One of the greatest summers of my life was spent in New York City in 1986. I had worked my way through a prestigious university with honors, survived a year of lymphoma, and landed my dream job working for a big time publisher. And then there was this girl, of course.
She was a grad student who sang opera for a living, but in her heart she was an anthropologist and eventually got her Ph.D. I was accustomed to following her from one performance to another all over town, but one day she dragged me to the extreme upper west side of Manhattan and a once beautiful but long-neglected building that then housed the National Museum of the American Indian.
We seemed to be the only visitors, perhaps ever.
One of the galleries, so-called, was lined with waist-high glass display cases that looked to have been salvaged from a condemned Woolworths. In one of those cases was the war club taken from Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse was a Lakota leader of the Oglala Sioux betrayed and arrested by the U.S. Army officers negotiating his surrender in 1877 after his many victories, including the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1870 (known to the Lakota as the Battle of the Greasy Grass). He died in custody when he was bayoneted in his cell, trying to escape, according to Army records. His parents buried him at an unknown location near a creek called Wounded Knee in South Dakota. He was thought to be 35 years old.
Even in the glow of that beautiful summer, I will never forget the inexplicable shame I felt when I saw his war club in that neglected case. Hats and gloves worn by U.S. presidents are displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in the nation’s capital, and here was a tangible icon of history virtually forgotten.
It was a more powerful metaphor than I realized.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is an academic and activist whom many call a revisionist historian, though she calls it “re-visioning” history — making the descriptive adjective an active verb in her book (Beacon Press, 2015).
Most Americans, I imagine, have a vague notion of the exploration of North America as the United States pushed its borders west, encountering stone age nomads wandering empty land. This book is a strident and unapologetic thesis arguing that development of the U.S. depended on the deliberate and organized destruction of a vast population of Native American people and complex societies that had thrived for millennia.
“To say that the United States is a colonialist settler-state is not to make an accusation but rather to face historical reality, without which consideration not much in U.S. history makes sense, unless Indigenous peoples are erased,” she writes.
If that sounds extreme, consider the words of former U.S. senator and one-time presidential candidate Rick Santorum when he addressed the Young America political conference April 23, 2021:
“We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
That is the myth Dunbar-Ortiz confronts head on, page after page, example after example, in this passionate, polemic and extraordinarily well-cited work.
She begins with an anthropological tour of the Western Hemisphere, revisiting the achievements of the Inca, Aztec and Mayan empires, including architectural and agricultural technology that helped shape North America. The Mayans developed the concept of the number zero about 36 BCE (zero did not reach Europe from Arabia until 1200 CE). They also domesticated corn, a wild grass that now cannot survive without human intervention. Akin to the importance of salmon in the Pacific Northwest and bison of the plains, widespread cultivation of corn, squash and beans led to the growth of sophisticated Indigenous American cultures and large agrarian societies — including the Sioux — a far cry from their popular image as rambling hunter-gatherers.
“In the 12th century, the Mississippi Valley region was marked by one enormous city state, Cahokia, and several large ones built of earthen, stepped pyramids, much like those in Mexico,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes. “Cahokia supported a population of tens of thousands, larger than that of London during the same period.”
These are “the mound builders,” so-called by European settlers. “The people of the civilization had dispersed before the European invasion, but their influence had spread throughout the eastern half of the North American continent through cultural influence and trade.” The Mississippian culture, as it’s now called, flourished from about 800 to 1450 CE, with trade and cultural links stretching from the Gulf Coast of Florida to the Great Lakes, and from the Rockies to the Virginia coast.
And then there were the great nations further west to the continent’s edge, among them the Navajo, the Piute, the Shoshone, and the Salish speaking peoples of Puget Sound country, who traded up and down the coast and with the interior for centuries.
Dunbar-Ortiz repeatedly stresses — and documents — the U.S. giving itself permission to expand, if not by treaty than by war, and usually both. She also draws a distinction between war and genocide that is easy to overlook but crucial to understand since the explicit and often recorded purpose of organized settler violence was not just to evict Native Americans from their homes, but to exterminate them.
“We bleed our enemies in such cases, to give them their senses,” said a young Andrew Jackson in 1814, when he commanded a Tennessee militia that betrayed and murdered its own Muskogee neighbors to confiscate their property, plantations and Black slaves, before evicting the survivors from their ancestral land.
It was part of a pattern. “Somehow, even ‘genocide’ seems an inadequate description for what happened, yet rather than view it with horror, most Americans have conceived of it as their country’s manifest destiny,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes.
And that’s not by accident. It starts in the literature of the time in works like “The Deerslayer” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” tear-stained favorites of my own childhood that she says worked to turn myth into fact. “(The author, James Fenimore) Cooper has the last of the ‘noble’ and ‘pure’ Natives die off as nature would have it, with the ‘last Mohican’ handing the continent over to Hawkeye, the nativized settler and his adopted son. This convenient fantasy could be seen as quaint at best if it were not for its deadly staying power.”
Such efforts gave rise to the fictional birth of a new American race. “But this idea of the gift-giving Indian helping to establish and enrich the establishment of the United States is a smoke screen meant to obscure the fact that the very existence of the country is the result of the looting of an entire continent and its resources.”
Resistance is also well documented, from 19th century battles to fights in Congress and the uprising at Wounded Knee in 1973. While large scale appropriation has given way to assimilation, Dunbar-Ortiz maintains the effect is the same and comes from the same place: denial.
“A ‘race to innocence’ is what occurs when individuals assume that they are innocent of complicity in structures of domination and oppression. ... They cannot be held responsible, they assume, for what occurred in their country’s past. … Yet, in a settler society that has not come to terms with its past, whatever historical trauma was entailed in settling the land affects the assumptions and behavior of living generations at any given time.”
Here is an answer to the anti-woke hysteria of white guilt that has infected so much of our public discourse, down to the classroom. The crimes of Western Civilization do not blot out its achievements, but neither is the reverse true. Those crimes may be attributed to certain parts of our civilization, but not all. Ignoring inconvenient history leaves the injustice it created unexplained and therefore irreconcilable.
In other words, you don’t have to agree with anything Dunbar-Ortiz says to respect her perspective. But how often do you get to look through someone else’s eyes, or walk a mile in their shoes? Doing so, experiencing empathy (to use a another newly fraught term), is the first step to creating solutions.
“The late Native historian Jack Forbes always 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,” Dunbar-Ortiz writes. “Assuming this responsibility provides a means of survival and liberation.”
In 1994, Crazy Horse’s war club was relocated to the new National Museum of the American Indian, now part of the Smithsonian, a magnificent beaux-arts building on the southern tip of Manhattan, overlooking the mouth of the Hudson River and the ocean beyond.
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