Unraveling America’s founding myths

October 26, 2016

Brian Ward reviews a book that challenges myths, new and old, about Native peoples.

ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ followed up her book An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by teaming up with Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network, to write another must-read: "All the Real Indians Died Off" and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.

The book was released in the beginning of October, and there couldn't be a better month for it, amid the largest Native resistance in decades at Standing Rock, the continued call to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day--and now the Cleveland Indians showing off their racist logo Chief Wahoo during the World Series.

With Native Americans getting more of a spotlight from the mainstream media, old myths and stereotypes continue to hang on in our society. The authors do a great job covering some of them: from "Columbus Discovered America" to "Sports Mascots Honor Native Americans" to "Indian Casinos Make Them All Rich."

More importantly, Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker show not only that these myths are false, but how essential they are to the American story and how they are continually used to keep Natives oppressed.

Native American protesters at the People's Climate March in New York City
Native American protesters at the People's Climate March in New York City (Allan Lissner | Idle No More)

The book is hard to put down. So much useful and accessible information is packed into 224 pages, including an very handy timeline in the back that everyone should study.

The authors take on some of the deities and sacred symbols of the American narrative, exposing this country's not-so-rosy history. At the beginning of myth number five--"Indians were Savage and Warlike"--they quote a passage from the Declaration of Independence claiming that King George of England:

has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

As Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker write:

The enshrinement of such pernicious language within a foundational state text presents an unreconciled ideological conundrum in a republic dedicated to democracy. It also solidifies a representation of Native people in the American imagination in a way that has yet to be fully transcended.

In addition, the authors point out, history books and classes in public schools often overlook the fact that so many of the "founding fathers" viewed Natives as "savages" and a "lesser race." Many of this elite of the pre- and post-revolution era, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, had land investments west of the Appalachian Mountains, which drove some of the their desire for independence from Britain.

The idea of Manifest Destiny--that it was the destiny of the new United States that immigrants would conquer the "untamed wilderness" and settle on "vacant land"--became part of the national identity. But at its core, this narrative erases the genocidal history involved in "settling" the land.

The authors point out that land became one of the most important commodities for the accumulation of capital and building of national wealth--which further explains the barbaric policies of the U.S. government toward Native peoples.

DRAWING CLOSER to modern myths, Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker debunk the common belief that all Indians live on welfare and don't pay taxes. In reality, studies show that Native Americans pay almost as much in taxes as they receive in benefits from the government.

One right-wing argument that we hear constantly is that Indians make so much money from casinos. It's hard to talk to have a conversation about Native Americans with non-Natives without misconceptions about casinos coming up.

As the authors explain, some Native Nations have made money from casinos, but they are in the minority. Only 15 Native-owned casinos account for 37 percent of total Indian gaming, and the top 55 take in 70 percent. Plus there is the question of whether and how profits generated from casinos make it into the hands of working-class Native Americans.

Casinos have certainly helped some Nations, but to say that gaming has raised Natives out of poverty in general is a mischaracterization.

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker also discuss how old myths are connected to a new one about casinos that "resurrects and resuscitates some of the oldest and most deeply embedded significations of Native Americans and Native America," they write. The updated image of the "dangerous savage" and "degraded Indian" are familiar portrayals of Indians as a threat to white America, but rather than Indians being a military threat to white settlement as they once were, the threat is now economic and political.

The stereotyping of Natives via sports mascots is probably the most visible myth, from the Washington football team, to the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Chiefs, and the list can go on and on. Natives have been protesting these degrading images for decades.

Native American appropriation is so ubiquitous in U.S. society that it is completely normalized, not only rendering it invisible when it occurs, but to add insult to injury, Native people are shamed for being "hypersensitive" when they protest.

The biggest takeaway from this book is about humanizing Native Americans. Indians are not relics of the past or sports mascots--they and their communities are still fighting for the rights and land long ago taken away from them. This book helps deconstruct the myths at the core of U.S. history and put forward the real lived experiences of Natives.

The current resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock makes it hard to uphold the myth that "All the Real Indians Died Off." Native peoples are still here and still fighting for their rights, as this book helps to show.

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