Authors confronts longstanding myths about Native Americans

Sometimes short, snappy statements are pathways to understanding complex issues.

You can find those pathways in virtually every chapter of “All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.”

bks_j15jan_indiansEach chapter investigates the origins and impacts of a different myth.

The investigations are opportunities to rethink assumptions about American Indians.

The first chapter is about the myth named in the book’s title. It’s a reference to once-popular phrase “the vanishing Indian.”

The authors, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, take aim at the myth with both barrels.

“No myth about Native people is as pervasive, pernicious and self-serving as the myth of the vanishing Native,” they write.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The myth reached its zenith around the end of the 19th century. The authors say what’s important to understand is the myth’s self-serving function. It was used in pursuit of seizing Indian lands through policies of forced assimilation, the authors argue.

The diminishing presence of Indians eased the transfer of Indian treaty lands to ownership by Anglo settlers.

Viewed today, the authors say, the myth is “entirely untrue, if for no other reason than because there are currently 567 federally recognized Native nations in the United States today” and because 5.2 million people identified as Native American or Alaska Native, alone or in combination with other races, according to the 2010 Census.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker
Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Here are two of the other myths in the collection that Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker confront:

– “Columbus Discovered America.” From a European perspective, he did. It led to a “doctrine of discovery” a principle under which the U.S. has been dealing with Indians, the authors write. From a Native perspective, Columbus is no hero. In fact, they believe they discovered him; and he couldn’t have discovered a country that did not exist for another 284 years, the book notes.

“He did, however, set into motion a tidal wave of destruction so cataclysmic that many scholars believe it is unparalleled in recorded history,” the authors write. They’re talking about a destruction of Native cultures by slavery, disease, war, removal, Christianization.

Columbus, the authors argue, instigated the death of millions, a veritable genocide.

– “U.S. presidents were benevolent or at least fair-minded toward Indians.” Without doubt, the book says, Andrew Jackson was the “single most destructive” U.S. president for Native Americans. He guided through Congress the Indian Removal Act, and in the rest of his term he “oversaw the massive forced relocations to Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) of the five large agricultural Native nations of the southeastern U.S. – Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles,” the authors write. This massive removal paved the way for the expansion of cotton.

Even Abraham Lincoln was no friend of the Indian, the book says.

His administration yielded to “free-soilers,” white settlers in search of cheap land free of slavery west of the Mississippi; it had once been Indian land.

The back of the book has a historical timeline marking the human presence in the Western Hemisphere and historical events, enacted laws and promulgated policies affecting Natives through 2015.

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