Author & Activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The author and activist discusses her recent text All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades. Her last work An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States was honored with a 2015 American Book Award. For that text, she also received the 2015 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature. She released The Great Sioux Nation in 1977, and it was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations' headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of seven other books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies. Roxanne grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She lives in San Francisco. Roxanne's latest text, All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans is co-authored by Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) an award-winning journalist and columnist at Indian Country Today Media Network as well as a research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. The historian and author joins us to talk about her latest text, “All the Real Indians Died Off”, that challenges readers to rethink what they’ve been taught about Native Americans and our history. We’ll also get her thoughts on what a Trump presidency means for the Dakota Pipeline.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in a moment.

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Tavis: Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has been active in the international indigenous movement for more than four decades now. Her text, “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States”, was the 2015 recipient of the American Book Award.

Her latest book unpacks the most common myths and misconceptions about Native Americans. It’s called “All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans”. Roxanne, good to have you on this program.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you. I am curious because it is, of course, the story of the moment, the election of Donald Trump as our next president. Give me some–since you’re the historian here–give me some sense of Donald Trump’s history with Native Americans.

Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, he’s a disaster for Native Americans. He testified in the early 90s in Congress against Native casinos being established. He blamed the Indian casinos for his own bad business practices, his own failure. He claimed they weren’t really Indians. They didn’t look like Indians to him, those people who were–I don’t know if he ever even saw any of the people he was talking about.

But he was, in his usual way, just vulgar, insulting, racist and, because he’s a revengeful person, I’m concerned and I think Native people are very concerned that he will take a special interest in doing harm, and it’s so easy to do that for an executive.

President Obama has been more approachable, had more meetings with Native people listening to their issues and complaints and has really advanced a good government to government relationship with Native people. I mean, I can’t even imagine Donald Trump continuing that or even deferring to sit down and talk with a tribal government president.

Tavis: When you call him a vengeful person, what might that revenge look like to your point if he, in a committee hearing some years ago, blamed the Native Americans for his own issues with his casinos, which we know had some financial issues, to say the least.

What might that vengeance look like? What could he do vis-à-vis public policy? Because you made the point that it wouldn’t be hard to harm them. What would that look like?

Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, it could mean what it meant, for instance, in the Eisenhower period was pushing through a termination act to actually terminate the very existence of Native Americans, their land base, their treaties, everything. That continued until 1975, the Indian Self-Determination Act under Nixon, and several Native territories were terminated which was a disaster for them.

They took the ones that were doing well, that were succeeding, that were role models like the Klamath and the Menominee in Wisconsin. They’ve never recovered to the situation they were at at that time. And what changed that policy was the civil rights movement that Native people also rose up around the same time.

Native people worked with Martin Luther King on the Resurrection City on the Poor People’s Campaign and seized Alcatraz, the fishing rights struggles, Wounded Knee, so that it was reversed. And there was a lot of public sentiment in favor of restoring Native sovereignty.

But because Native people under U.S. law, which is very colonial law that comes from the Middle Ages, the Doctrine of Discovery, a Papal Bull, that says that the government actually owns that land and they can take it away or they can leave it, and that’s what they did with the people of the eastern half of the United States.

Andrew Jackson, as general, of course, he suppressed and attacked and did counterinsurgency, made war, but then as president, pushed through the Indian Removal Act. So all of those people lost their land east of the Mississippi and were moved to Indian territory which is now Oklahoma.

So that could be done again. Nothing has changed in the laws because these laws were imbedded in U.S. law, the Doctrine of Discovery, this Papal Bull of 1493, is through three decisions in the 1820s, the Cherokee Nation, and was reinforced by a recent decision in 2005 naming the Doctrine of Discovery.

So any revengeful kind of president didn’t really expect this because even Nixon changed. Even Reagan didn’t mess around that much, but I can see Trump doing it.

Tavis: And what agency would Native Americans have to push back against that?

Dunbar-Ortiz: I think just what we see right now. The persistence, the survival, of Native American peoples, first of all, it seems like a miracle because genocide was the policy. Settler colonialism was the policy.

Take the land, establish plantation, slavery, work by enslaved Africans, and they kept taking more and more territory. So the history is such that it’s really impossible to imagine that Donald Trump would not see that he could completely reorganize without the public having much knowledge.

But what we have now is a demonstration going on that has, fortunately at this moment, the demonstrations have been going on there for years and years to prevent the Keystone Pipeline and other pipelines. But this one really took off in the public mind.

Tavis: And you mean the Dakota Pipeline.

Dunbar-Ortiz: The Dakota Pipeline.

Tavis: Yeah, the protest about, yeah…

Dunbar-Ortiz: This is the Dakota one, but they also were protesting other pipelines and that Balkan operation up in North Dakota which is really a horrible…

Tavis: Let me ask you a couple of questions about that. And let me just preface by saying, you know, that anything could happen on this Dakota Pipeline between the time we sit for this conversation and the moment we get this on the air.

Anything could happen, so I know that there are protests happening as we speak. President Obama is considering doing something on this as we speak, so I want to just preface it with that.

That said, I want to pick up on your point. What do you make, Roxanne, of the fact that for whatever reason on this particular pipeline, the Dakota Pipeline–we had Amy Goodman on this program a few weeks ago for an entire show giving the country an understanding of what this is really all about.

What do you make of the fact that this particular protest has in fact caught fire and the Native American communities have a lot of allies in this particular fight, but why? What made that happen?

Dunbar-Ortiz: It’s really interesting. I’ve thought and thought about it and I’ve also compared it being involved in the Wounded Knee. That was just two and a half months. This has already been since April that these encampments have been there.

I think that a part of it is the concern during the election year that looking for something positive, you know, just this dreariness of the past year, the toxicity of the language of Trump every day 24/7.

I think a part of it was simply that there was an attraction to something positive. Here are people positively acting for water, for water rights, and we’d already had these other water scandals in Flint that had to have a lot of publicity.

I think it’s partly that and then I think it’s partly just this younger generation of Native activists and scholars and intellectuals and tribal officials. It’s very unusual to have a tribal official like Chairman Archambault of Standing Rock to participate with more radical protesters, a whole range.

Because in the past, the tribal chair people, they get their funds from the federal government. They’re more or less answering to the federal government rather than their own people. It’s set up that way, that colonial system. So you can see a change and it’s not just Chairman Archambault, but all those tribal chairmen who come from all the different tribes.

Tavis: What should happen–there’s two questions here. What should happen on this Dakota Pipeline fight and what will happen? The president only has so many days before he’s termed out. What do you think should happen and what do you think will happen?

Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, what should happen is I think that President Obama should make an executive order ordering at least for that part of the area that the federal government has control over, the Corps of Engineers area. And also make an executive order for–he’s asked twice. He asked, I think, just Friday and then two weeks ago or a month ago, and they have ignored him.

The company has ignored him and I think there needs to be an executive order to investigate the sale, the illegal sale, of that land that the corporation that’s doing the pipeline actually bought that land in a public auction that wasn’t advertised three times.

Tavis: Before you go forward, when you say the president asked twice, he asked for what twice?

Dunbar-Ortiz: He asked that the company put a moratorium on continuing…

Tavis: Putting the pipeline…

Dunbar-Ortiz: Yes, to pause.

Tavis: Okay.

Dunbar-Ortiz: Until a full investigation could be done.

Tavis: And they’ve ignored him on that?

Dunbar-Ortiz: They’ve ignored him, and I’m assuming the investigation’s going on, but they’re continuing at an incredible pace. They’re working three shifts a day. They obviously know that time is on their side because Obama will be out soon and we can’t expect Trump to do anything.

So that’s why I wish both the sale of that land which also is Standing Rock, unceded Standing Rock property under the 1851 treaty with the United States, which is an active treaty. So what will happen, it’s hard for me to say.

But I think what Native people will do is, and are already doing, is continue the protest. It will spread, but we also have an infrastructure built over the last 40 years within the United Nations, and I believe that we will have an enormous support within the United Nations.

We already do. They’ve already–the Human Rights Council has condemned because under the Genocide Treaty, this is really an act of genocide because one of the requirements for genocide, there are five, and one is killing. Others do not require killing. It’s creating conditions that make it impossible for the concerned group to survive, to live and to flourish. And that’s exactly what is happening…

Tavis: But you realize–I take your point and I know that well because I studied those points. But you know well that, when that G word gets raised in conversation, particularly–I mean, let’s be frank about this. As a country, we have been reticent to use the G word when we knew that’s what was happening.

Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, I love them both, one of the great mistakes of their administration which they now admit–they’ve admitted a number of times–they were too slow on Rwanda and they were slow because nobody wanted to use the G word when it came to Rwanda.

So that if we don’t want to use that word in reference to somebody else, you really can’t run around calling the U.S. genocidal. So what happens when that word even comes up in conversation about what they’re doing disrupting these sacred burial grounds, etc., etc. with regard to this Dakota Pipeline? Does the G word just shut down the conversation?

Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, I think that it’s the reverse, that the reason they didn’t take a stand on Rwanda is because they’ve always feared the G word, the Genocide Treaty, which was promulgated in 1948 and was completely in effect by 1950. The United States didn’t even ratify it until 1988. Why is that?

You know, in their discussions and the documents, it’s very clear because of slavery and because of taking Indian land and genocide just out and out killing Native people in warfare. It’s not really warfare when you go in and massacre women and children. I don’t even call that war. That’s simply genocide.

Tavis: Exactly.

Dunbar-Ortiz: And they’re very sensitive to that from the beginning and it was just kind of a fluke that they ratified it in 1988 when Reagan was president because his friend, Deukmejian, governor of California, and he persuaded them to.

Tavis: So that if President Obama in the coming hours or days decides to issue an executive order to stop this pipeline being built by this company, all it takes is for Donald Trump to take office January 20 and anything that one president can do by executive order, another president can undo by executive order.

Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah, exactly. If he gave those orders, I think, though, with the Corps of Engineers, he would undo that. But with the land title, that gets into property law and I don’t think it would be so easy to reverse an investigation of that. And that’s a place where they’ve already–this is where the young people went out and they were met with the police from five different states and the National Guard beat them up…

Tavis: Dogs…

Dunbar-Ortiz: Arrested 500.

Tavis: Yeah, sure.

Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, they knew that was a risk because it’s considered private property. But they were making the point that it’s illegally private property, so that gets into a different realm, you know, that would have to go through courts.

Tavis: Yeah, but you’d be relying on a Trump Justice Department to fight that fight.

Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, that’s true, yeah. The only thing, it also concerns treaties. You know, the international, of course, will have undoubtedlyJohn Bolton is being considered to be Secretary of State.

Tavis: I saw that, yeah.

Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah, so…

Tavis: God help us all [laugh]. Did I just say that [laugh]?

Dunbar-Ortiz: I couldn’t believe John Bolton and maybe Sarah Palin as Department of the Interior.

Tavis: As Interior Secretary, yeah.

Dunbar-Ortiz: And Interior, people may not understand that, although Native affairs were under the Department of War and it was called the Department of War until 1948, it was moved to Interior as they felt confident it was colonization. They did have to make war after that, but they moved it and Interior Department is where the Bureau of Indian Affairs is set.

He has five people on the list for Interior. Sarah Palin, who believes in corporatizing and privatizing all Native land, and Janet Brewer who’s in Arizona, Navajo Nation, Tohono O’odham, Apaches, a huge, large Native population, and she has the same free trade…

Tavis: So nobody on that list who would be a friend of Native people.

Dunbar-Ortiz: No, and the other three are simply corporate energy resource executives.

Tavis: Yeah. There are a number–I want to shift gears slightly, ever so slightly. There are a number of myths, of course, the whole point of the book is to sort of debunkthe book, “All the Real Indians Died Off: and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans”. The book, again, is in part to debunk some of these myths. And one of the myths that is actually laughable to me because, if you know any history, you know how silly it sounds.

But since we’re talking about Trump and casinos and this testimony he gave years ago blaming the Native Americans for his crises with his casinos, one of the myths is that all Native Americans are rich because they all live on casinos and live off of casino profits. I mean, is that a myth you really have to debunk?

Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah. You know, it’s a trope that the myth–we have some other myths too sort of like that. But the oil boom in Oklahoma and, well, Indian territory in the 1880s, where it was on Native land, so they allotted the land and there were about two or three very wealthy Indian, mostly Osage Indian, families that came out of that.

So that oil boom, all the Indians were rich, so for an Indian to really be an Indian, an authentic Indian, there are no real Indians, they’re required to be poor. So doing well with the casinos and being able to build infrastructure and housing for their people and scholarships and also buy back land on the periphery of reservations and healthcare and food and diet and all these things that that money is going to…

Tavis: All that makes you less Indian [laugh].

Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, it makes you less Indian, but it also means that the people are choosing not to get rich, you know, that they’re choosing to make it a collective affair. So no one’s getting rich off of it and, of course, there are only a few that are doing very well. But under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act which Native people agreed to, they have to disburse some of those funds.

Because like in South Dakota, the Pine Ridge has a little casino. I think Standing Rock has one, but it’s mainly just local. It doesn’t generate much income. You know, in remote places, a casino, unless it can be a resort, unless it can be, you know, a Las Vegas style entertainment, and there are some of those and they’re doing very well.

Tavis: The other myth that is obviously timely, given this season that we are in, this myth about Thanksgiving. I’ll let you unpack that and tell the real story for those who’ve been taught this narrative in school all these years about how Thanksgiving came to be. The truth is?

Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, the truth is that Pilgrims and Indians and pumpkins were not in any story of the original Thanksgiving which was during the Civil War when Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving. It was a slightly different date, but it was for, you know, the dead. It was to be thankful for having family together and being aware.

It was in the middle of, you know, one of the bloodiest wars in human history, and death toll. So it had nothing to do with Native people at all. And it didn’t until really the Roosevelt administration, the Depression era. Then it was given an exact date, but it was still more or less just a festivity around food.

But advertising basically, you know, advertising that really took off in the 1920s and 30s started adding Pilgrim’s hats and Indians and making up a false narrative about these invaders that came in and started stealing the Indian peoples’ food. They were really good farmers and fishermen.

They didn’t come to live peacefully in all their documents. They came to destroy the heathen and create a Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem, of real human beings. And there’s absolutely nothing friendly about it.

There had been friendly trading from ships offshore, but once settlers came, settler colonialism is a devastating thing because it really requires the demise of the people, not just putting them in labor. It’s like West Africa where ethnically cleansed of people enslaved that has never restored the population it should have.

Tavis: So I get it. The narrative then is designed to make the invader, the occupier, look less malevolent.

Dunbar-Ortiz: Yes, and to make it look benign and even very friendly encounter of people who are very different.

Tavis: Well, it’s the season for that story to be circulated as it is everywhere and every day this time of  year. You want the truth about it and the truth about 20 other stories, myths, lies, about Native Americans, pick up the new book co-authored by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

The book is called “All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans”. Roxanne, thank you for the book. Thank you for the conversation. Good to have you on this program.

Dunbar-Ortiz: Thank you. Thank you very much, Tavis.

Tavis: That is our show for tonight. Goodnight from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 23, 2016 at 2:02 pm