Was there a moment, any one event that shifted your perspective on the way you viewed your own history?
The one thing I didn't get from the stories that was very important was an anti-racist perspective. It was all in the context of white struggle. My mother was part Indian, but the community I lived in was all white. The Wobblies were largely all white so the civil rights movement in the 1950s – from school desegregation – was very important for me. I went my last year in high school to the first integrated high school in Oklahoma, Central High School. It was the same year that Little Rock High School exploded and they had to bring troops in, so the Oklahomans decided to do it differently and to avoid resisting desegregation, but it was still a very volatile issue. What they mostly did was steal black athletes from the all-black schools in the inner city. There were very few blacks where I went and they were persecuted. I think just witnessing and seeing whites attack blacks for no reason whatsoever – nothing they did, nothing they said, just for existing – stuck me with such a visceral feeling of injustice, and the way that if you didn't join in, you're seen as a race traitor and shunned really struck me. You have to actively be a white racist or else you were not trustworthy, you were a "nigger-lover." That's what I was called. I don't remember any other whites in that school who I could sit and talk to about this. There was one – the first Jewish person I ever met. She was the only white person there, including all of the teachers, who wasn't racist, I mean really out-and-out total racist. I became hyper-aware of racism, and I could not help but challenge it every time I saw it. It was very hard to make friends. Then I went to Oklahoma University and there was a little larger pool of people who were anti-racist, even though it was almost all white. There were also foreign students – many of them Middle Eastern – so there was some color on campus. The second thing that happened to me, aside from the anti-racist thing – was meeting Palestinians who were studying petroleum engineering. At the time, it had only been nine years since they were forced out of their homes. They were in Jordanian refugee camps and eventually received Jordanian scholarships to study engineering. That was right during the Suez Crisis of 1957. They taught me not only about the Middle Eastern situation, but about US imperialism and the US role in that particular crisis.
So until then you'd been thinking mainly about national issues?
Yes. I had no sense whatsoever of international issues until I started meeting the foreign students. That was really important, learning about liberation movements. They not only told me about their cause but about politics worldwide. Especially Said Abu Lughod. Said knew everything about the history of the world. He knew about the African National Congress and the struggles all over Africa. He knew about the French in Algeria and Vietnam. I knew the US was already in Vietnam in 1957 because of him, so that was such a gift, to learn all this when I was so young; I was only 18 years old, and of course he understood racism. He understood the situation of the Indians in Oklahoma. Looking around, he saw the same situation as the Palestinians. Then to come to California. The ‘60s were launched soon after and I was able just to dive in and learn more and more and more, and learn how to act, not just how to think, but to channel that into action, rather than just getting angry and upset and challenging everyone and slamming doors. I owe learning how to organize to the '60s. Even if I'd stayed in Oklahoma, activism was so clandestine because it was so dangerous. I probably couldn't have found a place.
What caused you to leave academia and pursue a life of activism?
Well, when I came to California, I went for three years to San Francisco State and then graduated, and then went to UC Berkeley for a year of graduate school, and then UCLA, so my activities up to ‘68 were within a university setting, and then I broke off. I was at the stage of writing my dissertation, but I didn't pick it back up until 1974, so it was six years that I took off completely. I went back and wrote a dissertation and turned it in, but it was linked to some organizing work I was doing on land tenure in New Mexico so I kind of did break permanently with academia in terms of feeling like that was my identity. When I'm introduced as a professor, it seems odd. It's not the first thing I think about myself.
How do you see yourself?
As a militant, as a radical, as a writer ... as a teacher, but professor – it is an official title, but it would be a little like introducing someone as an accountant. "Here's CPA Dunbar Ortiz." Surely accountants don't want that title to be their identity. A lot of academics do. Of course, it's an honor. I know people are doing it out of respect.
Was there a moment when you decided what you were trying to pursue as an activist wasn't working with what you were pursuing as an intellectual?
I think I decided in the '60s when I left UCLA. I was deeply disappointed because like many other students, I really thought we could have kind of liberated zones on the university campuses like in Latin America, which I was very familiar with, which have autonomous universities. The police can never enter and the army can never enter, and when that's broken, like it was in El Salvador or in 1968 in Mexico, it is just abhorrent. They have a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages of having autonomous universities. I thought we could create that. I knew that to the extent that it existed how important that was in Oklahoma, but the more the ties to the military were exposed, the more disappointed I became. In UCLA, where I was, there were enormous ties to the Rand Corporation which did much of the military's research. I was in Latin American Studies and the CIA's involvement in Chile was going on right there, out of UCLA. There were professors who were tied to it and making a lot of money. I just gave up. I decided I certainly couldn't make being a professor and raising the consciousness of students and organizing on campus my primary political work. It would be easier to organize the revolution than to take over the university.
Tell me about the formation of Cell 16. When did that really begin?
I left UCLA via Mexico and went to Boston, intent upon organizing a women's liberation movement, not being aware that many other women were thinking the same thing. It was quite a treat when I found these other women in New York and Boston and Florida – even here in the Bay Area – who had been meeting quietly. I went to Boston because I knew it was the center of the anti-war movement with the Boston Draft Resistance and the Sanctuary Movement where churches were taking in deserters, AWOLs, draft resisters, and protecting them from being arrested, and then getting them out to Canada. The place had such a history – from the abolitionist movement to the early women's movement of the 19th Century. That's why I chose Boston and that's where I began – at the Boston Draft Resistance group teaching and organizing. Cell 16 came out of a course I taught. Our first little group came together. We eventually – about six months later – made up this name, Cell 16.