apart from others in the field and perhaps makes it somewhat controversial.

This might be contrasted with other highly regarded works in the domain of Indigenous American peoples and their history, such as Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Brown’s work is a methodical account of facts, dates, and events as handed down through the oral traditions of the Native peoples. It is a fascinating account that can be compared, side by side, with other historical accounts of the time. It presents only facts and almost no interpretation or opinion; rather, it leaves those things to the reader. In a literal sense, this might be considered more accurately as an Indigenous peoples’ history, whereas Ortiz’s use of that term, by design and intention, is more conceptual.

Ortiz’s work is as much an argumentative essay about the meaning and motivations of settler-colonialist thought and action as it is a report on the experience of Indigenous peoples. The focus is not really on the Indigenous peoples themselves as much as it is on critiquing of the actions and behaviors of the colonialists. Further, her examination of these European peoples and their ideological inner workings extends beyond the history of contact with American Indigenous peoples in both directions, past and future. Ortiz contends that a deeper ideological pattern exists that began long before contact and settlement of the “New World” and that continues long after it.

Ortiz’s work itself is part of a constantly expanding body of work that challenges the status quo of how history is told and what ideas and beliefs about American history are acceptable. This work can be seen as a critical part of Native or Indigenous-specific history, in which the perspective of Indigenous peoples is explored, both in terms of oral reports of events and in terms of analytical opinions.

It is the analytical opinions of Ortiz that make this work in particular stand out as controversial. In contrast to other authors in the genre, Ortiz is explicit in what she thinks was the true psychological motivation for European colonization of the Americas, what motivated the attacks on Indigenous peoples by colonialists, and what continues to be the underlying ideological basis for the nation.

In asserting the presence of such a historically far-reaching and unyielding sense of racial superiority, Ortiz sets up a challenge for herself by taking a number of widely contrasting and conflicting historical periods and events and showing how they all relate to a single concept. In doing so, she asserts the presence of a continuous and largely nefarious underlying motivation for a very large group of ethnically connected peoples. Whether she is successful in making her argument is something that each reader must decide for themselves.

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