is a lifelong social justice activist and a leading historian of indigenous struggles in the Americas. She is professor emeritus of Ethnic Studies at California State University and works in a variety of political capacities. The daughter of a landless farmer and a half-Indian mother, Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma. In the 1960s, she worked in the anti-war movement, spent time in a clandestine group, and organized in support of anti-imperialist movements in Cuba, Nicaragua, South Africa, and elsewhere. Through her involvement in the feminist group Cell 16, she became a key figure in the women's liberation movement. In 1974, she became active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the International Indian Treaty Council. This engagement marked the beginning of a life-long commitment to advancing indigenous struggles. In 1981, Dunbar-Ortiz traveled to Nicaragua to investigate the Miskitu Indians' land-tenure issues. Over the next eight years, she made more than 100 trips to Central America to monitor the conflict between the Contras and Sandinistas.
Dunbar-Ortiz's first book, The Great Sioux Nation: An Oral History of the Sioux Nation and its Struggle for Sovereignty, was presented as the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indians of the Americas, held in 1977 at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In the years since, she has continued to write works concerned with indigenous struggles for self-determination and the politics of place and land. In the last decade, she has written a trilogy of acclaimed memoirs - Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975, and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War.
The interview was done here in Sudbury by a friend of mine when Dunbar-Ortiz was here to do several talks at the university. Just before the interview, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours with her chatting about politics and whatever else came up, and that only reinforced my impression of her as an amazing, generous person from whom we have much to learn.
For example, on solidarity with indigenous struggle she said in the interview:
I think there has to be a determination to organize. That doesn't mean that settlers have to leave and go back to where they came from, but they have to give some respect and not just assume they're free to do anything they want. This means organizing in the white community - or at least dividing it, getting it generationally divided or in some way divided - so that it's not just Indian versus white. There has to be a difference among whites about how to deal with this so that it can become an internal dispute and so they can have a learning process.
No emancipatory learning will take place as long as action falls into the racial patterns of white supremacy. Something's got to break through. Settlers have to get busy organizing, and not just with anti-racist people. Stop preparing yourself for the perfect language. Go out and talk to ordinary people about the true history of the US and Canada, get into the public schools, and get written material out. It's really possible to captivate the high school students and the early college students because they want to do right and they haven't yet become hardened in their views.
And on "unforgetting":
The definition of lying is what white South African anti-apartheid writer Andre Brink plays with in his book An Act of Terror. What's the opposite of truth? We think immediately "the lie." But in Greek, the opposite of truth is forgetting. This is a very subtle thing. What is the action you take to tell the truth? It is un-forgetting. That is really meaningful to me. It's not that the origin myth is a lie; it's the process of forgetting that's the real problem.
Leftists sometimes say that it's impossible to organize around un-forgetting, and that really does depress me. How can I organize workers? How can I organize anyone without patriotism? I think that anti-racist perspectives are sometimes distorted because the real question is how the Irish became American and how the Jews became American. Yes, there is white supremacy, but it doesn't mean that people of color can't get Americanized. Then there will only be Native Americans throwing stones at this great edifice of "national unity." Alliances without un-forgetting at their core aren't going to go anywhere in the long run. So, it is a dilemma, but we have to find a way.
Check out the whole interview!