Indigenous Struggles in the Americas: Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a writer, teacher, historian, and social activist, is Professor Emeritus of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at California State University.

You have been deeply involved in Indigenous peoples’ activism in the United States.  What is the current situation of Indigenous people in the US economically and politically?

Decolonization is a difficult and long-term task for Indigenous peoples in North America, no less than for the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific, with advances and setbacks, and uneven results.  Politically, the current situation is better than it has been since the onset of colonization, and that is due to the post-World War II surge of a permanent resistance to colonialism.  The best account of the foundation for that movement is historian Daniel Cobb’s Native Activism in Cold War America: The Struggle for Sovereignty.  As in the colonized world in general, sovereignty is the essential element without which nothing else is possible.  The Pan-Indian movement, most identified with the American Indian Movement (AIM), rose out of the ferment of the 1960s militant movements and led to a pan-Indigenous movement, with notable advances in international law protection of Indigenous rights and limits on states’ sovereignty.  This in turn unloosed an unparalleled cultural development of Indigenous writers, poets, filmmakers, actors, visual artists, sculptors, musicians, and an intelligentsia, including lawyers, historians, anthropologists, theologians, linguists, philosophers, economists, museum curators, administrators, and teachers.

Economically and socially, the situations of Indigenous communities in the United States are dire, with astronomical unemployment, dependence on federal transfer payments, with the resulting social ills of poor health, family dysfunction, alcoholism and increasing drug addiction and drug gangs.  A few Indigenous nations have benefited from successful casinos where the income is reinvested into infrastructure and human needs, most notably in Oklahoma and New Mexico.  But, the casino industry does not provide many jobs.  The Chickasaw nation in Oklahoma have been innovative in investing the income from their highly successful casino into subsidized enterprises, such as organic vegetable farms that provide food for its citizens and school children as well as sales at farmers’ markets.  They have created a number of labor intensive enterprises — pencil manufacturing, a chocolate factory, and others — and market the products throughout Oklahoma.  The income is used to develop intensive training in the Chickasaw language, and they have established an endowed chair for a Chickasaw Studies department, which they subsidize, at the local state university.  They have also begun purchasing and restoring charming old shuttered hotels in towns in their area.  The Chickasaws, like the other five Indigenous nations forcibly removed in the 1830s from their ancient homelands in the Southeast, at first received new national territories in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), much smaller in parameters, to replace the lost lands.  However, in the 1890s, the federal government dissolved the sovereignty of those Indian nations and divided their territories into individual allotments that could be bought and sold.  So, they do not have territorial holdings, as do most other federally recognized Indigenous Nations west of the Mississippi.  Other Indigenous communities in Oklahoma are implementing similar projects.  Also, a number of the Indigenous communities (Pueblo Indians) of New Mexico who have established casinos have used the income to return to irrigated farming as they had practiced in the Northern Rio Grande valley for centuries before colonization but had nearly abandoned in the past half-century.  They have developed local and national markets for their traditional foods of green chili, squash, beans, and corn, especially blue corn.  And there is a resurgence of use of the Indigenous languages.

How do you think the genocide of the native population of the United States relates to US foreign policy today?

I think it relates to every aspect of U.S. society, but especially foreign policy and militarism.  The British settlers in the 13 North American colonies were organized into militias during the century and a half before those militias united into an army that established the independent United States.  The militias had only one function:  kill Indians or drive them away in order to take their land.  Actually, the British authorities attempted to limit the settlers’ incursion on Indian lands, particularly following the Treaty of Paris that ended the “French-Indian” war (7 Years’ War in Europe) in 1760, when the British agreed to a line marking its colonial holdings along the coast and agreed to prevent settlement beyond the Appalachian/Allegheny mountain chain, leaving the rest of the continent as Indian Country.  This was one of the primary reasons for the settlers’ decision to separate from Britain to form their own continental empire.  By the time of the War of Independence, tens of thousands of settlers illegally crossed the mountain barrier into the Ohio Valley.  Those settlers, mostly Scots-Irish, formed the backbone of the army of independence led by George Washington, himself a lifelong colonial officer.  This kind of colonial warfare formed the purpose and goals of the U.S. military after independence, what historian William Appleman Williams called a policy of “annihilation unto unconditional surrender,” a policy that has remained in effect.  This is by definition a policy of genocide.

How do you view North American traditions such as Thanksgiving and Columbus day?

Don’t forget July 4, a day that lives in infamy for the indigenous peoples of North America.  Lincoln created Thanksgiving during the Civil War, and Columbus Day by FDR in 1934, as vehicles for controlling the narrative of settler colonialism as heroic and liberatory.  Indigenous communities in the U.S., as well as Latin America, have made good use of Columbus Day with counter-events and information, and U.S. Indians have been countering the message of Thanksgiving.

You were deeply involved in opposition to the US proxy war against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua during the 1980s.  It was frequently claimed however that the Sandinistas were violating the human rights of the Miskito population.  How do you reconcile your support for indigenous peoples with your support for the Sandinistas?

It’s interesting that the question is nearly always put that way, clean cut, Sandinistas or Indigenous, which side are you on, as if we are talking about Nazis and Jews, or workers and corporations, in which case one has to choose which side.  Following the Sandinista triumph there was civil war, which of course the Reagan administration exploited; there are always civil wars following revolutions, since the revolution itself is a civil war.  Take the case of the U.S. war of independence in which half the settler population (“Tories”) fought with the British against secession.  The Miskitos were also divided, and the U.S. Christian missionaries in the Mosquitia had close relations with the U.S. government.  The U.S.-based American Indian Movement, already weakened by years of U.S. harassment, divided with one group (that also made up the International Indian Treaty Council) supporting the Miskitos who worked with the Sandinistas, while another, smaller group supported the anti-Sandinistas Miskitos.  In Latin America, there was little support for the anti-Sandinista Miskitos who took up arms and allied with the U.S. intervention.  So, it was much more complex than simply pro-Sandinista meant not supporting the Miskito demands for autonomy and self-determination.  I would say that my own actions and position was in the majority Indigenous thinking on the issue.  The northeastern region, the Mosquitia, did become a war zone (as did the northwestern region), with U.S.-controlled Honduras allowing camps across the border for the Contras and for the Miskito anti-Sandinista combatants who were supported by the CIA and the Contras.  The heavy presence of the Sandinista army and restrictions and deprivations caused by war certainly were oppressive, and there were instances of abuses, but clearly not policy-driven.  The propaganda of gross human rights violations (Reagan’s UN ambassador claimed that 100,000 Miskitos had been “slaughtered,” which was more than the entire Miskito population) was overwhelming, beginning in February 1982.

What were some of the social achievements of the Sandinistas?

In the short period the Sandinistas had before the crippling effects of the Contra War, really only 3 years, they put food, health care, and literacy first, mobilized the already mobilized communities all over the country to get involved, all students and faculty to volunteer to teach reading and writing to the 60 percent illiterate, called for international assistance, both voluntary, governmental, and from the United Nations.  The UN agencies, in particular, love it when a government invites them in to set up programs.  UNESCO, for instance, provided materials and teacher training in literacy, and also awarded Nicaragua with its highest honor in 1981 for its success in wiping out illiteracy in the country.  In the Mosquitia the Miskitos, the Sumos, the Ramas, and the English-speaking Afro-Caribbean communities demanded literacy in their mother tongues, as well as bilingual textbooks in the schools, which the Sandinista government agreed to.  The World Health Organization organized polio and other vaccination programs as well as training medical workers in working with communities to prevent infant mortality, largely caused by dehydration from diarrhea, by introducing water purification methods.  The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) implemented programs for food production to replace the commercial wheat and cattle agribusiness promoted under the Somoza dictatorship.  Land titles were given to small farmers who had been pushed off their land by big producers and provided with seeds and farm tools.  All of this took place in a devastated country.  Only the wealthy neighborhoods of Managua had been rebuilt after the 9.0 earthquake of 1972 flattened the city, and added to that 2 years of out-and-out warfare against the Sandinista insurgents, including Somoza’s bombing of most of the large cities, the Sandinistas had to start from scratch and also bear the $90 million debt left by Somoza (a requirement from the Carter administration in order to recognize the new government).  The Nicaraguan constitution, which was developed in community meetings all over the country as well as consultations with international law specialists, as well as with indigenous activists, included the establishment of 2 autonomous regions in eastern Nicaragua, southern region (majority Afro-Caribbean with minority populations of Miskitos, Rama, and Hispanic) and northern region (majority Miskito, with Afro-Caribbean, Sumo, and Hispanic minority populations), with parliaments to be elected in each to control all aspects of policy in their respective regions.  Also, autonomous universities were established in each of the regions.

What is your view of the current Nicaraguan government led by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega?

I tend to follow the views of the MRS, the Movement for the Renovation of Sandinismo, which split from Ortega’s domination of the FSLN.  However, for the Miskitos, this administration has been certainly more responsive in terms of constitutional autonomy than those of the preceding 15 years.

Politically you have described yourself as being an “anarcho-syndicalist” — can you explain what that means?

My grandfather in Oklahoma was in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a national and international anarcho-syndicalist organization founded in 1905.  He joined at the founding; he was already in the Socialist Party in Missouri, then in Oklahoma.  He died before I was born, but I was always aware of his courage and commitment and the achievements of the IWW.  My father was a sharecropper and tenant farmer, and he and his 8 siblings and mother had suffered a lot from the repression that came down on my grandfather.  I call myself an anarcho-syndicalist in honor of my grandfather and that organic tradition in U.S. labor history.  But, I don’t like labels, and I always want to be open to new thinking, changing my mind, developing.  I do still strongly think that there is no better source for understanding how capitalism works and why it must be done away with than Marx.

This interview was first published in New Left Project on 20 February 2010; it is republished here with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s permission.

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