Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, daughter of a landless farmer and half-Indian mother. During the first two decades of the 20th century, her paternal grandfather, a veterinarian from a Scots-Irish agrarian background, had been a member of the Socialist Party in Missouri and Oklahoma and joined the Industrial Workers of the World when it was founded. Her grandfather’s stories inspired her to lifelong social justice activism.
Married at 18, she left with her husband for San Francisco where she has lived most of the years since, even after the marriage ended. Her account of life up to leaving Oklahoma is recorded in Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie. From 1967 to 1972, she was a full-time activist living in various parts of the United States, traveling to Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba. She was one of the founders of the militant Women’s Liberation Movement. This time of her life and the aftermath, 1960-1975, is the story told in Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years.
Dunbar-Ortiz took a position teaching in a newly established Native American Studies program at California State University at Hayward, near San Francisco, and helped develop the Department of Ethnic Studies, as well as Women’s Studies. In 1974 she became active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the International Indian Treaty Council, beginning a lifelong commitment to international human rights.
Her first book, The Great Sioux Nation: An Oral History of the Sioux Nation and its Struggle for Sovereignty, was published in 1977 and was presented as the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indians of the Americas, held at United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. That book was followed by four others, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico and Indians of the Americas: Human Rights and Self-Determination.
In 1981 she was asked to visit Sandinista Nicaragua to appraise the land tenure situation of the Miskito Indians in the northeastern region of the country. Her two trips there that year coincided with the beginning of United States government’s sponsorship of a proxy war to overthrow the Sandinistas. In over 100 trips to Nicaragua and Honduras from 1981 to 1989, she monitored the Contra Wars. In addition to her 1985 Caught in the Crossfire: The Miskito Indians of Nicaragua, her book, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War was published in 2005.
She is presently at work on a history of the United States from the Native American perspective, which will be published by Beacon Press.
GRUBACIC: Talk about Roots of Resistance as well as your U.S. history from the Native American perspective?
DUNBAR-ORTIZ: Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico had been my history doctoral dissertation at UCLA in 1974, then was co-published by the UCLA Chicano and Native American research centers in 1980. In 2007 it was issued in a revised edition by the University of Oklahoma Press. It may sound like a narrow topic, but it’s actually a universal story of European colonialism and the imposition of capitalism on democratic, self-managed communities, autonomous but linked to one another. I set out to apply Marxist theory to a particular region and ended up comprehending that theory at a deeper level. In particular, the appropriation of land as the first stage of capitalist development, turning independent or communal producers into beggars who had nothing to sell but their labor, transforming them into commodities. There is a vibrant struggle in New Mexico still to regain lost communal holdings and this kind of movement is going on all over the colonized world.
The book I’m working on now, an indigenous history of the United States, is one volume in the series Beacon Press is publishing over the next several years. Taking off on Howard Zinn’s concept of "people’s history," the series will have volumes on the history of the United States from the perspectives of Native Americans, African Americans, Chicanos, Latinos, Asian Americans, workers, women, and gay/lesbian.
As my own work is related to the study of inter-racial self-governance and self-activity, I cannot resist the temptation of asking if you have encountered any instances of such practices in your research?
I had been a history graduate student studying the effects of colonization and imperialism on Latin America when I first read Franz Fanon in 1967, which changed my thinking entirely in this regard. For the first time, I saw the human potential rather than simply victimization in the wake of the wreckage from colonization and continued U.S. imperialism.
As historians, we are imbued with the idea of inevitability and progress. We are not supposed to ask "What if?" I began to see historical development differently, particularly as I became involved in indigenous social movements and experienced the resistance, solidarity, autonomy, and self-management you speak of. Many religions, if not most, acknowledge what the Calvinists (my own upbringing) call pre-destination. Secular idealists like Hegel saw the necessity of making right choices, defining freedom thusly. I see modern European colonialism—the plunder of the Americas, Africa, and much of Asia by European states (including the U.S.), the introduction of chattel slavery, the past 500 years—as a wrong direction of humanity. What I learned from indigenous resistance leaders and from the African liberation movements, particularly Amilcar Cabral, was that colonization halted the normal development of people, and part of the process of liberation was to pick up where history left off for the colonized, to construct new realities, rather than to, in Fanon’s words, "imitate Europe."
In the processes of colonization, history did not actually stop, nor do I think Cabral meant that it did. Rather, the cultures for those who survived were cultures of resistance. Also, what I call "new peoples" were born of colonialism, mixed peoples, inter-racial communities. The descendants of the ancient Andean civilization speak of "rescuing the mestizo." They have developed a kind of indigenous version of Bolivar’s and Jefferson’s ruling class dreams of one, borderless America—but with a difference, that being the recognition of the roots and heart of "our America," the western hemisphere. I believe the "mestizo" or mixed peoples, what I call coyotes—which we all are—and all who are dispossessed, landless, without means or will to be rich and powerful, have a special role to play in the future. I see that role as a heavy responsibility.
What are your thoughts on the relationship between white privilege, class consciousness, and the women’s liberation movement?
I think it is difficult for anyone who has not grown up in the United States—with parents who go several generations or more back when they immigrated—to understand our preoccupation with race in the United States. White/European supremacy is the most defining element of the content of American identity, thereby obliterating to a great extent working class identity because of the British introduction and maintenance of slavery, with only Africans and their offspring being subject to enslavement and born into slavery. Nearly two centuries passed in the formation of the British North American colonies before the U.S. became an independent colonizing state. The culture and economy, not only in the southern states where the enslaved African population outnumbered the European, but also in the northern states and the new nation-state as a whole, were saturated with the institutions and social life of white supremacy.
Even members of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, all of whom thought slavery was immoral, did not want to mix socially or by intermarriage with Africans. Many favored deporting Africans to Africa at a time when there were no Africans living in the United States who had been born in Africa. To become an American, not in the legal sense, but for jobs, social acceptance, etc., in the 19th century, and even up to the present, meant striving to be identified as white.
Since the mid-20th century civil rights movement forced legislation for equal rights, affirmative action, and other measures, individuals of color can also "prove" their whiteness if they adhere to the "values" of Americanism, which includes acceptance of individual responsibility for their own situation, believing that the "playing field" is "level," being spokespersons to blame their own communities for their conditions and that the U.S. government is the most perfect ever created with the right to rule the world, particularly the non-European parts. It’s within that reality that we must analyze class relations.
I recently reviewed an excellent and important new book, David Barber’s A Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why it Failed. Barber attributes the failure of the 1960s New Left to its inability to act on its on rhetoric regarding race, gender, and empire. What’s missing throughout the book is the class composition and absence of class consciousness among New Leftists, including the Women’s Liberation Movement. Barber rightly observes that the young white women who went on to start the radical feminist movement first worked as volunteers in the civil rights movement in the South in the early 1960s and saw African-American women playing far different roles than was the case of white women within American society. But, in seeing this, these white women were seeing race as the defining factor rather than class.
As one who grew up rural and working class (part Indian, but in the white working class world) in Oklahoma, I embraced feminism in 1963 after reading de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which actually led me to anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist activism. Within a year, I was a member of the first U.S. campus-based anti-apartheid group, at UCLA. It did not take long for me to find New Left men grossly male supremacist, becoming unbearable in the summer of 1967 in London while working with the ANC and the London anti-apartheid solidarity movement. I vowed to return to the U.S. and help start a women’s liberation movement to make men change, so that a revolution would be possible with the defeat of patriarchy. I acutely felt my own potential as an effective revolutionary stifled.
Women "strike for equality" 1970
I moved to the center of radical activity, the northeastern corridor (living in Cambridge, but with much travel to New York and Washington) and connected with hundreds of what I thought were like-minded women.
However, soon I felt the same stifling from the New Left women that I had felt from New Left men. I realized that the absence of class consciousness was the fatal flaw of the New Left, and anti-racism actually was a vehicle of privilege. I found many of the women’s liberation activists downright racist. I also became aware that the experience these feminist women had gained in the southern civil rights movement was based on a class privilege that I could not even imagine. But, if one raised the question of class among New Left women, one was accused of being Marxist or "thinking like a man."
Did you have a similar feeling reading Cathy Wilkerson’s memoir, Flying Close to the Sun? What is your assessment of the whole Weather Underground?
I liked Cathy’s memoir for her honesty and acceptance of responsibility for her actions. However, other than reciting the economic ups and downs of her ancestors and immediate family, she doesn’t reflect upon her own class background and how it may have affected her political consciousness and choices. On the other hand, she’s very detailed about her white privilege. I think this is true of all factions of the New Left, not just the Weathermen [sic]. A part of their class privilege was that they did not deem it necessary or relevant to consider it. But, in acknowledging white privilege, they didn’t have anything to lose. They had the arrogance to assume that white privilege defined not only themselves, but also whites in the working class, without knowing anything about the working class of any color.
This line of thinking has grown even more central since the collapse of the New Left. Presently, anti-racist "training" is a major activity for social-justice activists who are white and mostly from the professional or upper middle class. For the past few years they have adopted the intersectionality thesis of the interlocking oppressions of race, class, and gender, but this is an even greater fallacy, since class distinctions exist among blacks and other peoples of color, and especially among women. It also treats class "oppression" as something to struggle against; that working class people should be "respected," as if workers were a people rather than a class created by capitalist exploitation of labor. The role of the working class is to do away with class by destroying capitalism.
Regarding the Weatherpeople, I do think it was an error for them to go underground, but not the catastrophe that even some of them proclaim, as having destroyed SDS by doing so. The only real victims of their actions were themselves. The group I was a part of in New Orleans also went underground for a year in order to work clandestinely with the oil workers. That was a mistake as well.
I always felt that the new generation of American activists should find inspiration less in the Weather Underground and more in the Industrial Workers of the World. One of the most interesting episodes from U.S. radical history is that the IWW created the first inter-racial union in the U.S. history.
The IWW has been my life-long inspiration and the reason I became anti-capitalist and aspired to become a revolutionary and the reason I decided to study history. My grandfather was a Wobbly in Oklahoma. My father was born in August 1907 and was named Moyer Haywood Scarberry Pettibone Dunbar, after the Wobbly leaders who were on trial in Boise, Idaho, that summer. My grandfather died before I was born, but my father, a great traditional storyteller, told me every detail of my grandfather’s actions and really what amounted to a radical history of Oklahoma that officially remains obliterated today, along with a few others. From first grade to college, I found none of what I learned from my father by the time I was 5-years-old. Of course, I wasn’t about to distrust my father’s stories, so I sought to find confirmation in the study of history.
In 1968 two young people in Chicago from trade unionist families, typesetters, Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, printed up thousands of the IWW red books and started promoting its revival. It has survived and spread, mainly among two generations of young anarchists. The IWW puts out a good newsletter. Many trade union members are also IWW members. Earth First! in its 1980s heyday in the Northern California woods, under the leadership of the late Judi Bari, herself from the working class, were organizing loggers into the IWW. But among liberals and New Leftists and their heirs, there is little interest in studying the IWW as a model for contemporary organizing.
The IWW spanned a decade and a half of an extremely repressive period—Jim Crow segregation of Blacks and Mexicans was firmly entrenched, Native Americans had to have passes to leave their reservations and were not allowed to join trade unions, women didn’t have the vote. Yet, the IWW was able to organize and inspire inter-racial struggles. It was also the period of the prolonged Mexican Revolution and cooperation between the IWW and the Mexican revolutionary workers was constant. In Oklahoma, black, white, and Indian tenant farmers, inspired by the Wobblies, rose up together in 1917 to oppose the draft for World War I and oppose the war as a "rich man’s war." It was called the "Green Corn Rebellion." And, of course, women were prominent in the IWW founding and leadership: Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Emma Goldman, Mother Jones, Lucy Parsons, and many local leaders.
I feel similarly about trying to restart SDS as I do about the IWW. I think we can take lessons from the earlier organizations, but not duplicate them. The times are so different. I was invited to speak by the new SDS at their summer training last year. It was held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a mostly Mennonite and Amish population. The SDSers who hosted it were from Mennonite families, pacifists in their religion. They are high school students from five different schools in the area. I was impressed with their organizational skills and dedication. There were around 50 participants from many different universities and schools, mostly from the East. I was encouraged that they were reinventing SDS to suit their own needs and aspirations. They were earnest in listening to me talk about the 1960s movements, taking notes, asking good questions. I talked a lot about class and the next day the working class young people among the participants formed a caucus to discuss class.
But the new SDS is different from the original. In the early 1960s, SDS began top down and organized chapters around the country off the momentum of the civil rights movement and soon grew with the escalation of the Vietnam War. The new SDS has no such wave to catch and ride, no group of skilled organizers to create a national network of chapters on hundreds of campuses. Yet, when a few activists started the new SDS, the word spread over the Internet and activist high school and college students started calling themselves SDS. Those who were attempting to organize from the top, a number of old SDS veterans and a few young organizers they had fostered, were baffled by the anarchic development.
As for what might spark a massive student movement like the one we saw in the 1960s in the U.S., and that exists in most countries continually, I doubt we’ll see that here again. That doesn’t mean that campuses lack radical activity. Every campus has radical activists working on single or multiple issues—sweatshop labor, the environment, women and gay/lesbian rights, the war. I do think there is a big deficit in understanding how to organize. In the 1950s, civil rights organizers experimented and hammered out organizing methods that student activists of the early 1960s inherited and reproduced. When the movement was weakened by repression, infiltration, use of drugs, media attention, and many other factors, liberal philanthropists filled the gap and "professionalized" organizing, creating non-profits and careers. They have not been interested in campus organizing. The new way is "training," which is rather mechanical and too often staged for funders in order to get more funding. So I think the main thing the new SDS could do is study the organizing methods of the civil rights movement, the old SDS, and back to the IWW.
You are involved in organizing a conference on the "long 1968." Can you talk about your personal experiences in those years? How did the movement in the United States go from insurgency to the politics of philanthropy?
I date the "long 1968" from 1960 to 1975, from the election of Kennedy to the end of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s resignation. Of course, the Vietnam intervention, the southern civil rights movement, and African liberation movements had been building for at least a decade before 1960 and are important to understanding the revolutionary surge of 1968. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the 1968 surge had played out by 1975. I went back and completed my dissertation in 1974, which I had abandoned in 1968 to be a full-time revolutionary. I began university teaching that year and had the mission of developing Native American Studies and an Ethnic Studies Department. That was happening on many campuses, as well as the development of Women’s Studies. There was activity that was important, but it was mostly inward reform and not as much outward protest.
In the early 1970s, universities purged both radical untenured faculty and radical student leaders, particularly under Governor Ronald Reagan in California (1966-1974). Others began behaving accordingly. Movements also went inward, trying to figure out how to restart the mass movement, taking stock, also doing some good organizing. The group I was with, Line of March, and other groups in the San Francisco area got radicals into key local positions, which has had a permanent effect on local politics. The Black Power movement was ravaged by violence, some of it internal, but most from the state, yet it continued to be influential locally.
Native American protest in San Francisco, 1992
On the surface, it seemed there were many victories. In California Jerry Brown was elected governor in 1974 and was re-elected in 1978. He appointed SDS founder Tom Hayden and other New Leftists to state government positions. He also appointed four liberal judges to the California Supreme Court, making the chief justice a woman, Rose Bird, who had also worked with the migrant farm workers, as had one of the other new justices. In San Francisco a leftist, George Moscone, was elected mayor, and Harvey Milk became the first openly gay activist, also leftist, to be elected to the Board of Supervisors. (Both Moscone and Milk were assassinated by a right winger in 1978.) In Oakland, the grassroots infrastructure built by the Black Panther Party brought radical African Americans into local office and helped to elect Ron Dellums, an African American and self-identified socialist, to U.S. Congress.
By 1972, I was burned out and abusing alcohol after my stint underground. I was rescued by the American Indian Movement when they led the seizure of Wounded Knee in the Lakota Nation in early 1973. For the next several years I worked at organizing with the International Indian Treaty Council to take Native American demands to the international level. It was also the reason I returned to complete my doctorate, to have more credibility in that work. This also meant a lot of grassroots work on rural reservations. I was so busy I hardly noticed that there was no longer a mass movement and that the philanthropists were calling the shots.
Speaking of "humanitarian" politics, what do you think about the recent middle class enthusiasm for various independence movements? Jean Bricmont’s book, Humanitarian Imperialism, captures this phenomenon.
Well, it was in the atmosphere I described that "humanitarian" intervention took hold. Because I was doing a lot of work at the United Nations for the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights from 1977 onwards, I saw the development of this insidious mode of imperialism. It has to be seen in the context of the destruction by the U.S. and the Western powers of the hard-won institutions of the New International Economic Order (NIEO), a 1974 proposal won by the former colonies, which had become the majority of UN membership. It called for speedy economic development in what was called the "third world," through transfer of technology and economic assistance with no strings attached. Soon after, the roadmap for the program was drawn up in the Brandt Report, North-South: A Program for Survival. The 1980 UN conference on development that was to approve the program was shattered by the Carter administration’s refusal to participate or accept the principles of the NIEO. The U.S. demanded that people of the "third world" choose which side they were on. If they were not enthusiastically in favor of Western policies, they were categorized as pro-Communist. This is when they invented the idea of two "superpowers," with equal power and responsibility in the world, a fallacy of the first order.
I think we can date the official beginning of the use of humanitarianism to attain imperialist goals to the Helsinki Declaration of August 1975. This came out of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and was signed by the European states, Canada, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The requirements under the agreement were virtually the same as the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one of the International Human Rights Covenants that were passed by the UN General Assembly in 1966. The other Human Rights Covenant pertained to economic, social, and cultural rights, which the "third world" countries and the Socialist bloc states had insisted on and which the United States refused to ratify. That treaty characterized human rights as the right to food, guaranteed income, housing, health care, and free education. Both the Helsinki accord and the UN Convent on Civil and Political Rights were used by Carter and every succeeding U.S. administration to intervene in third world countries. The first military uses of humanitarian intervention came with training counter-insurgents to overthrow the leftist governments in Afghanistan and Nicaragua and all of Central America, and the direct military intervention in Grenada and Panama, then to the much larger scale Gulf War, then the Balkans.
As I watched human rights instruments and initiatives, so important to people living under oppressive governments—particularly U.S.-supported ones in Latin America, as well as indigenous peoples in North America—being diverted to supporting "dissidents" in the Soviet Union and other socialist states, I saw increasing numbers of human rights activists and NGOs follow the money so generously distributed by the U.S. State Department. By the 1990s interventions in Yugoslavia, humanitarian intervention was broadly accepted even on the left in the United States, and still is.
The incredible wave of indigenous resistance and social and political creation in Latin America gives much hope for a new, global movement, built from below.
Going back to pre-destination and right paths, I actually am quite optimistic. I think there is a more profound revolution taking place in the world now than we could even imagine in the 1960s. Because of capitalism/imperialism, as well as seductions with consumerism and greed, the oppressed and exploited people of the world have invented new means of resistance, with the secret being the community. Indigenous people have much to teach about that and it’s no surprise that the model emerging out of the Andes with Bolivia and Mesoamerica with the Zapatistas has been embraced everywhere. Rather than devolution from the center, we have autonomous formations from the grassroots. The indigenous and peasants and farmers worldwide are reclaiming land and water as the lifeline of survival.