‘The Land is the Body of the Native People’: Talking with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

‘The Land is the Body of the Native People’: Talking with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

‘The Land is the Body of the Native People’: Talking with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

“Land conquest and chattel slavery are so interlinked that if you separate them, you end up with a distorted story. That link has to be at the core of a complete revision of U.S. history.”

by David Barsamian

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades. 
After receiving her Ph.D. in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies there.

Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was a foundational document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas in Geneva. She is also author of An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (winner of the 2015 American Book Award)All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans, and Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.

I sat down with Roxanne in Santa Fe, New Mexico last October to talk to her about her heritage, Howard Zinn, and today’s movements for indigenous rights, including the Dakota Access pipeline protests.

Q:What does it mean to be indigenous? There are so many nations, languages, customs, and traditions. Is there a connecting thread linking them?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: My mentor, Phil Reno, used to call it “the red thread that runs through the Americas.” It’s a commonality of historical experience: of genocide, of devastation, the destruction of civilizations, and a memory of who the people are before imperialism, before Columbus, before European overseas colonization.

Q: Do you see in the U.S. a revival of indigenous languages and cultures and traditions, a greater interest of the younger generation in them?

Dunbar-Ortiz: Absolutely. There was a period of time with the boarding schools, in Anglo North America especially, from the 1880s to the 1960s, of forcibly removing children at a young age, putting them in boarding schools mixed with other languages, and they were beaten so that they would speak only English.

That intergenerational trauma certainly continues today, but it’s in the open now and being investigated and talked about and stories are being told. In Canada, actually, the native people are ahead in many ways in terms of winning demands. They have had a formal boarding school study paid for by the government and carried out by the native people. But in the U.S. it’s all community-based and there’s no federal support for looking into the damage of the boarding schools.

But the casinos have been really important in generating funds . . . I was up in an Ojibwe reservation area in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Some thought their language was completely gone. But the Ojibwe language is widespread, and it has never died. Now they have a school for the children that is completely taught in the Ojibwe language. We went to dinner, and the little kids had their own table—these are kids from 6 to 12 years old—and they were all talking in their language to each other. That was so thrilling to see. But that is something new in this generation that’s going to make a big difference.

Q: Your mother was part Indian, your dad not at all. When and why did you embrace that partial heritage of your mother?

Dunbar-Ortiz: My dad was not just not Indian—he was a prototype descendant of what I call the foot soldiers of empire. [He was one of] the Scots Irish border settlers that were basically the main people on the front line of invading Indian villages and killing people and taking their crops and appropriating their land. Many of them ended up losers in Oklahoma, sort of the last place for free land, taking the land from the Cherokee and the Muskogee peoples there, and the southern Cheyenne.

My dad was not just not Indian—he was a prototype descendant of what I call the foot soldiers of empire.

I grew up in west central Oklahoma, which had been within the borders of the Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho treaty territory. But I didn’t grow up really with any native heritage. My mother never claimed to be Indian, because she married up in marrying my dad, who was a white tenant farmer, so she didn’t want anything to do with being native. It wasn’t even discussed.

I did my dissertation [at University of California, Los Angeles] on New Mexico under Spanish colonization, which is a book, Roots of Resistance: The History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. I was also in law school at the same time trying to study property law. I couldn’t figure out how to study property law, use a law library, except to enroll in law school. It was kind of obscure. So I went one year to law school. Property law is required the first year. It certainly had nothing whatsoever about Native law or the comparison with Spanish law of the commons, European provision of commons, which I was looking at in New Mexico, because U.S. law denied the commons both for the Pueblos and the Hispanos in New Mexico and reduced them to just their villages.

While I was there in 1973-74 doing my dissertation, Wounded Knee happened. I was recruited by Vine Deloria. Activists were coming into law schools and kind of scooping up anyone they could get to work on the Wounded Knee legal defense.

That changed the direction of my life.

Q: You had an interesting interaction with Howard Zinn, the radical historian and author of A People’s History of the United States. In a way, that led directly to your book, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.

Dunbar-Ortiz: Howard, of course, was an activist in the 1960s and was very involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements. I lived in Boston from 1968 to 1970. There I met Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. They were mentors to all the activists.

Howard did all these great books on the civil rights movement. And then in 1980 his A People’s History of the United States came out. . . . Nothing written, I think has been as powerful as his opening on the conquest and imperialism. It’s like genocide, genocide, genocide, to 1890.

But I kept saying, “Howard, what happened to the Indians?” He had a contemporary chapter that had Alcatraz. “What happened to them in that century? Were they hibernating? Did they disappear?” He would always say, “Roxanne, you have to write that book.”

He died unexpectedly, and while he was still living Howard had the idea, which he proposed to [an editor at Beacon Press], of revisioning American history—to take the People’s History concept and then break it down to different peoples, like An African American History of the United States, A Chicano History of the United States, A Women’s History of the United States. He said to her,“The first book should be A Native American History of the United States, and you need to get Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to write it.”

So I get a call from this editor at Beacon Press, and she tells me this. And I say, “Well, sure, of course. That would be easy to write.” Eight years later I published An Indigenous People’s History. Howard was already gone by that time, but I kind of said, “Damn you, Howard. What did you get me into?” It was hard to write. It felt like a huge jigsaw puzzle with these tiny little pieces that you don’t even have the picture to know what you’re trying to get to.

And there’s entrapment. If you really describe the genocide but don’t then go right into resistance and that the people are still here, the reaction is sort of, “Well, that’s really tragic. I feel guilty, I feel bad. But that’s just history. It’s not the present.”

But it is the present. I link that up with continuous Indian wars. I call them Indian wars.

Q: You begin your book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States with, “The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism.” What does that mean?

Dunbar-Ortiz: It means refiguring U.S. history from the Native American point of view as the taking of Indian land.

A rich, ancient agricultural civilization was appropriated. The Europeans appropriated it and then created agribusiness, capitalized, monetized the land, created real estate. The land is the body of the native people. The land as a body is monetized, capitalized. As is the African body. Not just African labor. That’s only half of it. It’s the human body. Land conquest and chattel slavery are so interlinked that if you separate them, you end up with a distorted story. And that interlink has to be at the core of a complete revision of U.S. history.

You have to remember that the profession of the Founding Fathers, all of them, was land speculation––real estate––which is the basis of U.S. capitalism. The U.S. was really, in my view, the first pure capitalist state formed. It’s not the beginning of capitalism, but it’s the first state formed as a capitalist state. Marx and Engels knew there was capitalism in the U.S. But they thought slavery was a limitation on the proletarian revolution in the U.S., rather than seeing that real estate was the generator of capitalism, with black labor and black bodies as collateral. This made the U.S. the most powerful economic power in the world and, with its century of Indian wars, the most powerful military force in the world.

World history is dependent on our understanding and making that clear to the rest of the world. Everyone believes the mythology of the Founding Fathers and a great republic and freedom and liberty. But if you strip it down, the freedom to own slaves, the freedom to take Indian land, is a dubious freedom. We have this individualistic kind of sense of freedom now where we can take anything in the world and use anything and waste anything. So it’s a present problem, that attitude of the very founders.

The Founding Fathers had an aristocratic view where they excluded almost everyone else except themselves from having freedom and liberty. You had to own property, you had to be white, and you had to be male and of European heritage in order to be a citizen even. That’s in the Constitution. You might call it the first immigration law.

You can look at U.S. history as a progress toward greater freedom.

But I think that’s our illusion. Now we’re experiencing kind of the id, in Freudian terms, of the U.S. coming into full view. It was always there, but it had been largely suppressed by liberalism and all. That can only go so far. It’s still the heart of what the U.S. is.

Q: Let’s talk about what’s happening around Columbus Day, now called, in many states and municipalities, Indigenous Peoples Day, and the renaming of teams and places. That seems to represent a change of consciousness.

Dunbar-Ortiz: It does. Some native people think, and I can understand this, that symbolic things—like the word “Redskins” used for a football team—are small things, and that we need to concentrate on larger issues.

But with these symbolic things, like statues, I do think that many stories can be told through these symbols. And these are stories that are a little more difficult if you just present them as historical facts in a narrative. I find that when I tell the origin of “redskin” for example—one woman said it made her throw up, it nauseated her so much.

The origin of that word is that in the Massachusetts Bay Colony they turned to bounties for Indian heads, first of all, heads. That’s what they had done in the conquest of Ireland to terrify the people. Cromwell even spelled it out: The aim was to get rid of them but also to place their heads along the roadsides so that their relatives would see them and be terrorized. So it’s terrorism. It also became a market. Then it turned to scalps. It’s very hard to tell from a scalp whether it’s a child, an old person, someone who is a combatant, even the race or color or anything. So anyone can go kill an Indian, scalp the person or cut their head off, and collect money for it. Then they called these bloody bodies that were left, these corpses covered in blood because of that mutilation, “red skins.”

That’s disgusting, there is no way to get around it. They’ve made up other reasons. “Oh, there were some Indians who painted their faces red.” No. It was a term of trade. Somebody has to go collect the bloody corpses, and they had a name for them.

Q: Talk about the resistance at Standing Rock and its significance.

Dunbar-Ortiz: You have to remember this is in a tradition of Standing Rock and the Lakota resistance. It’s a continuation; these things have been going on all this time. But what was important was that for the first time in any kind of environmental action indigenous people were in charge. It was on Indian land and one of the most militant Native American reservations in the country, that of the Standing Rock Sioux. This is where Sitting Bull is buried, this is where, before the Wounded Knee occupation of 1973, they first met at Standing Rock, and the American Indian Movement formed the International Indian Treaty Council at Standing Rock. It is also the place where the refugees from the Dakota wars went. During the Civil War, the genocide of the Lincoln Administration against the Dakotas in Minnesota, the survivors took refuge at Standing Rock.

So these militant Dakotas are basically a mixture of resisters and their families. It didn’t surprise anyone who knows Native resistance history that this could happen at Standing Rock.

Q: But can that movement be built upon?

Dunbar-Ortiz: I think it affected [not only] tens of thousands of people directly who went there, but hundreds of thousands in all. Some people visited for a day or two or three. Everyone came back and formed local groups. But more than anything, once it becomes clear that there is Indian land and Indian people out there still, it becomes real—they’ve the met these people, they’ve hugged them, they’ve shaken hands with them, they’ve shared food with them—it transforms people, because they can’t unknow what they know, once they’re taught.

Q: In terms of media representations of indigenous peoples, have you seen any positive evolution?

Dunbar-Ortiz: It’s a two-way thing. I find people’s level of knowledge and comprehension of the Native situation and the history and the U.S. role and its connection with militarism and many other things is so much deeper. Especially with young people, there’s a hunger to know more about it and how it relates to their own struggles, whether the anti-Mexican revival that’s going on now of so-called immigration reform and the border issues, or for African Americans, Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter had an encampment at Standing Rock for the whole time. What movements learned from each other I think is so important.

Q: You conclude An Indigenous People’s History of the United States with a poem from the Acoma poet Simon Ortiz.



The future will not be mad with loss and waste

though the memory will

Be there: eyes will

become kind and deep, and the bones of this


Will mend after the revolution.

That’s a stanza from his long prose poem From Sand Creek, where he’s meditating on what happened at the 1864 Sand Creek massacre in Colorado and wondering why these people who came couldn’t have settled down and been a part of already existing civilizations, that that would have been fine. What is it that drove them to have to kill and capture and destroy? It’s a very profound work. That vision of the future sounds like it’s kind of conciliatory, it’s going to be easy. But, obviously, it doesn’t happen automatically after the revolution.


This interview was excerpted from a longer version you can find here.