95 pages 3 hours read

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Jean Mendoza, Debbie Reese

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

Nonfiction | Book | YA | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People is a 2019 adaptation of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s 2015 nonfiction book. Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese adapted the material for middle-grade audiences. The original publication received the American Book Award, and this version is a 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Young Adult Honor Book with recognition from the National Council for the Social Studies and the Children’s Book Council. This book tells the perspective of hundreds of Indigenous nations as they resist elimination by European settlers.

Plot Summary

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People challenges national myths that American classrooms rarely critique, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and the assumption that Indigenous nations are primitive, dying cultures. It also avoids European-favoring terminology; for example, it refers to frontier settlers as “squatters” who intentionally violate treaties (96).

About 100 million people lived in the Western Hemisphere by the end of the 1500s CE. Their nations had sophisticated governments, agricultural systems, medical knowledge, and trading networks. While they engaged in warfare, many did not fight to destroy, and they maintained comparably egalitarian societies. In Europe, however, the concept of private land ownership led to rigid class structures and conquest for territory, status, and gold. Religious doctrine, such as bloodline purity, eventually turned into justifications for White supremacy.

Although Indigenous nations viewed early colonists as inept, they quickly recognized their true intentions. Europeans took over lands through a combination of direct combat, inter-tribal rivalries, and irregular warfare such as spreading disease and destroying hunting grounds. The British colonies rewarded those who killed and scalped the hair of Indigenous people, leading to rangers and militias that ransacked towns and killed people regardless of age or gender. Today’s laws would consider these acts to be genocide.

To stop further encroachment, the Shawnee and several other nations allied with the British during the colonial rebellion known to modern Americans as the Revolutionary War. Afterward, the new United States of America did not extend its concept of equality to Indigenous peoples, as President Thomas Jefferson completed vast land purchases without their consent and hoped to drive the Cherokee Nation away from their homeland. Andrew Jackson and other presidents continued these efforts, including Abraham Lincoln. In addition to military campaigns and civilian massacres, the government gained land using debt schemes and cooperation with an Indigenous “client class” of opportunists (101).

The Cherokee, Muscogee, Sauk, and others fought back against these efforts. Ultimately, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced these nations into reservations in deadly Trails of Tears in the middle of winter. Some nations sided with the Confederate States of America in the hopes of weakening both Civil War factions. The takeover of Mexico’s northern territory completed the Americans’ goal of expanding from coast to coast, and even anti-war and anti-slavery writers did not question Manifest Destiny, the notion that American expansion is justifiable and predestined. The US expanded beyond the coast with the annexation of Alaska and Hawai’i, and this same sense of American exceptionalism strongly informs the country’s foreign policy today.

Missionaries and boarding schools attempted to assimilate Indigenous people into American culture by separating children from their families and punishing them for practicing their beliefs. The US government encouraged hunting buffalo to near extinction to decimate peoples of the Great Plains, and late 1800s legislation eliminated collective ownership of tribal land to skim off parcels. The early 1900s saw victories like the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which recognized Indigenous nations’ ability to make their own laws. However, politicians created policies to terminate federal recognition of over 100 tribes during the 1950s.

The 1960s and 70s drove a new activism among younger Indigenous people, including the fish-in movement of the Pacific Northwest and the occupations of Alcatraz Island and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A modern example of this is the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s resistance against the construction of an oil pipeline through its water supply, which demonstrated the power of collective action. The militarized response the “water protectors” endured, however, show that anti-Indigenous attitudes are not a thing of the past (212).

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