Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a lifelong social justice activist and a leading historian of indigenous struggles in the Americas. She is professor emeritus of Ethnic Studies at California State University and works in a variety of political capacities. The daughter of a landless farmer and a half-Indian mother, Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma. In the 1960s, she worked in the anti-war movement, spent time in a clandestine group, and organized in support of anti-imperialist movements in Cuba, Nicaragua, South Africa, and elsewhere. Through her involvement in the feminist group Cell 16, she became a key figure in the women’s liberation movement. In 1974, she became active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the International Indian Treaty Council. This engagement marked the beginning of a life-long commitment to advancing indigenous struggles. In 1981, Dunbar-Ortiz travelled to Nicaragua to investigate the Miskitu Indians’ land-tenure issues. Over the next eight years, she made more than 100 trips to Central America to monitor the conflict between the Contras and Sandinistas.
Dunbar-Ortiz’s first book, The Great Sioux Nation: An Oral History of the Sioux Nation and its Struggle for Sovereignty, was presented as the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indians of the Americas, held in 1977 at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In the years since, she has continued to write works concerned with indigenous struggles for self-determination and the politics of place and land. In the last decade, she has written a trilogy of acclaimed memoirs – Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975, and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War. With the assistance of Alexis Shotwell, Chris Dixon interviewed Dunbar-Ortiz in March 2008.
How do you describe your politics?
Well, I don’t know anymore in terms of coherent descriptions. I continue – mainly out of stubbornness – to call myself a Marxist. I still think it’s very important to keep focused on capitalism and the importance of class analysis. It’s in that sense that I still pay tribute to Marxism. It’s sort of like if I was a physicist. All physicists are Newtonians. They are Newtonians plus everything that came after, but they wouldn’t feel ashamed of that. That’s the kind of debt I feel toward Marx, who clarified the role of capital. We have to build upon that, not forget it. I think it’s forgotten too much in our social movements, or not even considered in the first place. In the so-called anti-globalization movement there was a lot of misunderstanding about the actual nature of capitalism. By its very definition capitalism is global, and globalization is a new phase of capitalism. There’s this impression that, before today, there was humane capitalism. The implication is that a return to that period would put a human face on capitalism and put an end to these bad things that have recently developed. I think that it has stunted people’s political growth, at least in the US, to not have any grounding in Marxism.
I kind of wince at the term “socialism” because it’s usually taken to mean “democratic socialism” and “liberalism.” What I’m talking about is more like the old US Socialist Party, which was revolutionary and democratic. It didn’t have the aspects of Leninism that became so undemocratic. And, of course, I feel I have very deep feminist politics, so I often describe myself as a Marxist-feminist or feminist-Marxist. In terms of anarchism, I identify much more with anarcho-syndicalism, but it’s such a loaded term that it always needs explanation. If I were living in the 1870s, 1880s or 1890s, I would call myself an anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist. But, unless you’re in a circle that knows anarchism, it’s hard to use that term without really confounding people who associate it with riots and mayhem, disorganization, and the like.
It’s not easy to define one’s politics anymore and I think that’s a good thing. It used to be easier. One of our problems is sectarianism – defining one’s politics so closely that they become based on exclusion. On the other hand, people who use the terms “inclusive politics” or “socialism” tend to mean a watered down politics that isn’t revolutionary. So, I think it’s probably good to not have such a concise definition. I prefer calling myself a revolutionary.
How does your long involvement in indigenous struggles affect the way that you think about your politics?
I probably have a very different understanding of imperialism because of my involvement with the indigenous movement, especially in the US. The US was born as a chip off the old block of imperialism. Because the US was able to amass vast resources and carry out the largest process of colonization in the world without it ever being acknowledged as such, it could pretend to be a democratic nation-state. This understanding is at the heart of my interpretation and use of Marxism, feminism, anti-imperialism, and anti-racism in the US context.
I had already developed to a certain stage politically before I got involved in indigenous movements, but they really transformed my politics. Because of the Vietnam War and my Latin American studies and experiences, I already knew about imperialism. I thought I had it nailed down. And, since I wasn’t doing US history, I didn’t come into contact with “Manifest Destiny” until 1966 when I decided to do my dissertation on the southwest – what used to be part of Mexico. I had to take a US history seminar and I’m so glad I did, because I went in there and it was like I was on another planet. They were talking about Manifest Destiny and, honestly, I had never heard that term before. I was trying to figure out what the hell they were talking about and I said, “what you are describing – the slow expansion based on the notion of Manifest Destiny – is actually imperialism.” The annexation of territories is colonization and imperialism. It may be an early stage of it, but it’s still colonization: it’s not just “nation-building.” There were people there; there are still people there.
The indigenous movement became much more visible a couple years later. I was vigorously recruited to the indigenous movement. It wasn’t just the American Indian Movement either. It was also the White Roots of Peace, the Mohawk initiative from Akwesasne. They were actively recruiting marginal Indians. It was also happening in South America, where they used the Spanish term rescate, which referenced the recuperation or rescuing of indigenousness. It was a really interesting concept, turning a minority into a majority by spreading consciousness. And there is so much indigenous heritage. We weren’t all killed. We got assimilated and buried in the culture, both black and white. So, there was this real secular missionary movement to organize and expand the self-definition of indigenous people.
One of the leaders of the White Roots of Peace was a Tuscarora man named Mad Bear Anderson. He and others in the group went down into Mexico and into Central America and all over the US. Mad Bear made his living in the merchant marine. He was a worker. And it turned out that – several times a year – he was in New Orleans, where I was living at the time. One day in 1970, he showed up at my door. I had just come back from Cuba with the Venceremos brigade. I was a fired up revolutionary and I was loving what I’d seen. Here was this little Indian man, and by little, I mean he was as wide as he was tall. He was an older man, in his fifties, with a big medallion and wearing his medicine bag. I opened the door and he introduced himself and asked me if I was Roxanne. I said yes and he said, “I heard you’re part Indian.” I said, “I am from Oklahoma, but I didn’t grow up Indian.” “Well,” he said, “I’d like to talk with you.” I said, “you know, I don’t really have time,” and I saw his eyes look up to one of the posters I had brought with me from Cuba. He said, “I want to show you something.”
He reached in his back pocket and took out this picture and there he was arm in arm with Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara. He had delivered arms to the Cuban revolutionaries. And I said, “well, come on in!” That’s how he got into my heart and my house. He tried to bring me into the indigenous movement, but I completely rejected him. I said, “I think it’s really important, but I’m going in a different direction and I just can’t take the time.” We argued about the time that it’s going to take to make a revolution, about how it couldn’t be forced and how the time had to be right. He’d also been working down in the Andes, and he had helped to start a newsletter called The Rainbow People. He gave me some copies and it was pretty amazing. I realized that this man was a true revolutionary and probably doing things like they should be done, but I felt like I was on a trajectory that I couldn’t get off of.
Later, in 1973, I became captivated by the occupation at Wounded Knee. That took place while I was working at the casino in Lake Tahoe. After I got off my shift, I was at the bar drinking and watching television images of the occupation and thinking about Mad Bear. Then I started going down to a nearby reservation on the weekend. I began packing blankets and food and everything to send back to Wounded Knee. At the same time, I began getting to know Indians. That’s really how I got involved. It was not thought out, but it saved my life. Because a couple of years after that, I stopped drinking and went into recovery.
I felt like I was back in a group, but it was such a different place. I felt so comfortable there and I realize a part of it was that this was the first time I’d been in a movement in which everyone came from a working-class background. It was odd. Even though I’d been organizing workers, my comrades were all from the middle class. I had to get into the Indian movement to connect with a working-class movement of people from similar backgrounds to my own. You think of Indian activism as being a real esoteric space. Instead, I found people who had very ordinary impoverished or working-class backgrounds that I could communicate with on a level that I hadn’t been able to in my previous ten years of political activity. It just felt so refreshing.
You’ve worked in some very different contexts – from clandestine groups and pre-party formations to feminism, the academic left, and indigenous politics. How can we create linkages between those kinds of spaces when there are often substantial differences in terms of goals, practices, and cultures?
Wouldn’t it be interesting to develop a movement discourse where building alliances is based on making statements rather than confrontational debate? I take this from a native style of discourse. There’s no cross-talk. Each person gets up and makes a statement. You may disagree with much of what they said, but you respect it and you make your statement. You don’t confront and argue with each other. In this kind of discourse, you may be convinced by another person’s statement whereas, if you argue with them, you might get hardened in your stance instead of listening and taking in what you can.
Sometimes the United Nations practice is complementary to that indigenous style of discourse. People make statements and you don’t argue with each other. And then you distill and accumulate all of that into the final document. And I wonder what we would come up with. This style doesn’t mean it’s all we do. But when we’re trying to build alliances, what are the points of unity we can distill? We should work on those things and build trust.
That seems reminiscent of the Zapatista consulta approach of setting up circumstances in which people present statements based on their experiences, struggles, and politics – not in a combative way, but in ways that create some kind of a synthesis and basis of unity.
It teaches respect. You start learning respect rather than just issuing calls for us to respect each other. If you set up a mechanism with built-in respect, it becomes active. I’m participating in a study group in the San Francisco Bay Area called the Activist Study Circle. It was organized by a planning committee of organizers coming from community-based racial and economic justice organizations and movement training centres. Some of them have worked with organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL), St. Peter’s Housing Committee, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), and the Catalyst Project. They’re all from the younger generation of left organizers.
It’s very much initiated by people of colour. The planning collective that formed over two years ago wanted to bring together a broad group of people with a good level of political unity and a movement-building orientation in their work. They invited over 100 people and then opened it to others that these people wanted to invite as long as they agreed with the points of unity and criteria. The participants are to be at least 75 percent people of colour, at least 60 percent women, and majority queer. Other than that, there are no restrictions. They have formed a good model where they have smaller preparatory groups and they picked out a year-long study program. It seems very democratic. There’s no hidden agenda in it, but some people are openly hoping that this can lead to a functioning alliance of organizers that could form the basis of some kind of organization. They’re leaving that open-ended to see where it will go.
The study group is mainly composed of younger people under 40, the majority under 30. There is an enormous amount of respect. They’re just really exemplary. I’m excited about what can come out of that. It’s a low-cost, completely voluntary effort for people that are willing to commit to doing quite a bit of work and to seeing what can come out of it. I hope that means that this model will spread, and I think maybe it is. Some similar things are going on in various other places. I think the Zapatistas really hit a nerve. People understood that there’s something here that we have to learn from. In some ways, at least in the Bay Area, this study group is one of the first real conscientious attempts to apply some of those things in practice that I’ve seen.
It seems like a model that others can use.
Yes, and it’s good that it’s being initiated by these young people. Sometimes when us older people initiate things, we get hung up on issues and concerns that are no longer relevant. I was really worried about this group – how it might become elitist or try to pose itself as a party formation. I don’t think it will. They’re going to have their own set of problems, but they’re not going to be the same ones as before.
I think they’re also very careful about relationships. This was a big weakness in the sixties. We were really not kind to each other. I think it was almost like we felt we had to toughen one another up for the fight we were in. We thought we had to be invincible. Women were expected to take part in this macho style too, and that excluded many women, queers, and very shy men. We didn’t take caring human relationships and the kind of society we would like to see seriously enough and we failed to build that into our day-to-day relations with each other. We were not presenting a very attractive model, but we thought we were really heroic.
So, when feminists started organizing along different lines, we grew very quickly. That, I think, is one thing that has been inherited by these younger people. It’s always very refreshing – and I’m always somewhat surprised – when I go into a meeting and I have my old expectations challenged. I have to really listen to some of the women who feel like there are still problems, even if they are so much subtler than they used to be.
It used to be so blatant, where some guy would just say “shut up bitch, you talk too much.” No guy would even consider that kind of blatant sexism now. But it does come out in other ways. The women have to meet and confront it when necessary.
Given that the US and Canada both refused to sign on to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007, what is your assessment of the current situation of indigenous struggle in North America?
Well, that may be a blessing in disguise. The US and Canada participated all along during the ten years of negotiations. They watered down the Declaration about as much as it could be watered down without it disappearing and dissolving. And then they refused to sign on to even that because certain things were not negotiable. The indigenous peoples insisted on being called “peoples” – not “population,” not “people” – and they really won that. It sounds like a small thing, but within international law, the term “peoples” triggers the collective right to self-determination. So, in opposing collective rights, the US and Canada showed their true colours. They never had any intention of recognizing the legitimate collective rights of indigenous peoples. They may extend welfare programs or control over police forces or other kinds of concessions. But that absolutely necessary element – that element that makes the difference between nothing and something significant – is threatened by the right to self-determination. And that is in the Declaration.
It’s kind of hard for others to understand how important that achievement is. I think it’s especially hard for some activists in social movements to understand the concept of sovereignty. They can understand Latin American nationalism – sovereignty for Nicaragua, sovereignty for Cuba. But anarchists reject that because they reject the state. So, it’s very hard for many people to understand the aspiration of indigenous sovereignty.
I think that the indigenous movement developed in so many ways during the struggle leading up to the Declaration. For one thing, it was initiated from the grassroots. It also came out of the American Indian Movement, which was born in the midst of a social movement and was also important in galvanizing and directing it. Between Wounded Knee and the terrible repression of COINTELPRO, the movement made alliances throughout the world and followed a mandate to go to the UN. The shift in focus at that key time before COINTELPRO demonstrates how, in our own time, indigenous peoples of the Americas have survived colonialism. It was a survival mechanism to figure some way out of that encirclement and to shift to a completely different playing field. It was really classic guerrilla tactics. The repression came down; it was very destructive. But they were able to carry on with a very pared down and, I would say, weakened mechanism. It was enough to pick up people like me, though. I came in right at that time, and I wasn’t the only one. A lot of people were pulled in and started developing the foundation for an international indigenous movement. In that process, so many people – tens of thousands of grassroots indigenous peoples – have learned to function and thrive in this very cold bureaucracy that just seems impenetrable from the outside.
With the indigenous movement, I think there’s a growing awareness that something is happening that people need to learn about. We haven’t been very good at translating it; getting away from just the UN experience and figuring out what it means practically in organizing and putting together alliances. Many different societies – the Mohawks, the Lakota, the Navajo – have almost nothing in common except for having been colonized by the same colonizer. Already, that’s a model of alliances that people can look to. How did they do that? How did it work? And why has it been successful? We need to learn how to better translate that into lessons that can be learned. We need to figure out how they can be applied to social movements without necessarily dragging people to the UN to go through the same process.
One of the things that we’re witnessing in Canada is a situation where white working-class communities are being pitted against native communities, particularly around land claims. What kinds of strategies do you see for moving forward in acknowledging colonization as a fundamental reality and, at the same time, trying to jointly create a more livable world for all of us?
I follow the Israeli West Bank settlements because there we see the process going on before our eyes and we know how irreversible it can become once the colonizers’ lives are dug deep and rooted. Human misery is the result. The Palestinians are being forced to experience that.
In the US, there is a kind of principle about land claims that says that it could be possible to do land restitution without touching much private property. West of the Mississippi, about 40 percent of the land is federally controlled under various agencies – the Forest Service, the National Parks Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and others. All it would take is the stroke of a pen and many lands could be restored to indigenous communities. And that could probably be worked out. I’m not sure in Canada how easy it would be for lands that are in federal or provincial hands to replace indigenous land taken.
The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act in the US mandated that, when private property that was once Indian land came up for sale, the Bureau of Indian affairs was obliged to try to buy it for an Indian tribe. Some of that was implemented in the early days. It began to expand the parameters of the reservations, but then stalled because the US government was not taking the initiative. Although the Indians tried to do it on their own, they generally did not have the financial resources to purchase the land. If they did purchase land, they had to fight to get federal trusteeship protection and tax-free status.
There is a kind of acknowledged principle among native peoples in the US that they would like to not uproot others. There is a kind of agreement, a consensus, that it would be best to not have to displace poor people from the land. That’s very different from, say, the northwest coast where there are lots of tourist cabins and fishing vacation spots. Those could be taken without compunction. I don’t know in Canada about the land claims or how much clash there’s been with smallholders of land or suburbs. I know that the Oka struggle was about a golf course and that was absolutely legitimate.
More recently, there’s been a confrontation at Six Nations around Caledonia in southern Ontario. Basically, it’s been about stopping housing developments on indigenous land. Then you have white settler community leaders, frequently from the business community, who are mobilizing white working-class people in opposition to the land claims.
Under capitalism, developers have a vested interest in creating the consumers who will buy up developed property. And you can’t really stop the Six Nations people from resisting. So, I think there has to be a determination to organize. That doesn’t mean that settlers have to leave and go back to where they came from, but they have to give some respect and not just assume they’re free to do anything they want. This means organizing in the white community – or at least dividing it, getting it generationally divided or in some way divided – so that it’s not just Indian versus white. There has to be a difference among whites about how to deal with this so that it can become an internal dispute and so they can have a learning process.
No emancipatory learning will take place as long as action falls into the racial patterns of white supremacy. Something’s got to break through. Settlers have to get busy organizing, and not just with anti-racist people. Stop preparing yourself for the perfect language. Go out and talk to ordinary people about the true history of the US and Canada, get into the public schools, and get written material out. It’s really possible to captivate the high school students and the early college students because they want to do right and they haven’t yet become hardened in their views.
I think that’s the only answer because Indians are hard put to organize white people or create an alliance unless there is a party to ally with. I know it’s very different, because blacks are such a majority, but South Africa offers an example. The alliances that the African National Congress (ANC) was able to build with segments of the white population – with students, with the trade unions, with the Communist Party – were really exemplary. I think a lot can be learned from that and applied in some parts of Canada – much more than in the US – because there are more similarities. The US is Indian Country, but numerically or demographically there is not a critical mass anywhere. In Canada, there is more potential for that ANC model to work.
Toward the end of Outlaw Woman, you talk about how any project for radical transformation has to return to the ‘origin myths’ of the state and how any movement that doesn’t relate to those myths is limited. What are the implications of that perspective for movements in the US and Canada? How does engagement with origin myths relate to your concept of “un-forgetting”?
The definition of lying is what white South African anti-apartheid writer Andre Brink plays with in his book An Act of Terror. What’s the opposite of truth? We think immediately “the lie.” But in Greek, the opposite of truth is forgetting. This is a very subtle thing. What is the action you take to tell the truth? It is un-forgetting. That is really meaningful to me. It’s not that the origin myth is a lie; it’s the process of forgetting that’s the real problem.
Leftists sometimes say that it’s impossible to organize around un-forgetting, and that really does depress me. How can I organize workers? How can I organize anyone without patriotism? I think that anti-racist perspectives are sometimes distorted because the real question is how the Irish became American and how the Jews became American. Yes, there is white supremacy, but it doesn’t mean that people of color can’t get Americanized. Then there will only be Native Americans throwing stones at this great edifice of “national unity.” Alliances without un-forgetting at their core aren’t going to go anywhere in the long run. So, it is a dilemma, but we have to find a way. We have to find ways to go through a mountain. We have to find that pass to get through it.
I think there’s a kind of laziness that leads people to say, “it’s just too hard.” And it is hard. I do think that if organizers would allow themselves to at least conceptualize this and acknowledge it, they would start finding ways of talking about it. I think it’s very hard in the abstract to say how you should talk about it. It means organizing working-class whites. There’s just no question about it. We’ve just got to do it. We’ve been trying to avoid it for so long. They’re the carriers of the origin stories and the people who have the most invested in them, especially the descendents of the original settlers. But I think the commitment to getting history straight has to come first. If you’re trying to change a society and you don’t know its history, you will never get anywhere.