The US is Not a "Nation of Immigrants" (Excerpt)

Historians in the News
tags: racism, books, Native American history

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a historian, writer, and professor emeritus in Ethic Studies at California State University. She is author or editor of fifteen books, including Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New MexicoAn Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States; and Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment.

The United States has never been “a nation of immigrants.” It has always been a settler state with a core of descendants from the original colonial settlers, that is, primarily Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Irish, and Germans. The vortex of settler colonialism sucked immigrants through a kind of seasoning process of Americanization—not as rigid and organized as the “seasoning” of Africans, which rendered them into human commodities, but effective nevertheless.

In the 1960s, U.S. historians were having to adjust the historical narrative of the white republic and progress in response to Black civil rights demands for a reckoning about racism. But in the process of those adjustments and reforms, the settler state was never a subject of debate. Mahmood Mamdani writes:

If America’s greatest social successes have been registered on the frontier of race, the same cannot be said of the frontier of colonialism. If the race question marks the cutting edge of American reform the native question highlights the limits of that reform. The thrust of American struggles has been to deracialize but not to decolonize. A deracialized America still remains a settler society and a settler state.

Attempts to “include” Native peoples as victims of racism further camouflages settler colonialism and constitutes a type of social genocide. The U.S. polity has been trying to rid itself of Indigenous nations since first settlement. Four hundred years later, multiculturalism is the mechanism for avoiding acknowledgment of settler colonialism. Mamdani correctly observes that the very existence of Indigenous nations “constitutes a claim on land and therefore a critique of settler sovereignty and an obstacle to the settler economy.”

Multiculturalism was the response to civil rights demands, which required a revised narrative of U.S. history. For this scheme to work—and affirm U.S. historical progress—Indigenous nations and communities had to be left out of the picture or somehow woven into the story. As territorially and treaty-based peoples in North America, they do not fit the grid of multiculturalism, but were included by transforming them into an inchoate, oppressed racial group, while oppressed Mexican Americans and colonized Puerto Ricans were dissolved into another such group, variously called “Hispanic” or “Latino,” and more recently “Latinx.” The multicultural approach emphasized the “contributions” of oppressed groups and immigrants to the United States’ presumed greatness. Indigenous peoples were thus credited with contributing corn, beans, buckskin, log cabins, parkas, maple syrup, canoes, hundreds of place names, ecology, Thanksgiving, and even contributing to the Constitution the concepts of democracy and federalism.

This 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. The fundamental unresolved issues of Indigenous lands, treaties, and sovereignty could not but scuttle the premises of multiculturalism for Native Americans. Multiculturalism persisted into the neoliberal twenty-first century, culminating in widespread “diversity” training, the coining of a new term, “people of color,” and the production of Hamilton, which not only erased the Indigenous peoples and African slavery but also turned the white founding fathers, who authored a Constitution that recognized only white people as citizens, into brown and Black men.


Excerpted from Not “a Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon Press, 2021). 

Read entire article at Boston Review

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