Demythifying Native Americans

Against the Current, No. 187, March/April 2017

Robert Caldwell

“All the Real Indians Died Off” And 20 Other Myths about Native Americans
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker
Boston: Beacon Press, 2016, 208 pages, $15 paper.

CHALENGING PERSISTENT MYTHS, “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans offers a much-needed and excellent introduction to American Indian history and contemporary life for a broad audience. Veteran writer Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz teamed up with Indian Country Today journalist Dian Gilio-Whitaker to offer this informative yet fun to read work.

The myths that the book challenges, the authors demonstrate, “grow from the racialized social structures on which the United States is built” (6), explaining the myths’ persistence despite changes in law and policy over time. In challenging longstanding myths, the authors also bring readers of all backgrounds to better understand the underlying logic of settler colonialism, and to confront many harsh truths of the United States that some casual readers might be predisposed to ignore or deny.

Rather than attempting a linear history, the book interrogates continuing structural racism by exposing the roots of contemporary issues, attitudes and struggles. The book is organized into mini-chapters of five to nine pages in length, followed by a 20-page timeline and citations by chapter.

The short chapters are each cohesive enough to work as stand-alone readings that successfully challenge the myth they are organized around, but densely packed with information that helps sheds light on additional struggles in Indian Country. Each invites the reader to explore facets of the argument more deeply by following up on the books, events and court cases mentioned within the body of the text.

“No collectivity of people in U.S. American society is enigmatic or misunderstood as Indigenous peoples….” the authors assert as they begin their introduction to the five-hundred-year historical context of Euro-American fear and prejudice that are wound up with centuries-long struggles over land use, economic power and political  control.

While introducing the centuries of conflict, the authors also illustrate some of the nuanced and tangled relationships between Natives and newcomers, well beyond open conflict and direct wars of conquest. The authors rightfully note that “the average U.S. citizen’s knowledge about American Indians is confined to a collection of well-worn myths” resulting in “perpetual erasure of Indians from the U.S. political and cultural landscape.”

The authors then focus on the task of overturning the myths and in doing so, making Native lives, history and culture immediately recognizable.

Chapter one, “All the Real Indians Died Off,” examines the bedrock myth on which many of the other myths are built. The chapter initiates a process to help the reader deconstruct the myths, unraveling the source of the myths and the function that they continue to serve. It explores the “vanishing Indian” as foundational to the “master narrative” of the United States.

Without the vanishing Indian trope, ideas like “American exceptionalism,” divine guidance/ manifest destiny, and the United States as a bastion for righteousness and democracy are exposed as tools used to reinforce state and ruling-class hegemony.

The chapter also begins to challenge associated myths associated with “paper genocide,” unraveling the logic of forced assimilation, religious conversion, encouraged intermarriage, and usage of blood quantum as a governmental norm. It also offers a useful introduction to a variety of sociological concepts used throughout the book, including a useful explanation of the theory of settler-colonialism.

In each chapter, Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker also introduce readers to contemporary struggles in Indian Country and situate concrete campaigns like challenging racist sports mascots, defending traditional culture against (mis-)appropriation and commodification, and demands that the U.S. government honor treaty responsibilities.

They elucidate how persistent myths and stereotypes often serve to isolate and obfuscate Native struggles. They use firsthand experiences and recent events to directly confront themes such as images of Indian savagery, U.S. genocide, “civilization” and development, identity, blood quantum, and the casino gaming industry.

Expanding Horizons

The book dispels many pervasive myths, but accomplishes much more. As an introduction to Indian Country it expands the horizons of the reader. It invites the reader to unlearn untruths and to learn from another vantage point. Importantly, the book not only demystifies Native peoples, but also exposes white supremacy and Eurocentric cultural norms as fundamental building blocks of our contemporary colonized thought.

The book is a useful resource, ideal for high school and local libraries. It can be used as part of an introduction to Native American and Indigenous Studies at the high school or college level, or an entry point on Native peoples for reading groups. The book is also the ideal companion to Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. When offering the books together for an introductory course or reading group, “All the Real Indians Died Off” should be read first.

The book has a few minor flaws. In challenging myths, at times it’s occasionally unclear as to the yardstick by which myths are measured, shifting at times between different forms of knowledge and knowledge systems.

When discussing the Northwest Ordinance, authors note that statehood required “decimation” of the Native population. (68)  But context reveals that more than a reduction by 10% (the literal meaning of decimation) was inflicted; statehood required extreme reduction of the Native population, therefore, “eradication” or “devastation” would be the more appropriate word choice.

The monetary amount for the Cobell v. Salazar settlement portion of the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, discussed on page 115, should read $3.4. The chapter dispelling the myth of government welfare would have been further strengthened had it attempted to value the overall Native loss of land in current dollars as a point of contrast with the settlements. Lastly, an index would have been useful for those using the book as a reference.

The last chapter challenges the liberal “Indian plight” trope and is a fitting conclusion. The chapter is an historical survey of white progressives, and of American Indian movements of self-determination, in the 20th and first dozen years of the 21st century. The chapter mentions Occupy Wall Street, noting that while the movement united people across races against the enemy of capital, it failed to come to terms with the colonial roots of oppression in this country which began even prior to capitalism.

The authors note that the Idle No More movement and resistance to the Keystone XL Pipeline have galvanized a new movement. Since the publication of this book, the ongoing struggle at Standing Rock validates this perspective. Ultimately, justice for American Indians requires solidarity, not sympathy. Our liberation is bound up together.

March-April 2017, ATC 187