Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a lifelong social justice activist and a leading historian of indigenous struggles in the
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.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a lifelong social justice activist and a leading historian of indigenous struggles in the
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
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
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
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
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
He reached in his back pocket and took out this picture and there he was arm in arm with Fidel Castro and Che 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
Later, in 1973, I became captivated by the occupation at
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
There is a kind of acknowledged principle among native peoples in the
More recently, there’s been a confrontation at Six Nations around Caledonia in southern
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
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
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
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.