An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States Themes

The main themes in An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States are history as narrative, history as biased, and European chauvinism and white supremacy.

  • History as narrative: Ortiz asserts that history is not just facts, but narrative. Her book challenges the conventional, European-focused narrative of American history and reinterprets the facts from the perspective of Indigenous peoples.
  • History as biased: Ortiz describes the inherent bias in the established interpretation of American history, pointing to the Christian concept of Providence as particularly problematic.
  • European chauvinism and white supremacy: The book explores the psychological motivations behind European settlers' prejudice against and genocide of Native and non-white peoples.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on April 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947

History as Narrative

To say that history is a narrative is to say that history is not just a listing of facts, but involves an interpretation of those facts. The way in which historical facts are interpreted will depend entirely upon the perspective of the person making that interpretation. Ortiz...

(The entire section contains 947 words.)

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  • Summary
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History as Narrative

To say that history is a narrative is to say that history is not just a listing of facts, but involves an interpretation of those facts. The way in which historical facts are interpreted will depend entirely upon the perspective of the person making that interpretation. Ortiz uses the experience of Indigenous American peoples to reveal the truth behind the axiom (sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill) “history is written by the victors.”

This assertion about how a society views its history is at the center of Ortiz’s work, and she makes that clear within the first few pages. “Writing US history from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual national narrative.” Here, she points out the fact that consensus is a critical part of a narrative, meaning simply that for a set of interpretations to be accepted as “history,” the people of that nation must generally agree to and abide by that interpretation. The interpretation develops into a story, and that story must be agreed upon and repeated by the people, which, in essence, makes those people into a cohesive group, or nation.

Ortiz makes it clear that she does not challenge the facts of early American history, but rather the interpretation and perspective of those facts that have become what is considered to be “history.”

[The American] narrative is wrong . . . not in its facts, dates, or details, but rather in its essence. Inherent in the myth we’ve been taught is an embrace of settler colonialism and genocide.

Here the significance of the interpretation of facts comes clearly into focus; the idea that the United States began with genocide is a contentious historical perspective. However, it is a fact that there were millions of Indigenous people living on the land that Europeans claimed and colonized through hostile and violent takeover, whether war was officially declared or not. When facts are viewed through one perspective or bias, it creates a narrative, which in the end is a story told in a way that makes the “victors” of the past look as admirable as possible in the present.

History as Biased

The problem with the United States in terms of how it tells the story of its history is that it focuses on the experience of European successes and ignores what those “successes” meant for the people already living there.

In the United States, the founding . . . of the Anglo-American settler-state involves a narrative about Puritan settlers who had a covenant with God to take the land.

Ortiz highlights this notion of Providence, or God’s will, and the role it played in justifying the conquering of the land and the killing of the majority of the Indigenous people. Here is an excellent example of “interpretation” making history, and not just “facts.” The fact is that whatever thoughts and beliefs supported them, the behavior of the settlers led directly to the decimation of preexisting Indigenous populations and cultures. Moreover, the introduction of the idea of God’s will being behind these events seems to negate and nullify the injustice experienced by the Indigenous peoples. This is where facts become muddled with interpretation, and the experience of Native peoples is erased.

In essence, if it is God’s will that the Europeans should take over the Americas, who would have a right to complain about that? How could there possibly be an injustice present in this event if it were ordained by God himself? This is the implication of the settler narrative, and, by default, it makes the experience of the Indigenous people irrelevant. It means that whatever was done to them, by definition it cannot be an injustice, because it was predetermined by God himself. Ortiz repeatedly contends that this deep-seated bias underlies the narrative of the United States, and by default, it makes the eradication of Indigenous cultures morally and factually irrelevant within that narrative.

European Chauvinism and White Supremacy

Ortiz’s assertions about the United States, not just as a country, but in terms of the people who first came from Europe to create the “new nation,” offer a stark perspective on the psychology behind these historical events. In particular, Ortiz makes it clear that “the history of settler colonialism” is, by its very nature, “the founding of a state based on white supremacy . . . and a policy of genocide and land theft.” In this case the American settlers embraced and flaunted an anti-Indigenous chauvinism, an attitude of excessive prejudice in favor of their own group and to the exclusion of Native peoples.

However, the prejudice shown against the Indigenous peoples, as the above quotation indicates, is not specific to American Indigenous groups. Rather, it is generalized against any non-white, non-European culture or ethnicity. Ortiz points out that one need look no further than the “widespread practice of African slavery,” which was also a key part of early American “success.”

Controversial or otherwise, Ortiz contends that the psychological basis for white supremacy started long before contact with Indigenous American cultures. Digging into earlier European history, she says that “the Crusades in the Iberian Peninsula . . . and expulsion of Jews and Muslims were part of a process that created the core ideology for modern colonialism—white supremacy and its justification for genocide.” Ortiz contends that white supremacy as an ideology “was paramount in neutralizing the class antagonisms of the landless against the landed.” In other words, chauvinism against non-white peoples and cultures was necessary in order to justify many acts of violence by European peoples long before they arrived on the shores of North America. It developed early and became a useful ideological justification for many colonialist acts, including those imposed upon the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

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