Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz, renowned historian of Indigenous culture, once remarked that the fall is the hardest time to be Native American, with federal holidays in October (“Columbus Day”) and November (Thanksgiving) inadvertently celebrating Native American genocide. But the past two years have felt slightly different. As the protests against the murder of George Floyd reached fever pitch, activists successfully connected centuries of anti-Black violence to centuries of anti-Indigenous violence, resulting in a renaming of the Washington Football Team and the toppling of several Columbus statues. While the latter sparked some heated debated, the change from Columbus to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in numerous states and cities (including Republican strongholds like Louisiana) indicates that the tide may be shifting.
Nevertheless, while the United States may be waking up to its history of Native American genocide, it cannot be dismantled in the simple act of renaming. We must also seriously reckon with the past—especially on occasions like Thanksgiving, when myths about Indigenous people are often peddled. Indeed, as Dunbar-Ortiz wrote in our pages lat year:
“The idea of the gift-giving Indian helping to establish and enrich the development of the United States is a screen that obscures the fact that the very existence of the country is a result of the looting of an entire continent and its resources, reducing the Indigenous population, and forcibly relocating and incarcerating them in reservations.”
Today’s reading list tries to play its part by confronting the colonial history of the U.S. and tracing a line to the present. In another essay, Dunbar-Ortiz connects Andrew Jackson’s “lust for displacing and killing Native Americans” to the white nationalists who descended upon Charlottesville, while Nikhil Pal Singh argues that the settler narrative is alive and well in mass incarceration and imperialist violence both at home and abroad. “The Indian wars bequeathed a lasting military orientation,” he writes, “one that codified ethical, legal, and vernacular distinctions between civilized and savage war as a core national experience.”
Celebrations of multiculturalism obscure the country’s settler colonial history—and the role that immigrants play in perpetuating it.
More than simple racism or discrimination, the destructive premise at the core of the American settler narrative is that freedom is built upon violent elimination.