Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz image by Beacon Press

As a hard, hard rain fell outside, fifty or so people, including dozens of Native Americans, gathered inside Bluestockings, a small independent bookstore collective in New York City, to hear scholar, activist, and author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

The event on December 6 capped off a two-month, twenty-three-city book tour for All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, co-written with writer and researcher Dina Gilio-Whitaker. The tour overlapped with celebrations of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (also known as Columbus Day), the poll-defying presidential election, and the surreal Thanksgiving-week attacks against Native American water protectors in North Dakota.

The audience listened as the authors described their work to dismantle “state mythologies” about native peoples. Myths which, in Gilio-Whitaker’s words, “tell us more about the non-native mind than about native peoples.” Across the book’s 21 chapters, which can be read in any order, different analytical strategies come into play. In “Thanksgiving Proves the Indians Welcomed the Pilgrims” the authors turn to primary texts—Edward Winslow’s Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation—and conclude that “neither of the accounts are detailed enough to surmise the familiar tale.”

In “Indians are Anti-Science,” the authors challenge the presumption that only “positivist, Cartesian-based Western systems” are science, pointing to Indigenous knowledge about astronomy, hydraulic engineering, agriculture/permaculture, transportation and road building, water navigation and vessels. The humble teepee is offered as an engineering feat: “It’s a very aerodynamic shape that can withstand high winds and snow loading, with strong convection heating and cooling properties.”

The book, published by Beacon Press on October 4, has already sold out its third printing, and is well into its fourth. Its success, no doubt gained some uplift from the wide wings of Dunbar-Ortiz’s “breakthrough” book—An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.

Its 236 pages convey our foundational American tragedy in unemotional, lucid, and economical writing. Her meticulous research and use of quoted material allows the record to speak powerfully for itself, as in the following passage by Andrew Jackson commenting on the crushing of the Muskogees (even those who had cooperated): “We bleed our enemies in such cases,” he stated, “to give them their senses.”

As An Indigenous People's’ History of the United States makes clear, the main commodity the settlers came to colonize was land. And because people do not willingly cede the land upon which their very survival is based, a whole host of terrorizing violences were unleashed on the Native Americans to wrest it from them. An Indigenous Peoples’ History concludes by calling for an amends process that would acknowledge our country’s genocidal policies and practices and propel us toward “life after empire.”

Both Dunbar-Ortiz’ books flesh out what Australian anthropologist and ethnographer Patrick Wolfe has called “settler colonialism.” As Dunbar-Ortiz describes it, the concept provides a rubric for understanding “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.” And with the imminent specter of a Trump presidency, Dunbar-Ortiz is speaking in even more stark terms:

“They can do anything they want,” said Dunbar-Ortiz. “They can dissolve the reservations. Anything. In America, genocide is always just around the corner.”

Frances Madeson is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist and the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village.

 
 

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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