The Real Deal About Indians

Accurately understanding American history might be the best future protection against repeating past mistakes.


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No educational institution, library, or person claiming to have a grasp of American history should be without the book All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a San Franciscan and pioneer in Native American, ethnic, and women’s studies, and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a San Clemente Native American scholar, have written 21 myth-busting chapters that expose the atrocities committed against—and the glories contained within—Native American people and culture. Together, the co-authors bring decades of scholarship and personal insights into the histories of indigenous people in the United States. In chapters that dispute long-held misconceptions about Native Americans as “lazy,” “hard-drinking,” “in need of civilizing,” “protected by United States Presidents and laws” and other myths, the authors bolster their arguments with case studies, recent documents and data, and archival records. More than anything, the book is a reclamation of truth.

The authors write about confounding assumptions and prejudices dating back to a precolonial period that Dunbar-Ortiz, also an international human rights activist, and Gilio-Whitaker claim began 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. All the Real Indians brings a reader through the centuries to the current day. Indigenous peoples’ advanced agricultural civilizations and rich, cultural, and spiritual traditions that developed in 200-1400 A.D. were in the 15th and 16th centuries subject to violations by conquistadors, explorers, colonizers, and largely white men intent on claiming the fertile land and resources of North America. Tragically, enlightenment was slow to come, and the authors show that the parade of devastation continues in the United States, right up to the present day. Native American struggles have merged with a global Indigenous rights movement that in the 21st century involves people worldwide.

Both of Native American heritage, Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker make the point in the book’s introduction that present day education about Native American history is based on racist constructs and sorely lacking in truth. In the final chapter, they write that the gains made in protecting the land and rights of indigenous people can be lost in this country “by judicial decisions from an ill-informed or politically conservative Supreme Court.”

As demonstrations against the Keystone XL Pipeline raged and a new presidential administration results in tightened immigration laws, reduced environmental protection, and an ethos that honors commerce over community will prevail, accurately understanding American history might be the best future protection against repeating past mistakes—for everyone’s benefit, indigenous people and all others included.

All the Real Indians Died Off: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Beacon Press, 2016, 224 pp., $15)

 

This report appears in the February edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Feb. 23, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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