Book Review: ‘All the Real Indians Died Off’: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz & Dina Gilio-Whitaker (2016)

October 7th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Belongs in high school libraries everywhere.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

Non-Natives thus position themselves, either wittingly or unwittingly, as being the true experts about Indians and their histories—and it happens at all levels of society, from the uneducated all the way up to those with advanced college degrees, and even in the halls of Congress. […]

The result is the perpetual erasure of Indians from the US political and cultural landscape. In short, for five centuries Indians have been disappearing in the collective imagination. They are disappearing in plain sight.

Imagining huge fields of gold, which did not exist, Columbus instituted what later became known as the encomienda system, large estates run on forced labor for the purposes of extracting gold. Las Casas reported that when mining quotas were not met by the Indians excavating the gold, their hands were cut off and they bled to death. When they attempted to flee, they were hunted down with dogs and killed. So little gold existed in Hispaniola that the island turned into a massive killing field.

He [King George] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

—Declaration of Independence

— 4.5 stars —

Native Americans should be honored to have sports teams named after them.

The Indians lost the war, why can’t they move on already?

Indian casinos make everyone rich.

Whether your ancestors were indigenous to North America or not, no doubt you’re familiar with at least a few of these myths about Native Americans. Actually, that’s an understatement, given that our culture – right down to its founding documents – is steeped in such half-truths, contested theories, and outright lies. They’re taught in our high school history books (Columbus discovered America; the convoluted and decontextualized myth of Thanksgiving), trotted out for celebrations (Native American mascots; cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes), and have been used to strip Native tribes of their lands, power, and self-determination (“real” Indians live on reservations/meet blood quantum requirements/belong to a tribe/adhere to certain spiritual practices).

This last is accomplished primarily through erasure. The most pernicious myth – the titular “All the Real Indians Died Off” – has been used to erase Native peoples from both the past and present. After all, if Native Americans no longer exist, then they’ve no need of tribal lands. (Convenient, that.) This erasure can be violent and bloody, as it was so often in the past: through genocide or “extermination,” supported at both the state and federal levels. Often it comes in much more insidious, systemic forms: “the forcible transfer of children throughout the Indian boarding school era and the extent of transracial Indian adoption in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries”; restrictive blood quantum requirements that bar many people from rightfully claiming their Native descent; religious conversion; policies that force or encourage intermarriage; incentives that cause young people to immigrate from reservations to urban centers; and so on.

Many of the myths explored here stem from this singular narrative; “It can be thought of as the central organizing myth from which most other popular myths about Native people arise.” Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent just how interconnected each myth is; they all feed into and support one another, in ways both subtle and overt.

“All the Real Indians Died Off” reads a little like James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, albeit with a singular, laser-like focus. I thought I was reasonably well-informed on these subjects – everyone knows that Columbus was a murderous dirtbag who couldn’t navigate for shit, right? and Thanksgiving is just a nice story we like to tell kids as they finger-paint turkeys, yeah? – yet I continually found myself surprised, almost always not in a good way. Thomas Jefferson’s description of Native Americans as “savages” in the freaking Declaration of Independence – you know, the document of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness and all that jazz – made my jaw drop. But the most shocking thing has got to be the Marshall court’s “trilogy” of rulings concerning Native sovereignty – in particular, Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), which was based in part on papal bulls, including those that became the basis for the Doctrine of Discovery. (In short, invaders = keepers.) Separation of church and state, anyone?

At just over 200 pages, “All the Real Indians Died Off” is a short little book that packs a powerful, passionate punch. Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker provide a compelling yet succinct overview (and sound debunking) of each myth, all the while demonstrating how they relate to each other – and the erasure of Indigenous Americans, with the ultimate goal of stripping them of their land.

In fact, their skill is all the more impressive when you consider that the last quarter of the book is actually a timeline of Native American history. Take away the timeline and (copious) notes, and the mythology section comes in at a tick over 150 pages.

Considering the book’s length, I wish the authors had included a few more myths – especially the idea that tribal courts are inferior and it would be unjust to subject non-Natives to tribal laws when on tribal land. This is addressed briefly, in the context of the epidemic of rape faced by Native American women, usually by non-Native perpetrators. (#19, “What’s the Problem with Thinking of Indian Women as Princesses or Squaws?”) This is just one that’s fresh in my mind, thanks to a recent episode of Full Frontal, but I’m sure there are dozens more – especially those that converge with other forms of oppression and marginalization.

Also, while the discussion of the land bridge theory is indeed fascinating (like many of you, I learned this as a fact in middle and high school), I’m not quite sure why the myth that “Indians Were the First Immigrants to the Western Hemisphere” is necessarily pernicious. Incorrect and an example of scientific stubbornness, sure, but harmful? If anything, doesn’t being the first ones here bolster Native American claims to the land? (Theoretically, anyway.) Of all the myths, this is the only one that maybe could have been explained better. I feel like I’m missing something.

Otherwise, it’s an engaging and informative read. The language sometimes veers into the academic, but for the most part it’s fairly accessible. The book is well-researched and meticulously documented. The authors do a commendable job distilling complex topics into easily digestible chapters. Each chapter could easily fill an entire book – and indeed, Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker frequently reference books written by others – yet the discussion is both clear and concise.

I’d definitely recommend this to high school students; if anything, learning about the more troubling and problematic aspects of our history makes it more interesting, engaging, and alive. I didn’t really get into history until I read Roots – as an elective for my tenth grade English class. Plus there’s that whole thing about those who don’t know history being doomed to repeat it. And whether it’s slavery (of both Africans and Native Americans) that helped America grow its economy, or the massive land theft and genocide that our country is founded on, the echoes are still felt today: in the denial of tribal sovereignty; the appropriation of Native spiritual practices by New Agers; the dearth of health care on reservations; and the destruction of sacred sites by megacorporations.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Authors’ Note • ix

Introduction • 1

MYTH 1: “All the Real Indians Died Off” • 7
MYTH 2: “Indians Were the First Immigrants to the Western Hemisphere” • 14
MYTH 3: “Columbus Discovered America” • 23
MYTH 4: “Thanksgiving Proves the Indians Welcomed Pilgrims” • 32
MYTH 5: “Indians Were Savage and Warlike” • 38
MYTH 6: “Indians Should Move On and Forget the Past” • 44
MYTH 7: “Europeans Brought Civilization to the Backward Indians” • 51
MYTH 8: “The United States Did Not Have a Policy of Genocide” • 58
MYTH 9: “US Presidents Were Benevolent or at Least Fair-Minded Toward Indians” • 67
MYTH 10: “The Only Real Indians Are Full-Bloods, and They Are Dying Off” • 76
MYTH 11: “The United States Gave Indians Their Reservations” • 82
MYTH 12: “Indians Are Wards of the State” • 87
MYTH 13: “Sports Mascots Honor Native Americans” • 92
MYTH 14: “Native American Culture Belongs to All Americans” • 100
MYTH 15: “Most Indians Are on Government Welfare” • 109
MYTH 16: “Indian Casinos Make Them All Rich” • 117
MYTH 17: “Indians Are Anti-Science” • 123
MYTH 18: “Indians Are Naturally Predisposed to Alcohol” • 130
MYTH 19: “What’s the Problem with Thinking of Indian Women as Princesses or Squaws?” • 137
MYTH 20: “Native Americans Can’t Agree on What to Be Called” • 145
MYTH 21: “Indians Are Victims and Deserve Our Sympathy” • 150

Historical Time Line • 159

Acknowledgments • 179

Notes • 181

 

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The authors explore twenty-one myths about Native Americans. In addition to race, they also address the intersection of racism and misogyny in stereotypes about and the treatment of Indigenous women. (See, e.g., Myth #19, “What’s the Problem with Thinking of Indian Women as Princesses or Squaws?”)

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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