Thursday, February 19, 2015

The American Experience, from an Indigenous Perspective

An Indigenous People's History of the United States
I knew that reading Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People's History of the United States would be difficult.  But I don't think I realized just how difficult it would be.  Reading about massacres and pillaging and forced relocation is difficult enough in print, but it is even more stomach-clenching to listen to it.

Most American kids go into school assuming that it was a foregone conclusion that their country would take over an entire continent.  We learn about the first settlers and the way the Indians helped them through the first few winters.  And then, after they'd gotten the hang of it, the settlers went on their merry way, spreading all the way to the Pacific.  We learn about the glorious Homestead Act, passed after the Civil War so that Americans could all have their own plot of land to improve.  It's rarely explained to us that the only reason the US government was able to provide land to its citizens is because it stole that land from multiple Native American nations.  Or that so much of America's history, foreign wars, and expansion plans were done in a disturbingly (and pretty openly) white supremacist manner.

Dunbar-Ortiz's main point is that America was not formed as a new and brilliant democracy, a country that came about through a belief in a strong, new way of governing.  Instead, the US was a direct result of European politics.  The expansion into other lands, the belief that the Christian religion is superior to others, the escalation of skirmishes to total warfare that not only take place on a battlefield but include rape and pillage of entire villages.

It is important that Americans (and everyone else) fully understand their nation's history, so I feel like people should read this book.  Even though I knew the US treated Indians badly throughout its history, I don't think I realized just how systemic and terrible it was.  And I appreciated the shift in perspective; rather than learning American history, I learned how America's history butted against that of the indigenous people's and destroyed so many cultures.  Early on, Dunbar-Ortiz quotes one of my absolute favorite books, Charles C. Mann's 1491, and it just brought home to me once again how much the world lost when the Native American population was just decimated, in natural knowledge, worldviews, philosophies and so much more.

So yes, I DO think you should read this book.  BUT...

It's really difficult.  As I mentioned before, there's a lot of carnage.  Much of it felt more like a list of massacres and other horrible acts rather than a cohesive history.  Dunbar-Ortiz skips around a lot in time, which was difficult to follow.  And there are clearly certain things that truly enrage her, such as the official American military definition of enemy territory as "Indian Country," which she harps on so many times that I thought my audiobook was faulty and kept skipping back to earlier in the narrative.  I agree wholeheartedly that this terminology should change, but I also think she could make the point once and trust her readers to understand it.

I personally don't recommend the audiobook edition.  Not just because it is much harder to listen to the violence, but also because the narrator's voice is quite dry and it sounds like she is being sardonic all the time.


  1. Definitely an important topic and I will be checking the book out - but, did you feel like it was too much spectacle? too much shock value? Topics such as this have to walk a very thin line for me. The truth is horrific, no doubt, but when too much focus - or the only focus - is on the carnage, I can get annoyed.

    1. There was definitely shock value, but I don't think she said anything just for sensationalism. She just repeated things over and over. Or the US government did the same horrible things over and over.

      That said, there's a lot of focus on the carnage. It's tough to read. I recommend giving it a try in a physical format and flip through the pages.

  2. I'm not American but I will be reading this after your review. Lately, I've been reading some books about the British Empire (I'm British) and it's been difficult at times, but I think it's very important to educate ourselves as much as possible and get different perspectives of history. I was taught lots of the positives of the Empire at school, I just wish the atrocities had been touched on a bit more too.

  3. Hmmm, this is definitely one I'd consider reading (though it sounds like it has a few issues that way as well). Still, a very important read, methinks.

  4. Even with its faults, I think this sounds like a very important read. Such a timely review, too, considering what Oklahoma is doing.

  5. I will definitely be checking this book out. I would have loved to listen to it rather than get it in print, but I have been bothered in the past with audiobooks where there is a lot of repetition, so print it is!

  6. It sounds like this would make a fantastic pairing with Thomas King's An Inconvenient Indian, perhaps not so much for content (although that would fit), but for style. King's use of humour doesn't not lighten the material, but it reminds you what a powerful tool laughter is, even amidst (especially amidst?) tragedy. (I know you've read that one too, though I don't recall if you've read King's fiction or only his non-fiction.)

  7. Yeah, I don't think I could have handled the audiobook edition. Reading it in print was rough as well -- there's a lot of carnage, as you say, and even just reading one chapter per night gives you a lot of misery. But I'm glad it exists, and I wish, like you, that Americans were better-versed in the specifics of what was done to the Indians. Everyone will say "oh yeah we were terrible to the Indians," but they often won't know more details.


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