Howard Zinn challenged the way American history is taught when he wrote the now classic A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Rowe, 1980). Training her lens on Indian country, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz gives another much needed alternative history with the 2014 release of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States from Beacon Press. The book is one of the latest offerings from Beacon’s ReVisioning History series, inspired by Zinn’s groundbreaking work. Dunbar-Ortiz’s fifth book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History has proved so popular that it is already in its eighth hardcover printing and third in paperback. Joining the ranks of works by Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sherman Alexie, Joy Harjo and many other influential Native and non-Native contemporary writers, Dunbar-Ortiz’s book is a 2015 recipient of the American Book Award. It also garnered a 2015 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature. Roxanne spoke with ICTMN about the significance of this work.
One of the book’s main tenets is that the United States perfected techniques of irregular warfare to conduct genocidal wars against Indians through citizen militias, and that this ideology is sanctified in the second amendment. At its core, you suggest, is that the second amendment was about killing Indians to clear the land for settlers. Yet we often hear gun supporters argue that the right to bear arms supports the right of citizens to overthrow a government if necessary (something we see currently playing out with the Bundy militia in Oregon). What are today’s gun proponents missing about this aspect of history?
The second amendment was not just about a right to bear arms, but also a responsibility, since male settlers were required to serve in the militia. And it was hugely expanded as the militias were used as slave patrols in the South after the ethnic cleansing [of Indians] in the 1830s. The core of that impulse to defend the land against savages still exists, but now the savages are on the other side of the world. But in the book I put the second amendment in the context of the constitution as a “cult of the covenant.”
And this is one of the other main threads in the book. From your perspective, what is so unusual about U.S. colonialism is this idea of the cult of the covenant, which is the absolute unquestioning devotion to the constitution. Could you please elaborate?
I received a diploma in international comparative human rights law from Strasbourg and studied constitutional systems from all over the world. [The U.S.] is a very weird country that has the oldest constitution in existence. Britain doesn’t even have a constitution, so clearly the settlers didn’t bring that tradition with them. As monarchies fell and republics arose they created constitutions, but many countries still don’t have them. Even where they do exist, in no case are they sacred documents. The French have had six constitutions, and in Latin America they are often changed generationally. The sacredness of the Second Amendment has to be seen as part of the culty sacredness of the Constitution itself, which maintains a colonial structure. It’s absolutely essential that at some point there has to be a different form of government than one founded upon chattel slavery and Indian killing. That it’s worshipped as such is mind-boggling. With the locked-in argument about the second amendment, even liberals who argue against it adhere to this sacredness, but they just argue that the second amendment doesn’t mean what it says, or that it’s obsolete and should be changed. They’re still debating within a common settler belief.
Where does this commitment to the sacredness of the constitution come from?
I’m not the only one to write about this, but practically every U.S. historian traces it back to the Biblical literalism that the Puritans carried with them as Christian evangelicals. They were anti-monarchy as well. And the intellectual ideological formation that justified the country came out of the ivy leagues like Harvard and [to a lesser extent] Columbia. The other part of it was that the pilgrims and Puritans were Calvinists who like the Lutherans were part of the revolution against Catholicism. And the Scots Irish [were] Presbyterians in New Jersey, and Princeton was their citadel for intellectual production that justified ideology—which formed laws—that follows from what’s already being done. It’s a system that tries to justify itself. That’s normal, but it’s just so crude that it has continued to the present. So it’s the ideological imprint that comes from the Calvinist covenant with God—the law that cannot be broken—absolute devotion and belief that filters in as U.S. nationalism. What we have is a secular nationalism that uses the same mode as the Bible, but with a different reading.
What other assertions does An Indigenous Peoples’ History make?
The other strand in the book besides the legal structure and where it comes from is about military practice. Even though there is all this resentment toward the federal government, and it sounds contradictory because of the support for the constitution, there is also this allegiance for the army. It’s the only institution that is trusted by people in the United States, but it’s the most corrupt institution in the world! What stuns people the most, especially vets, when they start putting together what they know, is that the military was organized for no other reason than to invade other countries—first Native countries, then Mediterranean countries with invasion of the Berbers in North Africa in 1806, and of course Mexico. From the very beginning it was an army formed for belligerency and to take territory.