expansion was neither as peaceful nor angelic as John Gast’s 1872
painting ‘American Progress’ made it out to be. (George A. Crofutt/US
Library of Congress|
"The idea of the United States as a peaceful democracy at heart, occasionally pulled into overseas wars, is a comforting verse in the national gospel. It’s part of the origin story told in high school textbooks: A fledgling nation threw off the yoke of British colonial rule and settled the West to become the world’s indispensable democratic nation. Sporadic imperial fits notwithstanding (e.g., the invasions of the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq), the soul of America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” as John Quincy Adams once said.
In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press), Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz dismisses this story as “patriotic cant”—a piety recited by President Obama and his predecessors to cover up the country’s violent colonial DNA. A retired California State University professor who is part Native American, Dunbar-Ortiz served as an expert witness for American Indian Movement activists put on trial following the deadly 1973 protest at Wounded Knee.
Culminating her nearly half-century career as an activist-academic dedicated to justice for Native people, her concise and disturbing new book dismantles culture national myths to reveal the country’s true foundation: a land grab that required the government-sponsored erasure of millions of indigenous people. Before the start of European colonization, an estimated 15 million Native people lived in what is now the United States. Their descendants number 3 million today, spread across 500 different federally recognized nations. A lack of immunity to European viruses accounts for much of the devastation, but not all. Rebuking the trope that Indians were doomed to die from epidemic diseases, Dunbar-Ortiz writes: “If disease could have done the job, it is not clear why the European colonizers in America found it necessary to carry out unrelenting wars against Indigenous communities in order to gain every inch of land they took from them.”