83 pages 2 hours read

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a nonfiction, award-winning book by historian, author, and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offering an oft untold perspective. It is a chronological narrative of the history of the United States through the eyes of Indigenous peoples. With its unique perspective, this book earned the 2015 American Book Award and has become one of the bases for HBO’s 2021 docuseries Exterminate All the Brutes, which discusses colonialism and genocide. This study guide refers to the hardcover 2014 Beacon Press Edition of the book.

Dunbar-Ortiz replaces the traditional historical framework used by scholars and historians with respect to the history of the United States and provides a historical analysis within a colonial framework. She writes as an activist historian by combining historical narrative with advocacy for certain strategies for the future. Her goals and intentions for the book are simple: to shed light on the history of the United States through an Indigenous perspective, especially by demonstrating that governmental policies against Indigenous peoples were from the beginning designed to annihilate or displace Indigenous people, and to reveal how acknowledging the past can help society move forward.

Her chronological retelling starts with pre-colonialism and follows through the founding of the United States into the 21st century. Importantly, Dunbar-Ortiz rejects the traditional chronology framing found in U.S. history textbooks that start with colonial history and then the U.S. Revolutionary War against Britain through major U.S presidential periods, the Civil War, and so on. Instead, she organizes it through the lens of Indigenous peoples and discusses first the Americas pre-colonization before discussing European colonization and continues through the birth of the U.S. and wars against Indigenous peoples throughout before reaching modern overseas imperialism and militarism.

Content Warning: This guide contains sensitive and potentially triggering content concerning extreme violence, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and sexual abuse.

Plot Summary

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States strives to break down myths and beliefs of the founding of the United States and associated assumptions abouts its history. In her introductory chapter, Dunbar-Ortiz identifies settler colonialism as the cause of destruction of Indigenous communities and the root of a bloody past we need to understand as the reality of United States history. Chapters 1 through 3 focus on establishing the background information necessary to understand the colonization of North America. Dunbar-Ortiz first sets a picture in Chapter 1 of the Americas with thriving Indigenous nations and civilizations prior to the arrival of Europeans. The pre-colonial world centered on agriculture, particularly corn, and contained vast networks and roads. She breaks down the myth of a “pristine wilderness” and “new world” that Europeans would later use to describe the Americas. In Chapters 2 and 3, Dunbar-Ortiz also focuses not on the era of pre-colonization of the Americas but on historical circumstances in Europe that provide crucial context for understanding the experiences and beliefs of the people who would later become settler-colonialists in North America. She also discusses European development of a culture of conquest, such as through the Crusades, the Spanish Reconquest, and England’s conquest of Ireland. Additionally, she details the Calvinist ideology of a key group of settlers, the Ulster-Scots (or Scots-Irish) who brought with them covenant ideology to the Americas and used it to guide their actions and views toward Indigenous peoples.

In Chapters 4 through 6, Dunbar-Ortiz focuses on the years leading up to the Anglo-American settler war for independence against Britain through the early years of the United States as a new nation. These chapters chronicle the U.S. way of war that involved settler-rangers using unlimited violence and irregular warfare against Indigenous peoples to continue their invasion and theft of Indigenous lands. Through this she also details Indigenous resistance to U.S. expansion and wars against them. Chapter 6 details a crucial period of U.S. history involving the period under President Andrew Jackson, who led the forced removal of Indigenous people east of the Mississippi into designated “Indian Territory.” Dunbar-Ortiz describes how Jackson’s policies against Indigenous peoples were not new or a diversion from past policies but a carrying out of the initial and founding goals of the country.

Chapters 7 through 9 begin discussing the expansion of the United States further west in the 19th century, including before and after the U.S. Civil War. She particularly discusses Indigenous resistance in the face of the U.S. taking more and more land and the U.S. encouraging policies of allotment, termination, and assimilation. Chapter 9 also explores the connection between these past events and colonialism to more recent U.S. wars and overseas imperialism.

Dunbar-Ortiz, in her concluding chapters, explores the various methods of resistance and activism in the 20th and 21st century, especially in rise of other civil rights movements in mid-20th century. She advocates for the goal of self-determination and Indigenous sovereignty as necessary for the survival of Indigenous peoples, traditions, and cultures. As she traces the lingering effect of the Doctrine of Discovery of the 15th century that allowed for European powers to colonize the world, she details how Indigenous resistance has helped to reject the doctrine. In her conclusion chapter, she argues for the continuing effects of colonialism on modern-day society, not just for Indigenous peoples but everyone. She urges her audience to take on the challenge and responsibility of working for a future based on accepting the realities of the past, which begins by educating ourselves and rejecting biased history and ideas of exceptionalism.

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An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People

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An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People

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