I want to use this book as required reading for American Studies. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People sparked a brain revolution in me that I think all Americans need.
Many older folk, like me, had history classes where we learned “the Great Man” theory; in other words, our history classes told the story of the winners in history — the men who won the power to present themselves as great men who brought our nation into being.
This makes it easy to forget that Christopher Columbus discovered absolutely nothing; in actuality, entire civilizations with their own complex networks of culture existed in North and South America long before Europeans colonized “the New World.” It makes it easy to forget colonizers relied on genocidal and racist tactics that established the bloody foundations of our country.
This is the story that Dubar-Ortiz tells in An Indigenous People’s History for Young People. She tells the history of Native Americans (or, American Indians; she explains that the proper term depends on who you talk to. Best practice is to use the specific and accurate name of the people you refer to, i.e. Cherokee, Ojibwa, Anishnaabe, Sioux, Lakota, etc.).
Why read history from this angle? Because, even if we think we know the whole story … we don’t. There’s always more. There’s always another perspective. We owe it to those long-marginalized to listen to their story. What’s more, we owe it to ourselves to take in diverse perspectives so that we can better understand the truth.
I especially enjoyed this book because it is an adaptation for young people. The information included is interesting to young people. For example, the author includes a whole chapter about #NoDAPL and the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. Since this is something young people today actually lived through, it is easy for them relate and make personal connections to. Dunbar-Ortiz quotes filmmaker, Josh Fox, who perfectly explains how the conflict at Standing Rock works as a symbol for American history:
“It is as if American history is being played out in miniature. On one side, the terrible legacy of the genocidal Indian wars of Manifest Destiny, atrocity, and slaughter. On the other side, the great American tradition of equality, egalitarianism, the Bill of Rights, democracy, the fight for human rights. The collision course of history couldn’t be clearer than it is on Standing Rock. On one side, the descendants both genealogically and ideologically of General Custer and on the other side, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Wounded Knee. The ghosts of history dance in front of us on the water. The vapors of tear gas and pepper spray menacing their legacy. It is the fight for the climate, for the Bill of Rights, and for all of America standing there, shivering in the water.”
The book begins before European colonization in North and South America, establishing that Native Americans thrived here, despite European stereotypes of savagery and barbarism. Dunbar-Ortiz goes on to describe colonization as well as the ghettoization and genocide of indigenous peoples by European colonizers.
The book carefully dispels myths about stereotypes surrounding indigenous peoples and the myth that European colonizers were successful in “wiping out” native communities. Rather, Dunbar-Ortiz notes, indigenous peoples resisted the injustices Europeans inflicted. There are many stories of the persistence and resilience of indigenous communities throughout the history of the United States, all the way up to the conflict at Standing Rock in 2016.
I enjoyed the graphics, side bar notes, and definitions included in this adaptation. It helps a young reader — or, even this experienced one — better understand a complex history. It made history easier to understand.
My favorite part about this book was the actionable steps the authors recommend to young people can take to ensure a better future for all Americans. They point out that even though we are not responsible for the atrocities our ancestors committed, we are responsible for the society we live in, which is the “product of the past.”
Three of my favorite steps towards taking responsibility for a more fair society that respects indigenous peoples were:
1. If a movie/book misrepresents Native people, you can let others know
2. Follow social media conversations that use hashtags like #NativeTwitter
3. Inform yourself
These are three things we can all do to make a better America that respects Native people.
The book ends encouraging young people to learn and figure out how to live in a more peaceful and respectful future:
Pipeline construction, mining, and other forms of exploitation are sure to continue in the twenty-first century. Native people will persist in protecting their communities, their lands, their water, their sacred sites, and the wider world from the risks.
Knowing how to be in that future world is your challenge.
So, let’s take on the challenge. We got this.