2015 Recipient of the American Book Award
2015 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature
The first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples
Today in the United States, there are more than five hundred federally recognized Indigenous nations comprising nearly three million people, descendants of the fifteen million Native people who once inhabited this land. The centuries-long genocidal program of the US settler-colonial regimen has largely been omitted from history. Now, for the first time, acclaimed historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers a history of the United States told from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the US empire.
In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Dunbar-Ortiz adroitly challenges the founding myth of the United States and shows how policy against the Indigenous peoples was colonialist and designed to seize the territories of the original inhabitants, displacing or eliminating them. And as Dunbar-Ortiz reveals, this policy was praised in popular culture, through writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Walt Whitman, and in the highest offices of government and the military. Shockingly, as the genocidal policy reached its zenith under President Andrew Jackson, its ruthlessness was best articulated by US Army general Thomas S. Jesup, who, in 1836, wrote of the Seminoles: “The country can be rid of them only by exterminating them.”
Spanning more than four hundred years, this classic bottom-up peoples’ history radically reframes US history and explodes the silences that have haunted our national narrative.
“A must-read for anyone interested in the truth behind this nation’s founding.”
—Veronica E. Velarde Tiller, PhD, Jicarilla Apache author, historian, and publisher of Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country
“This may well be the most important US history book you will read in your lifetime. . . . Dunbar-Ortiz radically reframes US history, destroying all foundation myths to reveal a brutal settler-colonial structure and ideology designed to cover its bloody tracks. Here, rendered in honest, often poetic words, is the story of those tracks and the people who survived—bloodied but unbowed. Spoiler alert: the colonial era is still here, and so are the Indians.”
—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams
“Dunbar Ortiz’s . . . assessment and conclusions are necessary tools for all Indigenous peoples seeking to address and remedy the legacy of US colonial domination that continues to subvert Indigenous human rights in today’s globalized world.”
—Mililani B. Trask, Native Hawai’ian international law expert on Indigenous peoples’ rights and former Kia Aina (prime minister) of Ka La Hui Hawai’i
“An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States provides an essential historical reference for all Americans. . . . The American Indians’ perspective has been absent from colonial histories for too long, leaving continued misunderstandings of our struggles for sovereignty and human rights.”
—Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation
“An Indigenous Peoples’ History . . . pulls up the paving stones and lays bare the deep history of the United States, from the corn to the reservations. If the United States is a ‘crime scene,’ as she calls it, then Dunbar-Ortiz is its forensic scientist. A sobering look at a grave history.”
—Vijay Prashad, author of The Poorer Nations
“Justice-seekers everywhere will celebrate Dunbar-Ortiz’s unflinching commitment to truth—a truth that places settler-colonialism and genocide exactly where they belong: as foundational to the existence of the United States.”
—Waziyatawin, PhD, activist and author of For Indigenous Minds Only
“Dunbar-Ortiz strips us of our forged innocence, shocks us into new awarenesses, and draws a straight line from the sins of our fathers—settler-colonialism, the doctrine of discovery, the myth of manifest destiny, white supremacy, theft and systematic killing—to the contemporary condition of permanent war, invasion and occupation, mass incarceration, and the constant use and threat of state violence.”
“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a fiercely honest, unwavering, and unprecedented statement, one which has never been attempted by any other historian or intellectual. The presentation of facts and arguments is clear and direct, unadorned by needless and pointless rhetoric, and there is an organic feel of intellectual solidity that provides weight and trust. It is truly an Indigenous peoples’ voice that gives Dunbar-Ortiz’sbook direction, purpose, and trustworthy intention. Without doubt, this crucially important book is required reading for everyone in the Americas!”
—Simon J. Ortiz, Regents Professor of English and American Indian Studies, Arizona State University
“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes a masterful story that relates what the Indigenous peoples of the United States have always maintained: Against the settler U.S. nation, Indigenous peoples have persevered against actions and policies intended to exterminate them, whether physically, mentally, or intellectually. Indigenous nations and their people continue to bear witness to their experiences under the U.S. and demand justice as well as the realization of sovereignty on their own terms.”
—Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and author of Reclaiming Diné History
We are here to educate, not forgive.
We are here to enlighten, not accuse.
–Willie Johns, Brighton Seminole Reservation, Florida
Under the crust of that portion of Earth called the United States of America—“from California . . . to the Gulf Stream waters”—are interred the bones, villages, fields, and sacred objects of American Indians. They cry out for their stories to be heard through their descendants who carry the memories of how the country was founded and how it came to be as it is today.
It should not have happened that the great civilizations of the Western Hemisphere, the very evidence of the Western Hemisphere, were wantonly destroyed, the gradual progress of humanity interrupted and set upon a path of greed and destruction. Choices were made that forged that path toward destruction of life itself—the moment in which we now live and die as our planet shrivels, overheated. To learn and know this history is both a necessity and a responsibility to the ancestors and descendants of all parties.
What historian David Chang has written about the land that became Oklahoma applies to the whole United States: “Nation, race, and class converged in land.” Everything in US history is about the land—who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (“real estate”) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.
US policies and actions related to Indigenous peoples, though often termed “racist” or “discriminatory,” are rarely depicted as what they are: classic cases of imperialism and a particular form of colonialism—settler colonialism. As anthropologist Patrick Wolfe writes, “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism. Land is life—or, at least, land is necessary for life.”
The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism— the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft. Those who seek history with an upbeat ending, a history of redemption and reconciliation, may look around and observe that such a conclusion is not visible, not even in utopian dreams of a better society.
Writing US history from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual national narrative. That narrative is wrong or deficient, 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. The myth persists, not for a lack of free speech or poverty of information but rather for an absence of motivation to ask questions that challenge the core of the scripted narrative of the origin story. How might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform society? That is the central question this book pursues.
Teaching Native American studies, I always begin with a simple exercise. I ask students to quickly draw a rough outline of the United States at the time it gained independence from Britain. Invariably most draw the approximate present shape of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific—the continental territory not fully appropriated until a century after independence. What became independent in 1783 were the thirteen British colonies hugging the Atlantic shore. When called on this, students are embarrassed because they know better. I assure them that they are not alone. I call this a Rorschach test of unconscious “manifest destiny,” embedded in the minds of nearly everyone in the United States and around the world. This test reflects the seeming inevitability of US extent and power, its destiny, with an implication that the continent had previously been terra nullius, a land without people.
Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” celebrates that the land belongs to everyone, reflecting the unconscious manifest destiny we live with. But the extension of the United States from sea to shining sea was the intention and design of the country’s founders. “Free” land was the magnet that attracted European settlers. Many were slave owners who desired limitless land for lucrative cash crops. After the war for independence but preceding the writing of the US Constitution, the Continental Congress produced the Northwest Ordinance. This was the first law of the incipient republic, revealing the motive for those desiring independence. It was the blueprint for gobbling up the British-protected Indian Territory (“Ohio Country”) on the other side of the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Britain had made settlement there illegal with the Proclamation of 1763.
In 1801, President Jefferson aptly described the new settler-state’s intentions for horizontal and vertical continental expansion, stating: “However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar form by similar laws.” This vision of manifest destiny found form a few years later in the Monroe Doctrine, signaling the intention of annexing or dominating former Spanish colonial territories in the Americas and the Pacific, which would be put into practice during the rest of the century.
Origin narratives form the vital core of a people’s unifying identity and of the values that guide them. In the United States, the founding and development of the Anglo-American settler-state involves a narrative about Puritan settlers who had a covenant with God to take the land. That part of the origin story is supported and reinforced by the Columbus myth and the “Doctrine of Discovery.” According to a series of late-fifteenth-century papal bulls, European nations acquired title to the lands they “discovered” and the Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land after Europeans arrived and claimed it. As law professor Robert A. Williams observes about the Doctrine of Discovery:
Responding to the requirements of a paradoxical age of Re-
naissance and Inquisition, the West’s first modern discourses
of conquest articulated a vision of all humankind united
under a rule of law discoverable solely by human reason. Un-
fortunately for the American Indian, the West’s first tentative
steps towards this noble vision of a Law of Nations contained
a mandate for Europe’s subjugation of all peoples whose ra-
dical divergence from European-derived norms of right conduct
signified their need for conquest and remediation.
The Columbus myth suggests that from US independence onward, colonial settlers saw themselves as part of a world system of colonization. “Columbia,” the poetic, Latinate name used in reference to the United States from its founding throughout the nineteenth century, was based on the name of Christopher Columbus. The “Land of Columbus” was—and still is—represented by the image of a woman in sculptures and paintings, by institutions such as Columbia University, and by countless place names, including that of the national capital, the District of Columbia. The 1798 hymn “Hail, Columbia” was the early national anthem and is now used whenever the vice president of the United States makes a public appearance, and Columbus Day is still a federal holiday despite Columbus never having set foot on any territory ever claimed by the United States.
Introduction: This Land
One: Follow the Corn
Two: Culture of Conquest
Three: Cult of the Covenant
Four: Bloody Footprints
Five: Birth of a Nation
Six: The Last of the Mohicans and Andrew Jackson’s White Republic
Seven: Sea to Shining Sea
Eight: “Indian Country”
Nine: US Triumphalism and Peacetime Colonialism
Ten: Ghost Dance Prophesy: A Nation is Coming
Eleven: The Doctrine of Discovery
Conclusion: The Future of the United States
- The book trailer for An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States was the Shelf Awareness Book Trailer of the Day, 9/12/14
- An excerpt titled "Indian Wars" was featured on The Jacobian, 9/16/14
- "Greed is Good," an excert from An Indigenous People's History of the United States was featured in the online and print editions of This Land Press, 9/12/14
- Salon posted a long excerpt from An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, 10/13/14
- Book TV's taping of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's BookPeople Bookstore event in Austin, TX is available here
- Truth-Out named An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States its "Progressive Pick of the Week" and posted about Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the book, and the White House petition, 10/10/14
- The White House petition and An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States were featured in a Latin Post article about Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples' Day, 10/11/14
- Listen to a Soapbox podcast featuring Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz here, 10/12/14
- Truthout featured a Q&A with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in which she discusses historical figures who were propenents of Native American genocide, 10/19/14
- Laura Flanders of Grit TV interviewed Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on pre-colonial socialism, 10/14/14
- Listen to an interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on Wisconsin Public Radio, 10/24/14
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was interviewed on Uprising Radio/KPFK on why her book isn't just a collective indigenous peoples' perspective but rather a "history of the United States," 11/5/14
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz was part of a Thanksgiving roundtable discussion on The Marc Steiner Show/WEAA, 11/26/14
- In an interview with Christy Thornton on WBAI/Pacifica, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz discusses the myth of Thanksgiving, 11/24/14
- An excerpt titled "America's Founding Myths" was featured on Jacobin Magazine on 11/27/14
- Counterpunch picked up a Beacon Broadside article written by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, entitled "The Myth of Thanksgiving" in its Weekend Edition November 28-30, 2014
- An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States was the featured book in Sonali Kolhatkar's weekly column on truthdig.com. The article, titled "This Thanksgiving, Let's Talk About Genocide Rather than Pilgrims and 'Friendly Indians,'" ran on 11/26/14
- An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States was reviewed in Make/Shift: Feminisms in Motion in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue
- Dunbar-Ortiz's original essay appeared in Powell's on 8/14/2015
- Dunbar-Ortiz was interviewed on New Books in Native American Studies on 8/17/2015
- An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States was excerpted in In These Times Rural America blog on 9/12/2015
- History News Network, original piece, 5/12/2016
- Indian Country Media Today Media Network, reading list roundup, 8/3/2016
Beacon Press Reading Guide:
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in her introduction to An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States that “writing US history from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual national narrative.” What was your knowledge of Indigenous history before you began reading this book? How has reading this book changed your understanding of the “consensual national narrative”?
- An Indigenous Peoples’ History is the latest book in the ReVisioning American History series by Beacon Press, a series intended to reinterpret history through new perspectives. How do you think this book offers a fresh viewpoint? Dunbar-Ortiz points to a central question in An Indigenous Peoples’ History, one that could easily apply to the ReVisioning series as a whole, asking, “How might acknowledging the reality of US history work to transform society?” Discuss this question.
- Numerous US myths are discussed in An Indigenous Peoples’ History, ranging from foundation myths surrounding Columbus to the true nature of “the Doctrine of Discovery.” Discuss these cultural (mis)conceptions. What is their influence on modern American society?
- What myths and stereotypes about Indigenous peoples continue in today’s society? How do we continue to reframe current events and information about Indigenous peoples?
- Discuss the “cult of masculinity” encouraged by Hollywood, the “Leatherstocking Tales,” and authors like James Fenimore Cooper in the era of the Jackson presidency. How has this myth allowed for the emergence of an “enduring populist imperialism”? How does it affect notions of modern US American masculinity?
- “Indigenous nations had defied the founding of the independent United States in a manner that allowed for their survival and created a legacy—a culture of resistance—that has persisted.” Dunbar-Ortiz points to the idealized image of the noble savage and the pervading myth that Indigenous peoples passively accepted Western colonialism and refutes them, offering instead a detailed account of their “culture of resistance.” How does this new understanding of a “culture of resistance” impact your views on US and Indigenous history?
- Dunbar-Ortiz quotes the late Native historian Jack Forbes, who often stressed that “while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.” How should we seek to address and remedy the subversion of Indigenous peoples’ human rights?
- The author emphasizes the importance of land to the Indigenous community throughout An Indigenous Peoples’ History, stating that “land claims and treaty rights are most central to Indigenous peoples’ fight for reparations in the United States.” Discuss the Sioux Nation’s fight for the repatriation of the Black Hills. What are your thoughts on the Sioux Nation’s refusal of the $106 million and the controversy surrounding Mount Rushmore?
- “The absence of even the slightest note of regret or tragedy in the annual celebration of the US independence betrays a deep disconnect in the consciousness of US Americans.” Has reading An Indigenous Peoples’ History affected your understanding of key US American celebrations, such as Independence Day, Columbus Day, or Thanksgiving? Do you agree with the statement that the lack of regret over or recognition of tragic events betrays a disconnect in the US American consciousness?
- “A red thread of blood connects the first white settlement in North America with today and the future.” How does Dunbar-Ortiz reinterpret Indigenous-US relations as a “template for US imperialism and counterinsurgency wars”? How does this apply to contemporary US foreign policy?
- “Indigenous peoples offer possibilities for life after empire.” What does Dunbar-Ortiz suggest regarding the future?
View the Reading Guide for Congregations