An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon Press 2014)
I loved this book. It helped me make sense, finally, of the barbaric viciousness of US military policy. The drone wars, torture, sexual assault, civilian massacres and deliberate targeting of women and children all clearly have their origin in the genocidal wars against Native Americans. There is an unbroken continuity, embedded in the mindset of US military officers, between the so-called Indian Wars and the US invasion and occupation of Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a book about total war, also known as “irregular warfare” and “counterinsurgency,” a uniquely American scorched earth form of warfare that was first perfected during the British colonization of Northern Ireland. Ulster Scots-Irish settlers brought it to the New World, migrating in the hundreds of thousands in the early eighteenth century. From the beginning, it was primarily Scots-Irish settlers who illegally squatted on unceded Indigenous lands. These were typically soldier-settlers who killed Indigenous farmers and destroyed their towns. They would become the mainstay of the colonies’ early militia movement, as well as forming the bulk of Washington’s revolutionary army.
Native historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz organizes this book around three broad themes: the US role as a Covenant Nation, the Doctrine of Discovery and the uniquely North American concept of genocidal extermination as a legitimate form of warfare.
Correcting the Historical Record
The author begins by correcting centuries of lies and distortions about life in North America prior to European colonization – starting with the number of inhabitants. Archeological evidence indicates the Indigenous population of North American was closer to 40 million than the 1-2 million claimed in most official textbooks. This Over a period of 200 years, this number was reduced to a current Indigenous population of approximately 3 million.
Far from being naked savages, these 40 million lived in advanced sovereign nations comparable to the Mayan, Aztec and Incan civilization in Central and South America. These nations and city-states had extensive road networks and trade relationships and benefited from advanced agricultural techniques (which included irrigation), arts and sciences, and sophisticated systems of government, theologies and philosophies. Unlike other early civilizations, they didn’t domesticate animals. Rather they managed wild herds by deliberately creating food-rich forest parks to attract them. For this reason, they were also free of zoogenic diseases, such as small pox, influenza, measles, etc. that animal domestication introduced into other civilizations. .
By the 12th century, the Mississippi Valley was dominated by a number of large city states, including one (Cahokia) which had a population (40,000) larger than London (14,000) at the same period.
Covenant Nations and the Doctrine of Discovery
All these civilizations were destroyed by European settlers and armies who believed their Christian God had promised North America to them. Sound familiar? According to Dunbar-Ortiz, the US, like Israel and apartheid South Africa, is a Covenant Nation. In all three, the political elite justified the total subjugation, displacement and extermination of the original inhabitants based on a so-called Covenant with their God.
Although it was primarily Protestant English and Scots-Irish settlers who instigated and led the genocidal wars against Indigenous North Americans, legally they used a series of 15th century papal bulls, collectively referred to as the Doctrine of Discovery, as legal justification for their actions. These declare that European nations acquire title to any land they “discover” in Africa, Asia or the Americas – that Indigenous inhabitants lose their natural right to their land once Europeans arrive and claim it. The US Supreme Court upheld the Doctrine of Discovery in 1823.
A State of Perpetual War
Dunbar-Ortiz also carefully documents that the US has been continuously at war ever since their 200-year war against the Indigenous nations. Washington’s revolutionary army directed as much force against Native American resistors as against British troops. Until the 1800s, Indigenous populations exceeded that of the settlers. When the colonial leadership failed in defeating Indigenous warriors by force of arms, they resorted to killing their women and children.
In addition to providing a detailed description of all the battles, unprovoked massacres and forced dislocations of Indigenous Americans, Dunbar-Ortiz provides detailed background on numerous other US wars commonly omitted from textbooks. For example the two Barbary Wars (1801-05 and 1815-16). In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson dispatched the Marines to invade Tripoli* (Libya) because their ruler was exacting fees from US merchant ships that entered their territorial waters.
Between 1798-1827, the US engaged in 21 other foreign military interventions, including Cuba, Latin America and Greece. Between 1831-1896, they engaged in 71 overseas interventions on all continents except Antarctica. Between 1898 and 1919, they engaged in forty overseas military interventions.
I particularly enjoyed the section about the US war on Mexico (which abolished slavery on gaining independence in 1821) and the US desire to extend the slave-plantation system westward. Following the US-Mexico War (1846-1848), the US annexed half of Mexico, which would become the states of Texas, California, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. Violent conflict over whether these new states would be free or slave states would ultimately trigger the Civil War.
*This is the origin of the first line of the Marine hymn: “From the halls of Montezuma (referring to the US invasion of Mexico) to the shores of Tripoli.”