This Land Might Be Your Land
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma hearing stories about her grandfather's involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World, the radical union organization also known as the Wobblies. She went on to campaign for justice and the rights of indigenous peoples.
She was a "full-time activist" from 1967 to 1972, then got involved in the American Indian Movement in 1974. In 1981 Dunbar- Ortiz traveled to Nicaragua to investigate the Miskitu Indians' land-tenure issues. Over the next eight years she made more than 100 trips to Central America, monitoring the conflict between the Contras and Sandinistas.
Today she is professor emeritus of ethnic studies and women's studies at California State University, East Bay. Among her books are Indians of the Americas: Human Rights and Self-Determination; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War; and Red Dirt: Growing up Okie.
Dunbar-Ortiz gives a dozen readings from Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico -- a new, updated version of a book she first published in 1980 -- in Santa Fe and other locations in Northern New Mexico from Oct. 7 to 16.
Pasatiempo telephoned her in San Francisco.
Pasatiempo: So your grandfather was a Wobbly.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: My grandfather was a Wobbly. I think I got my passion for issues around justice and indigenous rights through my dad, who was himself no radical but who worshipped his father. He told me stories I had no background for understanding, but after a while it just seemed like it was normal to rebel and to mistrust the overnment and to have the idea that you could live your life not for material gain but to improve things.
My grandfather got run out of Oklahoma because of his ties to the Wobblies. He owned land in Canadian County, and he had to sell and move because the Ku Klux Klan was attacking all the Reds.
Pasa: In Roots of Resistance you talk about the 500-year anniversary of Columbus' arrival in North America, which you say the Spanish government and the Vatican lauded because it brought "the gifts of civilization and Christianity to the indigenous peoples." And then you discuss the proposal at a 1977 United Nations conference to mark the occasion with mourning -- to recall "the onset of colonialism, African slavery, and genocide against the indigenous peoples of the Americas."
Dunbar-Ortiz: Yeah, for an international indigenous day on Oct. 12, Columbus Day, and they've done that in some Latin American states.
Pasa: On the topic of Indian land rights, so many Native people around the country were forced to move from their ancestral lands - to Oklahoma, for example -- with the Indian Removal Act of 1830.
Dunbar-Ortiz: The removals were to make room in the southeastern states for slavery, for slave-produced agriculture, which was the basis of the whole economy of the United States. That's why those people were removed and it just became a practice, to move all the Indians east of the Mississippi to Oklahoma, so you have more than 300 tribes there.
I actually grew up thinking there were no Indians east of the Mississippi, but in the late '60s Simon Ortiz of Acoma (who wrote the foreword for my book) got a ... grant to travel and look for Indians in the East and he found them everywhere.
Pasa: Aren't the Mohawk and Oneida communities thriving in the Northeast?
Dunbar-Ortiz: Yes, they're exceptions. I think being on both sides of the Canadian border helped them to maintain their cultures.
Pasa: One fact about the settling of New Mexico that's often ignored is that, after the initial brutalities of colonization, Hispanic and Native people collaborated on survival strategies for centuries.
Dunbar-Ortiz: Yes, and it's really a beautiful future, a truly multicultural paradise, if we could get there. The leadership will have to come from the Pueblos because they're the strongest organized force in the Southwest. I'm really optimistic about the future.
And now the Anglos are part of the mix. They come from different places and they come for different reasons and they don't really understand what's going on. They skim the surface. They go to dances at the pueblos and go see the churches in the northern Hispanic villages but they kind of live in a completely different world. Getting them involved in these issues is very important - rather than real estate. It seems like there's a real-estate mania among the Anglos who move to New Mexico.
Pasa: Speaking of real estate, wouldn't the restoration of lands now be complicated, because they've been bought and divided up?
Dunbar-Ortiz: In much of the West it's not that complicated. In New Mexico, 40 percent of the land is in the direct hands of the federal government, in National Parks, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Monument lands like El Malpais near Grants. All it would take is the stroke of a pen, but at El Malpais, for example, the Acomas wanted to pay market value for the land, but the feds didn't allow it. One suspects sometimes that there really is a kind of policy in the federal government not to allow these sacred sites to be returned. Many of them were taken under Teddy Roosevelt under the guise of environmental protection, but the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and Yosemite were all sacred sites of Native peoples.
Pasa: You write of the Pueblo Indians, "From the onset of European colonization to the present, they have debated and made plans in their underground Kivas, not in public." I always thought the kiva was reserved for spiritual events.
Dunbar-Ortiz: They once were purely ritual places, where they would go back into the earth from which they emerged. But after the Spanish came, they were also used as places of refuge, and that's why the church insisted on destroying them. That's what led to the Indian rebellion of 1680, and when the Spanish came back, they decided to leave the kivas alone. They're very secretive about the kiva. I was married to an Acoma man, and I never asked any questions because I wouldn't get any answers. Nobody knows what goes on in the kivas.
Pasa: In the new chapter of Roots of Resistance you discuss the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations.
Dunbar-Ortiz: It includes the restoration of traditional territories. The international indigenous movement has been working on that for 30 years. Pueblo peoples and Navajos and Chicanos have been involved in the process. It's sort of under the radar because the press in the United States is so uninterested in anything that goes on in the U.N. that's not from the Security Council.
I do think the U.N. process is a very important support system for indigenous peoples in the Southwest, and so are the alliances with others who are going through the same thing: the Maoris in New Zealand and the Aborigines in Australia and the Bolivians, who now have an indigenous president, Evo Morales. I'm very optimistic that what they do can be a model for how we deal with global warming and poverty and many other problems. Their success is important to everyone, and it's a big burden on people to learn about all of this.
Pasa: Where can people learn more?
Dunbar-Ortiz: My book is one source, but they should also look at new books by Jennifer Denetdale, a Navajo professor at UNM; and a Shoshone named Ned Blackhawk at the University of Wisconsin. Also, there's a lot of information on the Indigenous People page at the U.N. Web site.
Pasa: In your book you remind us of the country's failure to honor various treaties, including the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Dunbar-Ortiz: That is an acknowledged international treaty, and if Mexico had the guts they could go to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and demand action on the land grants and water rights for all the former citizens of Mexico who are here.
It's a sensitive thing in Mexico that we took half of Mexico. The people simply don't recognize the border, and that's reflected in immigration. It's like, "Give us a break; you took half our country." I think any populist president, like [presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lpez] Obrador, if he had won last year, would try to do something about it.
I watch the papers. Sometimes on the business page there will appear a tiny news story that the Mexican government has challenged the United States on the Channel Islands of California and the secretary of state suddenly is in Mexico City and suddenly there's a huge, new low-interest loan for Mexico. ... Because the Channel Islands were not included in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and they technically belong to Mexico.
People need an education in this country about the
war with Mexico. I'm appalled as an historian who teaches at a university
that very rarely is there a student or faculty member with the vaguest
idea that this was once Mexico.