U.S. history from the viewpoint of the Indians

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s disturbing An Indigenous People’s History of the United States is, in the author’s words, the investigation of a crime scene.

She told a story of a nation that broke treaty after treaty in order to engage in unprovoked military aggression, ethnic cleansing and genocide in order to gain living space.

Settler militias and government troops burned crops, demolished homes, and paid bounties for the scalps of Indian men, women, and children. The buffalo were deliberately destroyed to deny sustenance to the Plains Indians

British General Jeffrey Amherst practiced germ warfare against the Pontiacs in colonial times.  US army personnel skinned Indian victims to make bridles for their horses.  The buffalo were deliberately destroyed in order to deny sustenance for the Plains Indians.

General William T. Sherman, who headed the War Department under the Grant administration, famously said that the only good Indians he ever saw were dead.

I see an obvious analogy.

What happened to the Indians was not happenstance, Dunbar-Ortiz wrote.  It was a result of both government policy and the core values not only of American culture, but of European civilization as a whole.

These policies and values shaped U.S. military tradition and its way of waging war today, she wrote.  U.S. troops still call occupied territories “indian county.”

I kind-of, sort-of, in-a-way vaguely knew much of the contents of the book, but it never fully registered on me until I read it.  Having all these facts concentrated into one 236-page indictment has an impact I can’t forget.


When Columbus sailed in 1492, there was a flourishing native American civilization.  Dunbar-Ortiz said it was wiped out not only by the unplanned spread of European diseases, but also as deliberate policy.  European and native American civilizations were incompatible.

Europeans believed in the “doctrine of discovery,” which is that Christians have the right to claim territory they discover for their own, regardless of the non-Christian inhabitants.  This is still part of U.S. law, she noted.

The Puritan settlers of New England were Calvinists, like the Boers in South Africa.  They believed that they, like the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament, had made a covenant with God that entitled them to the land they settled and that the existing inhabitants were to be killed, subjugated or driven out, like the Canaanites.

In the South, the economy was based on plantation agriculture worked by forced labor, which poor whites couldn’t compete with.  They became frontiersmen instead.

The settlers’ goal was to own land individually, to exploit or sell as they saw fit.  The Indian nations could never accept this.   The varied Indian cultures all believed that land was a common inheritance that could not be alienated.

Andrew Jackson was the great Indian fighter and champion of the settlers.  He raised volunteer militias and waged war against the Indians on his own, until the government retroactively made him a general.  He was responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Southeast, including Indians who fought on his side.

His military record made him popular among poor white people.  He went on to be elected President, and is regarded as the founder of the Democratic Party.

Dunbar-Ortiz noted that Jackson was of Scots-Irish heritage.  The Scots-Irish were a warlike Calvinist people whom the British first sent to Ireland as colonizers to wage war against the native people there,  then transplanted to North American, where they quickly moved to the frontier of settlement and became Indian fighters.

Jackson’s followers, including Sam Houston and James K. Polk, engineered the Texas independence movement and the Mexican War, which completed the U.S. conquest of the continent.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The Homestead Act and the Land Grant College Act, which most historians hail as progressive measures the greatly benefited U.S. citizens, came at the expense of the indigenous peoples.

After subjugating the Indians, the United States moved on to conquests of overseas territories and then to military domination without annexation of territory.

The methods used in fighting in the Philippines after 1898, in Vietnam in the 1960s and in the Middle East today are the same as those used against the Indians, Dunbar-Ortiz wrote.  Nothing was done in those theaters of war that was not previously done to Indians.

At home, Indians were forced to live on reservations.  U.S. government policy alternated between attempts to force them into mainstream society and misguided attempts to preserve their culture as a kind of ethnic museum exhibits.

She writes of the Indian schools and their unsuccessful attempts to make Indians into generic Americans.  I’ve always been struck by the fact that whites who were kidnaped as children by Indian nations almost never wanted to go back to being white; this was not true of Indians adopted by whites.

She concludes with demands:  (1) Honor all treaties.  (2) Give back all sacred lands, which includes most of the U.S. national parks.  (3) Pay sufficient reparations to reconstruct and expand Indian nations.  (4) Teach non-natives their history as an oppressor nation.


This book is an indictment, not a balanced verdict.  Would could be said for the defense?

You could say that the settlers were not all monsters and the Indians were not all noble.  You could mention white leaders such as William Penn who lived in peace with the Indians, and non-Indian judges and legislators who uphold Indian rights today.

You could say that Aztec rule was more oppressive than Spanish rule.  You could say that both Indians and settlers waged war against civilians, took scalps and kept body parts as souvenirs.  You could say that the Indian nations were divided among themselves, and some looked to Europeans or Americans as allies or protectors.  You could say that certain Indian nations were fierce warriors who were as much a terror to other Indians as to the white settlers.

You could say that the whites brought certain gifts to the Indians, including the horse, the cow, the goat and the sheep, which were of great benefit.  You could say that almost all of today’s nations, if you trace their history back far enough, originated through invasion and conquest.

You could say all of these things—but they wouldn’t hide the fact that considered from the board scope of history, the settlement of the United States was military aggression resulting in ethnic cleansing.

When I read about the history of American slavery, I feel differently from the way I feel about this book.  I remind myself that hardly any white Americans got any material benefit from it.  The slave South always lagged behind the free North, and even today, the poorest white people are the ones who live in the places where slavery was most concentrated.

I can’t say the same thing about the displacement of the Indians.  I don’t wish and can’t wish that never happened because that is the same as wishing for my own non-existence.  I wish the Indians well, but I don’t want to try to change history.

At the same time, I don’t take a Darwinian attitude of “we won, you lost, get over it.”  Rather I think all of us who live within the boundaries of the USA need to find ways to live together in peace and justice as best we can.

I don’t believe in collective guilt—my own or anybody else’s.  But I do believe that you can’t understand the present without understanding the history of the past, and, having learned this history, I have a responsibility not to forget it.


Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide? by Guenter Lewy for Commentary magazine.  His answer: Not really.

Hitler Studied U.S. Treatment of Indians by Elicia Goodsoldier for Indian Country Today.  A different answer.

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4 Responses to “U.S. history from the viewpoint of the Indians”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    Reblogged this on silverapplequeen and commented:
    Another book on my list. A must-read.


  2. David G. Markham Says:

    Thank you Phil for a wonderful review and reference to an important book.


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