Annotated Transcript: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz speaking in October 2017

Historian and author, Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz presents a detailed critique of the historical roots of the United States. Complete text is here.


Introduced by Nick Estes:

From the first time I met Roxanne we have talked about Amilkar Cabral’s concept of Return to the Source, the source of oppression and resistance. For these Settler States of America, it is settler colonialism. Those who have thwarted the finality of settlement in the United States have been Indigenous Peoples. Roxanne instructs us that history and resistance are two pillars of liberation. The terms of history, in this way, are not hashed out in dusty archives or in academic debate alone. As we see in St. Louis right now, or at Standing Rock, or right here in this colonial settlement called Santa Fe, history is an active element of our current moment being fought for in the streets and primarily led by Indigenous and Black People.

Roxanne has been a comrade in that struggle and we are the product of that work. People have given their lives or currently sit behind bars, such as Leonard Peltier, for us to be here today.

So what are the stakes of history? It is to say, as Roxanne and those like her have been saying for more than five centuries, colonialism and capitalism are not naturally occurring systems nor are the ills that they bring such as slavery, genocide, imperialism, racism, hetero-patriarchy and white supremacy. So we should be turning to those Indigenous Societies who have resisted colonialism and capitalism for centuries to imagine a world otherwise. Because the mandate is to return to the source as Roxanne constantly reminds me. We are the source. We are the past and we are the future.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz:

The Doctrine of Discovery

So what is the Doctrine of Discovery? According to this Medieval Canon Law, European Christian monarchies acquired title to the lands they discovered and Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land after Christian Europeans had arrived and claimed it. Under this legalistic cover for theft, European and Euro-American wars of conquest and settler colonialism in the Western hemisphere devastated Indigenous nations and communities, ripping their territories away from them, and transforming the land into private property, or real estate, along with another form of private property, enslaved African bodies.

In the United States most of that land ended up in the hands of land speculators who were also slavers and agribusiness operators called plantations, such as most of the US founding fathers, so-called, and most of the US Presidents and other government and military officials up to the Civil War. Arcane as it may seem, the Doctrine of Discovery remains the basis for US federal laws still in effect that control Indigenous peoples lives and destinies, maintaining a regimen of suffocating settler colonialism under the color of law.

From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, most of the non-European world was colonized under the Doctrine of Discovery. This is the first principle of international law that Christian European monarchies promulgated to legitimize the investigating, mapping, and claiming lands belonging to non-Christian peoples outside of Europe.

It originated in a Papal Bull, issued in 1455, that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa for slave raiding. Following Columbus’s infamous exploratory voyage in 1492, sponsored by the king and queen of the infant Spanish state, another Papal Bull extended similar permission to Spain. Disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies led to the Papal initiated Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 which, besides dividing the globe equally between the two Iberian empires, clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the Discovery Doctrine.

This Doctrine, on which all European states relied, originated with the arbitrary and unilateral establishment of the Iberian monarchies’ exclusive rights under Christian canon law to colonize foreign peoples, and this right was later seized, and absorbed, usually explicitly, if not by common law, by Protestant, Christian, European monarchical colonizing projects as well….


Indicating the intentions of the newly independent United States, in 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson asserted that the Doctrine of Discovery, developed by European States, was international law, applicable to the new US government as well. Codifying the Doctrine of Discovery as domestic law in 1823, the US Supreme Court issued a decision, actually a collection of decisions, three decisions, concerning the Cherokee Nation in Georgia. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall held that the Doctrine of Discovery had been an established principle of European Law and an English Law in effect in British North American colonies, and was also the law of the United States….


Parallel to and enabled by this ethnic cleansing was the rise of a cotton kingdom in the Mississippi Valley, and the Industrial forced-breeding of enslaved Africans in the older slaver states. The foundation and birth of United States capitalism burrowed into and destroying Indigenous sacred land and African sacred bodies as exchange commodities, and the source of wealth that built the richest nation state and largest and deadliest military in human history, the United States of America.

So the Doctrine of Discovery, at least in the United States, is so taken for granted that very few people even know it exists as a fundamental element of the United States law. Although we do know that the US purports to be a nation of laws, we don’t iterate this particular one in law schools or in conversation. The Doctrine of Discovery is rarely mentioned in any historical or legal texts although the Marshall Court Cherokee decisions are regularly the introduction to US Constitutional Law, after Marbury. Yet the Doctrine of Discovery is the legal basis upon which the United States government controls Indigenous Nations whose territories it claims under a continuing colonial system….


The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, along with the powerful Native, Chicano, Puerto Rican anti-war countercultural, Women’s Liberation, and Gay and Lesbian and Trans Movements, broke down the existing consensus and created a window of opportunity that institutionalized revisions through the bottom-up creation of Black, Native, Chicano, and Gender Studies. But that devolved into a kind of multiculturalism supporting the narrative of diversity and contributions to the greatness of the United States.

In achieving a new consensus the new narrative had to ignore Native issues of sovereignty and territorial rights and treaties. Rather, twisting the inclusion of indigeneity as a racial discrimination question rather than a question of sovereign Nations living under settler colonialism.

One of my favorite writers, late writers, William Burroughs, narrator in his 1984 novel which I highly recommend, The Place Of Dead Roads, observes that “people are not bribed to shut up about what they know. They are bribed not to find [it] out”. This is particularly true in the writing of US history, my profession. It’s not a free speech issue, but one of asking questions that challenge the core of the scripted narrative. Historians are validated to the extent that they remain guardians of the United States origin narrative with various tweaks to adjust to demands of the excluded, to prevent revolutions.

Even those flawed advances are currently in retreat and US gun violence, and endless wars are endemic. Various polls show that even the educated general public doesn’t know basic facts about the structure of the US government, the Constitution, the rights of states and the division of powers. Yet there is a widespread acceptance of the greatness and goodness of the United States along with the extreme mistrust of government. Except for the military.

Understanding Where the US Military Came From & What It Is

A recent tiny Associated Press story provided polling information of US American public regarding their confidence in federal government institutions. Reporting only six percent have confidence in Congress (probably zero in this [unintelligible]). Fourteen percent of people said they have confidence in the executive branch which includes the president and all of the cabinet agencies. Twenty-four percent say they have confidence in the Supreme Court. However eighty-four percent have confidence in the military.

The military is the only unifying government institution, the only one trusted. So we have to understand where that military has come from and what it is. Why is there so little information, analysis, or curiosity in the origins and development of the US military? In history and political science texts, it doesn’t exist. And teaching at any grade level [and] graduate school, the military history field, small as it is, is usually made up of war mongers and former military people and people who certainly never write about what actually happened to form that military.

The military isn’t even presented as a branch of government as we know there are only three branches of government. Rather it is placed under the formerly civilian, elected president and commander in chief of the armed forces. This is meant to scare you because Trump isn’t just president, he’s the commander in chief of the armed forces. And as he said, I heard him on TV tonight say, that he can do anything he wants, because he’s that.

However from the earliest settlements in the 1600s to the adhesion of the thirteen British colonies into an independent nation state and up to the present, the military has been the engine that drives US nationalism; that is, patriotism. Yet generations have little knowledge of interaction with the military. But the annals of military history reveal the architecture of its formation and function and dominance….

Deconstructing Consensus US History: Fort Bragg, CA

In fact, the majority of US Army Bases on the continent were initially outpost for wars against Indigenous Nations: Fort Snelling, Hayes, Kearney, Leavenworth, Sill, and Riley, the latter the base of George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, now the First Infantry Division. All named after US Army Officers who commanded genocidal wars.

For most of the period from the US war of independence to the 1890s, the sole function of the US military was to kill, roundup refugees, relocate and confine Native Americans and appropriate their land and resources to replace with Anglo American settlers, and sometimes from other countries like Scandinavians. Particularly, slave-owning planters involved in mono cash production got most of that land. The Army Officers of both the Confederacy and the Union had made their careers in genocidal campaigns against Native Nations and against the Indigenous and Mestizo peoples of Mexico, which included where we are now, annexing half its territory and including three major declared wars against the Seminole Nation before the Civil War.

Both Union and Confederate Armies posted regiments west of the Mississippi to invade territories of the Dakota, Cheyenne, Navajo, Apache, and Comanche Nations among others.

Wars against the native peoples did not miss a beat during the Civil War which saw the military rounding up and deporting the entire Navajo population, that Kit Carson could round up, to a desert concentration camp where one-third succumbed to starvation, exposure, and disease. And the ethnic cleansing of the Dakota people in their traditional territory of Minnesota to be replaced by Scandinavian settlers.

After the Civil War, when the US Army was supposed to prioritize occupation of the defeated Confederate States, forcing a reconstruction in which liberated African Americans could become participating and leading citizens, the commander in chief of the armed forces, the President, kept shifting armed forces from the South to the West where a twenty-five year total war was waged to destroy the Native Nations in the Northern Plains, the Intermountain West and Southwest.

US: A Thoroughly Militarized Culture – Dangerous Because We Don’t Know It

The United States is a thoroughly militarized culture, all the more dangerous because we don’t know it. It’s subliminal. And it has been since it’s bloody birth. The blood being mainly that of Indigenous peoples in the path of the colonist’s relentless expansion during their Revolutionary War. We see the signs of militarism all around us and in the media. (Just take the NFL thing in the last few weeks.)

But as military historian John Grenier notes, the cultural aspects of militarization are not new. They have deep historical roots reaching into the nation’s racist settler past and continuing through unrelenting wars of conquest and ethnic cleansing over three centuries. Grenier writes,

Beyond its sheer military utility, Americans also found a use for the first way of war in the construction of “American identity”…. the enduring appeal of the romanticized myth of the “settlement” (not [calling it] conquest) of the frontier, either by actual men like Robert Rogers or Daniel Boone or fictitious ones like Nathaniel Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s creation, [Last of the Mohicans, it all] points to what D.H. Lawrence called the “myth of the essential white American.” [The First Way of War, p.222]

US nationalism, its national narrative and origin story is white nationalism and any historical analysis or current social crisis cannot be comprehended without acknowledging US settler colonialism and colonial violence centering on Indigenous America, historically and in the present.