Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

[Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.]

I've noted before that when I go for a long stretch without reading any history -- which happens fairly often, these days -- then there's a real feeling of satisfaction and comfort when I finally get to. And I began this book with exactly that feeling. The standard tasks of the Introduction and then the first chapter's brief sketch of Indigenous life in the Americas before 1492 were fascinating and smoothly told, and reading them was a real pleasure.

The fascination and smoothness didn't change through the rest of the book -- the Intro alludes to how tricky a task it was to write an overarching history of the United States as settler colonial entity, and make it short and readable while still politically incisive and meaningfully complete, and I was able to put together a fuller imagining of the work to which those allusions pointed by way of my own much more modest writing experiences, yet Dunbar-Ortiz does an amazing job.

What didn't last past the first chapter was the pleasure. Not because of anything about the writing, which remained superb, but because as interesting and important as this history is, and as engaging as its treatment in this book, it is also utterly grim and depressing once the story proceeds past the moment of contact. The book does not skimp one bit in demonstrating exactly how bloody, deceitful, and inhumane settler colonialism was and is.

The organization of the material combines chronological and thematic elements, and weaves together stories and ideas quite effectively. I think perhaps what I most appreciated about the history in this volume is the pains that it takes to demonstrate continuities across eras and contexts. In particular, it is common in progressive circles today to point to the US's current way of making war as a relatively recent development, whether the shift being referenced is Donald Rumsefeld's post-9/11 alterations, the switch to a professional as opposed to conscripted army after Vietnam, or the change in global focus and scale of US military intervention after the Second World War. But Dunbar-Ortiz draws out the connections between how US war-making began even before the secession of the original thirteen colonies from England and how it still happens today, with a combination of regular military forces and irregular forces that engage in a range of violences against the entire population of the enemy. And this is not merely symbolic similarities, but an actual institutional descent in which ways of making war that were used against Indigenous nations from the earliest days were coded into the very bones of how the biggest military in the world operates now. And through this and a variety of other connections, she stresses the continuity between settler colonial conquest and violence on Turtle Island, and the more recent US empire/imperialism that usually gets treated as a different phenomenon.

I also appreciated the book's attention to the continuity and the unceasing character of resistance by the Indigenous nations of this continent -- it has taken many different forms, from waging war to building movements to just helping each other survive, and certainly has included in certain times and places a strategic purchase of breathing space and resources through accommodating demands made by a more powerful enemy, but it has never stopped. The trajectory of resistance that the book allows us to glimpse reaches right up to the New Left era resurgence and beyond. Of course this book is not a history of the any one nation or collection of nations that are in resistance, or even a generalized history of Indigenous resistance; rather, it is a history of the US as settler colonies and a settler state. But you can't do the latter without also saying plenty about the former.

I do have to say that this book's relationship to settler colonialism as it has occurred in the northern half of Turtle Island is a bit peculiar, though I suppose not in a way that's at all surprising. The territory and peoples currently encompassed/colonized by the label "Canada" come up in passing from time to time, but are mostly left in silence. It's certainly not a book about settler colonialism here, so I wouldn't expect it to have much to say about what has gone down on this side of the colonial border. Nonetheless, it seems to me that briefly noting the fact that the processes north and south of the border are deeply intertwined but nonethless distinct -- and this is not indulging in delusional Canadian left-nationalist we're-betterism, just noting that the respective pasts and the presents of settler colonial processes and resistance to them have meaningful specificities -- would've been appropriate. Some sort of nod in that directly felt particularly needed in parts of the book that somehow referenced the contemporary context. That said, while I won't claim to be able to speak to what Indigenous folks in the Canadian context should or shouldn't read, I will say that settler folks who try to support and engage in struggles against colonialism here should definitely read this book. Author, radical scholar, and movement historian Robin Kelley's endorsement of this book reads, "This may well be the most important US history book you will read in your lifetime," and I think if Canadian settler lefties read only two books of US history, it should be Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States and this one.

I want to close with what may seem like two very specific points of resonance I experienced in reading this book -- specific, but nonetheless illustrative of the importance of really sitting with the sorts of continuities described in this book between earlier phases of our settler colonial past and our settler colonial present.

One was that as I was reading this book, I also happened to encounter several instances of an ongoing dialogue on social media between two (Christian) people that I know, but not well, about the conflict in Israel-Palestine. The details aren't important -- and, indeed, I did not actively engage in it, because the awfulness from one party was already being gently but persistently countered by the other, and nothing would've been gained by me barging in. What matters, and what caused me much reflection in the context of reading this book, is the way in which one of those commentators somehow managed to reconcile a broadly liberal worldview and a commitment to values of compassion and charity and all of those other Christian things, with a consistent deployment of points and arguments that could only be considered plausible with some deep-down investment in the premise that Palestinians are less than human. (Yes, it was pretty gross.) So certainly there are long histories of Western anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, the roots of which can be traced back well before 1492, but I couldn't help but wonder if part of this vicious disregard for the humanity of "the native" who resists is also rooted in structures of North American settler colonialism. It certainly felt like some of the things being described in the book.

The other point has to do with an anecdote Dunbar-Ortiz uses in the Conclusion, where she talks about a number of expressions of the settler colonial continuity of the US in the present and the need to challenge them as we move into the future. This particular anecdote is about "Kennewick Man," a skull that was at least 9000 years old that was discovered in Washington in the 1990s. A local archaeologist managed to get his hands of it, did a variety of biometric measurements, and declared that it didn't resemble current Native people and really was closer to current Europeans, so it was therefore evidence of Europeans in North America many thousands of years ago. It's nonsense, of course -- bad archaeology (as promptly declared by the Archaeological Institute of America), bad biology, bad history, and bad reasoning. But the media picked it up and ran with it, and it still crops up as lay "evidence" used in popular media and bar-stool conversation to rhetorically chip away at the realities of Indigeneity. Which sounded familiar to me, though I couldn't immediately place it. Then I remembered that back in 2013 I read (and reviewed) a book of reflections on history and how it gets used in various contexts, written by a well-regarded scholarly historian at an Ontario university but intended for a lay audience. There were lots of deeply concerning things in that book, but certainly among them was this supposedly serious and liberal-minded thinker's off-hand use of this ridiculous and debunked bit of pseudo-archaeology to do exactly that, and chip away at the various historical and political claims made today by Indigenous nations.

Like I said, these are small things. But they are small (awful) things that would be hard to put into any sort of meaningful political context without some understanding of the history of settler colonialism on Turtle Island -- the sort of history that, at least with reference to the portion of the continent currently imprisoned in the label "United States of America," can effectively be learned through reading this book.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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