Public Thinker: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on How to Upend Settler Colonialism

“One of my objectives in writing the book was a plea to immigrants to not become settlers.”

A professor emeritus in ethnic studies at California State University, East Bay, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades. She grew up in rural Oklahoma in a tenant farming family. Dunbar-Ortiz is the winner of the 2017 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize and is the New York Times bestselling author or editor of many books, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States—a recipient of the 2015 American Book Award. She lives in San Francisco.

Maylei Blackwell (MB): Roxanne, before we get to the heart of your new book on the relationship between settler colonialism and immigration, I just want to say I’m thrilled be in conversation with you because, for me, you are one of the most important public historians out there. We first met in the Bay Area in the 1990s. I remember you helped guide our work with the Indigenous People’s Caucus at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. You helped us as younger activists to historicize the struggles for Indigenous self-determination on the international level.


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (RDO): I remember you from 518 Valencia, the old Communist Party building there, where we would run into each other, usually visiting Betita Martínez, who had a small office there. We really miss you in the Bay Area.


MB: You’ve been not only a historian but a participant in so many key issues and movements, from your early days in radical feminism to the American Indian Movement, the Central American Solidarity Movement, as well as through key books, from your memoirs to the Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, your book on the Second Amendment, Loaded: A Disarming History, and now your new book, Not a Nation of Immigrants. Can you walk us through your trajectory as a writer, activist, thinker?


RDO: The trajectory actually predates my activism. I grew up in rural Oklahoma, got married at 18, then we moved to San Francisco. But I had always wanted to be a writer. I grew up very poor. My family was sharecroppers, tenant farmers. So, I didn’t really get politicized; instead, with the Beatnik era, it was more of a cultural change. We heard about Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg and Kerouac, and we wanted to go to San Francisco and join the Beatniks.

My husband-to-be was an engineering student at University of Oklahoma, and his best friend was a Palestinian, Saîd Abu Lughod. I absorbed his analysis over two years. Saîd had a big effect on me for understanding US imperialism, Western imperialism, colonialism. He would say, “Look around here in Oklahoma, this is Indian territory, that is segregation of the Native people on Reservations.” That was a fundamental building block for my political and scholarly trajectory.

When we moved to San Francisco in 1960, I enrolled in San Francisco State. And I fell in love in the first history course I took, world history: it just blew my mind. And, moreover, it was a very active campus: there was the Civil Rights Movement, there were students organizing.

I got invited to come and hear this person I had never heard of called Malcolm X. I actually sat in a classroom, with about 20 other people—all of them from the Community Party, or the Black Nationalists, the Black Muslims—hearing this prophet. It was the most extraordinary thing. It shifted my entire understanding of racism, of racial capitalism. We didn’t even have that word then, but that is really what he was talking about.

I didn’t go to the many demonstrations. I watched them on TV. I felt you had to be invited. I come from rural Oklahoma; you don’t go somewhere with strangers without being invited. Finally, when I was at UCLA a couple of years later, someone said, let’s go to this demonstration. I said, okay.


MB: You finally got your invitation.


RDO: I went on to get my doctorate in history at UCLA, and that was the time of the ’60s, the Watts Uprising, and the explosion in the cities all over the country and the Vietnam War. That is when I became a student and community activist.

I also became active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement because there were African National Congress (ANC) exiles from South Africa studying there and they were friends. I spent the summer in London in 1967 volunteering with the ANC. And the more I learned and absorbed—and with the Vietnam War at its height—I made the decision I had to quit graduate school. I’ve got to do this. And so I took off for five years and was only an activist. But I was writing all the time.

After a few years, when the war was ending, and there was a lot of factionalism on the left and Nixon was doing a very right-wing thing, I realized I needed to have a regular job. I had been teaching as an instructor in Boston. So, at that time, Juan Gómez Quiñones, who had been a fellow graduate student with me, became a full professor at the University of California, and he said, “Why don’t you come back and do your dissertation?” That he would be my chair. So I went back.

My dissertation was on the history of land tenure in New Mexico. And I got pulled into the American Indian Movement and International Indian Treaty Council, first as an expert witness and then as a volunteer staff person for the international work. So that was in the ’70s. I published a book on the treaties and was working on the book Indians of the Americas. And then the Contra War began.


MB: [Holds up the book] Yes! I’ve got my copy right here.


RDO: I was very supportive of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. There was a large population of Nicaraguans in San Francisco who were exiles from Somoza, the dictator in Nicaragua. And they were friends and fellow students at San Francisco State. They all left to go back after the revolution. And so I got invited down as part of a trade union delegation to see what was going on. This was 1981, when the US was already starting up a planned overthrow; Reagan had just gotten elected, and in his platform he promised to get rid of communism in Central America.

I was consumed with that. I took 100 different trips down, doing reports that I would submit to the United Nations Division of Human Rights, and present to the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples.

So out of that eventually came my memoir of the Contra War, Blood on the Border. But then I started also feeling like I had to go back to my own upbringing. Because so many things in rural Nicaragua reminded me of growing up in Oklahoma: how poor the people were, how they didn’t have good drinking water, how the educational system was lacking, and especially the presence of US evangelical missionaries supporting the Contras. I had grown up Southern Baptist. I just felt a kinship with this place.


MB: That is so powerful. I want to get to your new book. Since this really is at the heart of what you are saying, can you explain just what is the relationship between settler colonialism and immigration?


RDO: Some scholars and activists would say everyone who comes from somewhere else is an immigrant, or is a settler—not an immigrant, a settler. Something about that didn’t seem right. What I was trying to work through is how immigrants become settlers, because, settler colonialism is a very specific type of colonialism.

Israel clearly is a settler colonial state—in fact, it took the workbook from the United States, as did the Apartheid regime in South Africa. I found documents in the United Nations’ library where they were adopting US settler colonialism. The United States was the first settler colonial republic patterned largely on the British colonization of Northern Ireland. Later, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand implemented the same genocidal system. Although Spain’s imperialism was largely administrative, enslaving the Native people to labor, they too adopted settler colonialism in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay.

The difference between settlers and immigrants is that settlers come to build something completely new, and, crucially, to drive out or kill the people already there, taking their land and resources. This is what the British undertook in Northern Ireland: pushing the Irish Catholic farmers off their land, who then became sharecroppers or workers or left the country because they were starving. And when the British came to the Americas, they had that experience and institutionalized it in the colonies, extending across the continent after independence. They were experienced: they knew you had to erase, eject, kill, or terrorize the Native people to take their land. It took them 150 years before the United States became independent to just get this little territory along the Atlantic coast, to ethnically cleanse it and control it. In their documents, the founding fathers said their goal was to reach the Pacific, and, of course, that meant taking half of Mexico to reach the Pacific, which they then dominated. This is settler colonialism along with imperialism.

There are descendants of original settlers, like my father’s family, who are Scots-Irish, descendants of the Scots who became settler colonialists in Northern Ireland. Many—maybe most—of the descendants of the original settlers in the US do not really ever accept anyone who is an immigrant—even from Eastern Europe or Southern Europe—as being fully an American. Today, the armed groups of white nationalists are mostly descendants of the original settlers, who feel like they lost “their country.” And this is the mentality of settler colonialism.

From the non-Anglo immigrants who came after the United States was formed, many were really starving refugees who wouldn’t want to leave their homeland but had to. For them, by the time they got here, everything was already set in stone. There were still wars against the Native inhabitants going on in the West up to 1890. But east of the Mississippi, you could go your whole life without meeting a Native person.

So when these new immigrants come, they have to adjust to whatever already exists. But in order to do that, to become an acceptable American, they have to also accept and enunciate anti-Black racism, as well as their primary rights in the mentality of becoming a settler.

So, one of my main objectives in writing the book was as a plea: a plea to immigrants—especially post-1965 third-world immigrants—to not become settlers. A plea, instead, to become allies of Native people for Land Back. Because most immigrants don’t really come for land, they came to work.


MB: Yes, not to replicate the system in the fight to belong. Here in California, I’ve been accompanying Indigenous migrants from Mexico and Guatemala: largely Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya. And in my work, it has led me to critique the way immigration scholars reproduce that settler logic of terra nullius: as if immigrants come to a land that is empty rather than to an Indigenous homeland. Most scholars and activists of immigration are reluctant to go beyond reforming the immigration system to deconstructing the settler colonial framework that it enforces. But the classic question—what is to be done and how—comes up with our students. They want to know: What is the difference between an immigrant and a settler? How do we enact decolonial resistance? How do we move beyond Indigenous land recognition, beyond the performative aspects?


RDO: I see that too with young Chicanos and even Mexican and Central American refugees usually. Most people that come here really should be called refugees rather than immigrants: because they often come from countries that the US has destroyed or installed brutal dictators in. Look at Central America, where the US used Honduras as a base for the Contra War and also tore El Salvador and Nicaragua apart.

Just calling anyone who comes from somewhere else a settler is not a way to build solidarity and teach people. They don’t know US history when they come—except Hollywood movies, maybe—they don’t know even that there are living Native people and land bases in the United States. This is especially true for refugees who are simply fleeing and couldn’t care less, all they know is probably they can get a job here, because it is the richest country in the world.

I don’t think anyone who is sincere wants to be in the position of hurting someone else unknowingly, of being actually an abusive person. So we have to really talk about these things and have conversations.

I see that happening with young Latin Americans. I see it with Somalian refugees in Minnesota and Washington, where there are pretty dense populations of Native people having these conversations. I see it with people from South Asia, especially in Canada.

There is an organization in Canada that Harsha Walia, from a South Asian immigrant family, started in Vancouver and spread all over Canada, called No One Is Illegal. This organization has brought Native people and immigrants—who are mostly from South Asia or Africa or the Caribbean—together in struggles in solidarity. We don’t have anything like that in the United States, but we need to borrow that model. It is very important because they assist the immigrants and the refugees, but they also have large gatherings to introduce new immigrants to the local Indigenous people. I went to one and was impressed. This room was packed with people from all over the world, immigrants: young, old, children, families. And in front, facing them, was this line of British Columbia chiefs, many of them women, in their full regalia, teaching the immigrants.

But this would be very hard in the United States: being an immigrant in Canada is not nearly as arduous as it is for people who come to the US border. For those people, most likely, there is not much else you can think about but just getting them in safe, preventing them from being separated from their children. So here, we need other organizations for after that process, when they are settled in. And the best way to do that is to enable young immigrants, young refugees, to go to college. Because despite the right wing trying to destroy everything, they can’t set back the knowledge that is in every nonreligious education and public education system.

One of my main objectives in writing the book was as a plea: a plea to immigrants—especially post-1965 third-world immigrants—to not become settlers.

MB: One of the most important arguments of the book for me is the idea that racial justice, multiculturalism, and diversity will never dismantle the settler state. Even more powerfully, you argue that those are the mechanisms through which settler colonialism’s existence is denied. This book helps people see that fighting for racial justice and dismantling settler colonialism are not the same thing. How did you get to that argument that is at the heart of this book?


RDO: It is the unique example of New Mexico that I was familiar with that really informed me. It was the year researching for the book, then living there for three years, teaching Native American studies at the university, being married at the time to Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz, writing, then publishing, Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico.

The Hispano population, those that are descendants of the original Spanish settlers, really have indigenized themselves. Some claim they have Pueblo Indian blood. This, in fact, makes no difference at all as Native citizenship or belonging is not based upon blood of any kind; there are different nations and communities speaking unique languages whose land bases precede European colonialism.

Here, however, there are Hispanos, many younger, who glorify their indigeneity, their closeness to the land, their belonging. But you can tell that they have a tin ear: they are not realizing that this is what Scots-Irish settlers in Appalachia claim or in Oklahoma or anywhere. This is what all settlers say. “They feel this closeness to the land.”

But in New Mexico, the Hispanos claim that they were colonized by the US, and they did suffer status and land loss with US occupation. But to claim they were colonized, they have to erase the Indigenous Pueblos, Navajos, Apaches, Utes that they took the land from. Every piece of land that Hispanos own in New Mexico—and they are always trying to get back the land that they lost when the US came in—all of that was taken from Native people, who live in very reduced land bases.

So it is a deadlock in New Mexico. The Hispano ruling class—and in rural areas they do make up the police, the sheriffs, the mayors, legislators, governors—many now call themselves Chicanos. They made up this mythology about Aztlan: the mythical original territory of the Aztecs who migrated to California. But the Hopi, Utes, and other Indigenous peoples live there; it is not empty. This is just another way of erasing the Indigenous people and giving inaccurate history.


MB: This is a long overdue conversation within Chicano and Latino studies, which is now grappling with the anti-Indigenous prejudice that many Indigenous migrants face by mestizos. But also how the idea of Aztlan has not grappled with its own erasure of Indigenous people that replicates the Mexican States’ use of mestizaje and indigenismo that uses the grandeur of the Aztec past to ignore and erase the present of Indigenous people—the largest number of Indigenous people in any country on Abiayala, or the continent colonially known as the Americas. How can Aztlan overlay other Indigenous homelands? Or how can you claim the land of the entire Southwest when all these other Native nations have been here?


RDO: It is not just the Chicanos. The person who invented Aztlan in the Southwest was the late Native American historian Jack Forbes, certainly a mentor of mine and someone I cared a great deal about, a brilliant man. But it was a period of time in the ’60s when coalitions were building, and the American Indian Movement was a pan-Indian movement. Everyone knew exactly who they were, their cultures, and there was a mutual respect. Chicanos were welcome in the AIM, are still welcome. What Jack was trying to do with the book Aztecas del Norte: The Chicanos of Aztlan (1973) was to create a coalition of Chicanos, Mexican Americans, Central Americans, and people colonized by the Spanish and help build this pan-Indianism for struggle across the whole hemisphere.

But when you get down to the land—treaties and cultures and languages and all that—you can’t be so loose about it.

Parallel to the more lefty, loud movement, however, was this other Native movement going on that was working on getting land back. Almost all of the federal land held by various departments, the Forest Service and National Park Service and all, is Indian land that was taken without treaties and under US law. The federal government does not own it because they don’t have a contract, they don’t have the deed to these federal lands.

Restoring land to Native nations doesn’t mean evicting anyone because it is not that people live in these places. But Native people would be the stewards of it. There are actual proposals that I would like to see presented to immigrants—especially from Central America, Mexico, and the Chicano movement—to support these efforts, to be allies in this. Because they are the most likely to get it, if it is presented to them.


MB: What you’ve outlined in the book about returning land is a really important and concrete way to get involved with Land Back struggles. A lot of my students get really tripped up on this question: Are they settlers or aren’t they settlers? And I say, “Okay, let’s start with, you are an uninvited guest on Native lands and if we don’t recognize what is our responsibility to the homelands of other people we’re residing on, then we are being complicit with settler colonialism, and settler colonial logics.”


RDO: Yeah, and they don’t have the responsibility always that half of Mexico was taken by the United States, so it is not like they were emigrants, the people, the people who were already there.


MB: They survived multiple colonizations.


RDO: And in precolonial times, these didn’t follow the actual migrations and relationships, which were very fluid within meso-America.

Borderless, no borders … In fact, “no borders” is a very naïve lefty progressive stance; for Native people, how they hear it is, “You can just come and take or rent our land without asking us.” We have to understand that Native people have borders that have to be respected. And that we can’t dream of a world of no borders until we get rid of capitalism and settler colonialism. And that’s because capitalism recognizes no borders, and spews its poison everywhere. Who controls the borders is more important than seeking no borders.


This article was commissioned by A. Naomi Paikicon

Featured Image: Courtesy of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, by Judy McKie of Grace Image Photography.