Native Education Now! - Book Review: AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Reviewed by: Vaughn MitchellRead Now
A video from the early 2021-22 school year displays a California math teacher teaching the popular trigonometry acronym SOH-CAH-TOA with a demonstration that clearly mocks Native dresses and dances. Her loud stomping, high-pitch chanting, and drawings of teepees on the whiteboards that represent right triangles could not serve as a more offensive caricature of Indigenous culture. Yet, more broadly, plenty of colonialist myths have permeated throughout American society that are acquired earlier on in school. “Maybe the Native Americans were destined to be overpowered, just look at how advanced their conquerors were.” “If anything, the Native Americans needed to be colonized; they weren’t civilized.” “You want to teach these kids about Native history? That’s Critical Race Theory!” These erroneous claims are a product of a culture that ignores the struggles of Native Americans felt throughout history and on reservations today. Perhaps one of the most genocidal campaigns of the United States was the forced assimilation and movement of Native Americans, a history of conquest seldom taught in today’s schools. In fact, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz aptly fills these gaps by describing the sophisticated languages, government structures, agricultural techniques, and living conditions of Native Americans pre-colonization in her book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. For the future of understanding the colonialist project built on murder, torture, rape, war, stolen land, and myths to colonize Indigenous nations, a widespread revamp of educating American students is imperative to understand the truths about how Native people lived and how the U.S. government destroyed thriving cultures.
The typical argument against expanding the teaching of Native history is that such material is too violent and morbid for children to process and that it places indirect blame on the students for the unchangeable actions of the past. The extent to which Native history is taught in grade school mainly includes Columbus’ arrival and Thanksgiving, speaking from personal experience. As children, processing the dense history of Native conquest would be both cumbersome and tough to digest, but outright bans on such material have no place in realms of education. Governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis have signed anti-CRT legislation under the reasoning that it would make students feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” for learning about the actions of those who share their race or national origin. While this notion concedes the U.S. government’s role in the slaughter of Indigenous people, further education of students is necessary to clear simplistic understandings of Native history. In fact, disappointing research from Reclaiming Native Truth found that only 36% of Americans surveyed believe that Native people are significantly discriminated against. To put it simply, a lack of inclusion of Native history creates unintentional bias against Native Americans from people who don’t understand their struggle. In the case of many high schools throughout the country, a comprehension of what the Trial of Tears was simply does not suffice to understand the severity of their treatment over time.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers historical evidence beyond what’s included in the school curriculum that documents the brutal magnitude of Andrew Jackson’s operation. For instance, she includes a primary source from a Confederate general who described watching the forced migration when he was a younger volunteer as worse than anything he saw in the Civil War. “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever knew,” (Dunbar-Ortiz 113). These minor tweaks added to school curriculum when teaching Native history are perfect for understanding the development of U.S. colonialism. They also hold great power in clearing cultural misconceptions about terms that find themselves woven into American culture. Dunbar-Ortiz examines the origins of the name “redskins”, the name of Washington’s NFL team until it was changed in 2020, which comes from the skinned bodies of Native people when colonial governments would place bounties on targeted natives (Dunbar-Ortiz 64-65). Bounty hunting in the early colonies acted as a lucrative trade wherein colonists were reimbursed if they showed proof of decapitation. Other myths such as placing false hostility on Native people to justify their assimilation and domination are also prevalent.
Later in history, as land was slowly taken by the U.S. government in the name of Manifest Destiny, assimilation campaigns began with the introduction of Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Created to “kill the Indian and “save the Man”, this boarding school entailed rampant sexual assault and forced assimilation of Native students according to Dunbar-Ortiz's primary sources from previous students. They were forced to forget their languages, wear Anglo-American clothes, and convert to Christianity. Former student Sun Elk testified, “We all wore white man’s clothes and ate white man’s food and went to white man’s churches and spoke white man’s talk,” (Dunbar-Ortiz 212). On the sexual assault topic, Indigenous women remember “We had many different teachers during those years; some got the girls pregnant and had to leave,” (Dunbar-Ortiz 213). Ultimately, elements essential to Natives and Native history were deliberately erased by the United States government, even to the extent of bodily autonomy. Because the current teaching of Native history is purposely simplistic to vindicate blame from the U.S. government, a new approach such as including Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People’s History of the United States in today’s curricula is indispensable for a better understanding of how Native Americans live today resulting from the colonial actions of the past.
With regards to how Native Americans are subject to abysmal living conditions in the modern day, an enhancement of modern curriculum to include Indigenous teachings is necessary. Sure, it can be understood that Native Americans face overwhelmingly low life expectancies, low standardized test scores, high unemployment rates, and high crime rates on reservations, but such statistics are meaningless without a historical analysis that provides a framework for understanding how they came to be. Take the current state of the Pine Ridge Reservation discussed by PBS Newshour. Nestled in the southern part of South Dakota’s Black Hills, the Pine Ridge Reservation faces among the worst socioeconomic barriers compared to the rest of the United States. Males, on average, live to about 48, and females live to about 52. Nearly half of people aged above 40 have diabetes, and unemployment rates lie above 80% throughout the region. Further evidence corroborates these statistics and characterizes the issue as all-encompassing of Native people instead of limiting to one reservation.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, their analysis of the 2016 American Community Survey found that median household income was 69% of the national average and the share of Native people in poverty was 26% compared to the total population share of 14%. A historical analysis cannot be avoided to explain these socioeconomic disparities that Natives face, though, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers just that. She outlines a model of colonial progression that begins with economic penetration, then establishing a sphere of influence and protectorate status and finally progressing into eventual annexation. Her model fits best with the Great Sioux Nation, coincidentally the single largest inhabitants of the Pine Ridge Reservation that was discussed by PBS Newshour. Dunbar-Ortiz explains that as the United States began westward expansion, the fur trade quickly became lucrative because it was demanded so much in the eastern part of the country, so the Sioux picked up bison hunting to sell to merchants who would in turn provide them with manufactured goods like tobacco, tools, liquor, and clothing. Trading posts were soon transformed into U.S. Army outposts, which formed protectorate status of the Sioux (Dunbar-Ortiz 191).
A key component of this colonial progression, both of which Dunbar-Ortiz and Vox explain briefly, was the U.S. Army’s campaign to exterminate bison. The purpose of this campaign was twofold: to deplete the Sioux’s main food source and to reduce trade that provided the Sioux with necessary resources. This bison extinction campaign was crucial in the annexation of Indigenous territory. Because their means of trade were diminished, the Sioux were dependent on U.S. rations and commodities granted by treaties which preceded military occupation and violence that manifested in situations such as the Battle of Wounded Knee and imposed citizenship like the establishment of Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The United States had justified their claims on Indigenous lands under new rhetoric that made it an imperative to dominate them under the guise of “protection” by highlighting the appalling living conditions that the government was responsible for creating in the first place. This typical narrative has also contributed to prevailing stereotypes of Native Americans today. Talking points such as how Native people are “uncivilized” and “need to be protected” can lend themself in part to how the United States was successful in creating the environment of immense poverty experienced today that remains the basis of their occupation. Such analysis never finds itself taught in America’s schools today and therefore is necessary to dispel both these beliefs and a one-dimensional understanding of how Native Americans live today.
A more comprehensive teaching of past treatment of Native Americans implies the creation of new methods to assist Indigenous people in the future. While there is no instant remedy for Indigenous living spaces being set aflame as the Cherokee were forced to embark on the Trial of Tears, for past trauma of Cheyenne children being stripped away from their reservations and shipped to boarding schools, for Sioux families brutally slaughtered as the Battle of Little Bighorn commenced, the United States government could take necessary steps that improve the current material conditions of Native Americans shaped by the past. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz raises the idea of restitution instead of reparations: directly giving land back to respective nations instead of paying them for past mistakes on behalf of the U.S. government. This distinction is very important according to many Indigenous nations.
Washington Post writer Daniel R. Wildcat in his “Why Native Americans don’t want reparations” explains that Native Americans don’t view land as a natural resource like the United States does; rather, they view it as a natural relative. Any monetary compensation is thus inappropriate not only because they hold a spiritual connection with the land, but also because the land was never for sale in the first place. Dunbar-Ortiz exemplifies this with her mentioning of the Black Hills. Taken after violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the ownership of the Black Hills was settled in the 1980 Supreme Court case Sioux Nation v. United States in which an agreement of $102 million was set aside for the wrongful seizure of their land (Dunbar-Ortiz 208). That sum has earned interest over the years because the Sioux had never claimed it, and it totals to about $1.3 billion today. It sits in the Department of the Treasury waiting to be collected. The refusal to claim the reparation is reflective both of Indigenous resistance to succumb to U.S. colonialism and a steadfast opposition to validating colonial control. Had this sum been collected, the Sioux would have conceded their land holdings and recognized the U.S. government as the rightful holder, the legitimate buyers of this land. And a history of resistance cannot end abruptly in conceding land that was fought for tirelessly by their ancestors, so Native Americans today keep fighting.
With education that offers knowledge on why the United States government should prioritize land restitution instead of reparations, other American people can participate in the struggle for Native liberation from colonial chains. Recently, movements such as Land Back have gained momentum and serve as proof that Native struggle is not a remnant of the past and that education prevents future exploitation. Claire Elise Thompson describes the growing movement that features the restoration of land, dismantling of white supremacy, and improvement of the environment. Although the central focus of the movement is restitution, the broadened goals of Land Back can attract a variety of organizers. NDN Collective, the formal organization that coined the Land Back movement, even offered “a free, comprehensive, online learning platform to engage in political education and discussions on topics critical to the Indigenous movement to reclaim land and relationship to land” in June 2021. Their goal is to educate interested organizers on the history of colonization to promote action that advocates for land restoration. The Land Back movement has seen remarkable success with this goal as evidenced by Thompson’s description of Land Back protests in the Black Hills that advocate for their total restoration.
Without a robust education on the history of Native conquest and their resistance, new avenues of activism could not otherwise be discovered; hence, the inclusion of Dunbar-Ortiz's An Indigenous People’s History of the United States would be perfect for an audience that seeks to assist and advocate for Indigenous self-determination.
Luckily that California math teacher was fired quickly after the video became viral, and accountability was the most appropriate action to take. But on a larger scale, no accountability lies in the U.S. government’s calculated genocide against Native Americans. From the earlier slaughter of Native Americans in colonial times with King Philip’s War, violation of agreements like the Treaty of Fort Laramie that claimed the Black Hills once gold was discovered, fast-forwarded to forced assimilation campaigns with the introduction of the Carlisle school, U.S. history is characterized by the domination of Indigenous people and settler-colonialism. Because it is a history frequently untouched in today’s schools, Native authors such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz deserve their work featured in modern curricula. With the inclusion of An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, the average school body will be equipped with a nuanced and complex understanding of the suffering of Native people at the behest of the U.S. government. To provide the stability and safety of Native populations for the foreseeable future, more people must be educated to deal with the inevitable challenges the United States will pose to Indigenous nations. Our ability to assist marginalized populations is by no means an option, it is an obligation.
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“NDN Collective Launches ‘Landback U’: A Curriculum on How to Join the Fight to Return Land to Indigenous Hands.” NDN Collective, 15 June 2021, https://ndncollective.org/ndn-collective-launches-landback-u-a-curriculum-on-how-to-join-the-fight-to-return-land-to-indigenous-hands/#:~:text=LANDBACK%20U%20is%20a%20free,land%20and%20relationship%20to%20land.
Sreenivasan, Hari. “For Great Sioux Nation, Black Hills Can't Be Bought for $1.3 Billion.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 24 Aug. 2011, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/why-the-sioux-are-refusing-1-3-billion.
Thompson, Claire. “What Is the Indigenous Landback Movement - and Can It Help the Climate?” Grist, 25 Nov. 2020, https://grist.org/fix/indigenous-landback-movement-can-it-help-climate/.
Wildcat, Daniel R. “Why Native Americans Don't Want Reparations.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 7 Oct. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/06/10/why-native-americans-dont-want-reparations/.
Wilson, Valerie, and Zane Mokhiber. “2016 ACS Shows Stubbornly High Native American Poverty and Different Degrees of Economic Well-Being for Asian Ethnic Groups.” Economic Policy Institute, https://www.epi.org/blog/2016-acs-shows-stubbornly-high-native-american-poverty-and-different-degrees-of-economic-well-being-for-asian-ethnic-groups/.
Vaughn Mitchell is a high school senior living outside Chicago. His political interests include the development and origins of labor unions, abolition movements in the 20th century, and the Land Back movement. After his final year of high school, he hopes to study data science and political science on the East Coast.
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