Waking from the John Wayne dream: Columbus and Jackson are dead, but America's war against indigenous people lives on

A new book "All the Real Indians Died Off" dismantles a toxic fantasy Native American struggles are distant history

Published October 10, 2016 8:43PM (EDT)

Andrew Jackson; John Wayne; Christopher Columbus   (Wikimedia/Paramount Pictures/Salon)
Andrew Jackson; John Wayne; Christopher Columbus (Wikimedia/Paramount Pictures/Salon)

In her 1965 essay "John Wayne: A Love Song," Joan Didion celebrated the swagger and machismo that are the trademarks of that American cultural icon. "When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours" Didion wrote, "he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams." She wrote with inspiration and boundless affection for the Duke and fixates on one of his oft-repeated taglines: “Hello, there.”

For a writer like Didion, with such a mastery of language, such a defined style, “Hello, there” might seem an unlikely object of focus. It is, in a word, empty.

But it is just that emptiness that allowed for Didion’s fawning.

"'Hello, there,'” she wrote, as if repeating it to herself. “Where did he come from, before the tall grass? Even his history seemed right, for it was no history at all, nothing to intrude upon the dream."

In the introduction to their new book, available this month from Beacon Press, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and co-author Dina Gilio-Whitaker write, “The myths about Indigenous peoples that this book identifies can be traced to narratives of erasure.”

"'All the Real Indians Died Off': And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans" concisely deconstructs a variety of misconceptions about American history and defines the persistence of varied Native American cultures in the face of genocide and those narratives of erasure. With necessary clarity, Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker have surveyed a long and bewildering history of racist policies and structural violence against Native Americans.

But "All the Real Indians" is more than just a survey of the litany of atrocities that have largely gone uncounted in the American mythology. It is also a move toward understanding why those atrocities have gone uncounted, why that mythology is what it is. And it is an acknowledgment that history includes the present. The book is, in a sense, something to intrude upon the dream.

The authors have deconstructed basic foundational myths in chapters such as “Columbus Discovered America,” countering that “not only could Columbus not have discovered a country that didn’t yet exist . . . but he also utterly failed to comprehend, let alone respect, the people he stumbled upon in the mistaken belief that he had arrived in the ‘East Indies.’”

While likely nothing new to anyone reading this book, the point bears repeating in this context.

But going beyond the relatively lighthearted image of a feckless Columbus hazarding upon the Americas, the authors have explained that according to firsthand accounts, Columbus set up massive estates in Hispaniola, utilizing the forced labor of indigenous Arawak people to mine gold. Any time these Arawak slaves failed to meet Columbus’ mining quotas, “their hands were cut off and they bled to death.”

Along with completely imagining where in the world he was, Columbus also largely imagined the presence of gold. “So little gold existed in Hispaniola that the island turned into a massive killing field," the authors wrote.  The Arawaks eventually took to mass suicide and infanticide to escape the cruelty of the Spaniards.”

“All the Real Indians” tackles such myths as “The United States Did Not Have a Policy of Genocide” and “US Presidents Were Benevolent or at Least Fair-Minded Toward Indians.” The authors have countered with pithy and watertight arguments, laying bare the ugly truth of the U.S. forefathers with quotations like this one from George Washington, instructing Major General John Sullivan: “[Y]ou will not by any means, listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected. The terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.”

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker have detailed the brutal tenure of Andrew Jackson, first as a ruthless land speculator and a U.S. Army general and then as the seventh U.S. president. Among a myriad of other actions and policies, Jackson stands responsible for shepherding the Indian Removal Act through Congress, overseeing “the massive forced relocations to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) of the five large agricultural nations of the Southeast, . . .  a third to half of migrants dying on the long journeys.”

As much as this all functions perfectly well to highlight the ugliest elements in the history of the U.S., one could claim that it is just that: history, distant and buried.

John Wayne might have seen it that way.

Speaking about American Indians in a 1971 Playboy interview, Wayne asserted that "what happened between their forefathers and our forefathers is so far back — right, wrong or indifferent — that I don't see why we owe them anything.”

This is Joan Didion’s fantasy manifest: “Even his history seemed right,” she wrote, “for it was no history at all.”

And it is exactly this fantasy of a distant or absent history that "All the Real Indians" works to dismantle.

“There is little doubt that [Andrew] Jackson was the single most destructive president for Native Americans,” Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker have written, “but it is essential to remember that the deeds he carried out before and during his presidency had been inscribed as policy of the US government from its inception.”

This holds rousing implications for the present.

Especially in the latter half, the book significantly illustrates the ongoing effects of these policies and the persistence of structural violence. Later chapters include “Most Indians are on Government Welfare” and “The Only Real Indians Are Full-Bloods, and They Are Dying Off.”

These are complex myths. The fact that many Indian nations use blood quantum to determine tribal enrollment is a nuanced issue. Beginning in the 1930s, the U.S. government began requiring certain percentages of Indian ancestry for individuals to be considered Native American.

From then on many Indian nations have adopted this method for determining who is eligible for membership. The authors, along with other scholars on the subject, while admitting that this is a contentious matter, have asserted that policies based on blood quantum are internalized Euro-American fantasies. Scholar and author Scott Richard Lyons has called the blood quantum method of determining citizenship “dubious racial geometry.”

Pre-Columbian concepts of tribal identity commonly had nothing to do with biology and did not view lineage as a necessary factor for determining membership in a tribe. Instead, membership was often based on recognition and participation and cultural affinity.

“Unlike other ethnicities in the United States,” the authors have written, “American Indians are the only citizens who are subject to state-sanctioned legal definitions of identity, obligated to prove who they are as Indigenous peoples.”

Again, this subject is contentious. So many aspects of Native American culture have, after all, been co-opted, threatened and erased by the dominant Euro-American culture. It might appear that there is no better way to protect these cultures from ongoing molestation than to scientifically prove who is and who is not an authentic insider.

But Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker have asserted that an “ample body of scholarship makes the case that if they continue to adhere to minimum blood quantum standards eventually there will be no Indians left, in what has been called paper or statistical genocide.”

They continued, “This is because Indians marry outside their cultures more than any other ethnic group, resulting in multiracial and multiethnic children. What’s more, even when Indians have children with other Indians but from different tribes, it lowers the blood quantum necessary to enroll in one tribe (a requirement written into most tribal constitutions).”

The racialization of Native American traditional identity reflects a particular brand of ongoing colonization, as do cartoonish Native American sports mascots, the fetishization of Indian women as sexy “squaws” and Halloween costumes and New Age appropriation of Native American religious elements.

What is destructive about these seemingly innocent and disparate practices is that they perpetuate fantasies that serve as identities not determined by American Indians themselves. Instead, they are designed by a broader non-Native American culture seeking to claim a “contrived sense of ‘aboriginal Americanness’ in the face of its de facto absence.”

These stand-in characters, these fantasies make it so that it is difficult and indeed often impossible for Native Americans to achieve authenticity: A “real Indian” is something distant, deferred, unattainable. And these characters therefore obscure the actual existence of Native Americans and the fact that Native American cultures exist today because of great efforts to resist erasure and to preserve languages and traditions.

These ideas of Native Americans as virginal Indian princesses or warriors or as disappearing or gone altogether help to keep indigenous peoples “beyond the tall grass,” distant and whooping and categorized in terms of white, European colonial fantasies. They are the fantasies of our heroic men like John Wayne who, in that same Playboy interview, also displayed a wariness towards the civil rights movement.

“With a lot of blacks,” Wayne said, “there's quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can't all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks.”

He spoke with a kind of coded derision and bitterness: "I don't feel guilty about the fact that five or ten generations ago these people were slaves. Now, I'm not condoning slavery. It's just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can't play football with the rest of us."

There is a particularly memorable scene in the 1956 John Ford film "The Searchers" in which sheriff Ethan Edwards, played by Wayne, displaying all kinds of swagger and machismo, shoots out the eyes of a dead Indian for apparently no reason other than to damn him to "wander forever between the winds" in the afterlife.

Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker have chosen the book’s title effectively. In no small sense, every one of the myths cataloged in this volume persists because of that fundamental idea that Native Americans are dead and gone or are at least “elsewhere.”

One can shoot the eyes out of a dead Indian on screen if there are no real Indians around in real life to hear about it. And if one classifies the struggles of Native Americans as “so far back” that nothing is “owed” them, then one can bulldoze sacred lands to build oil pipelines without issue. This kind of history is made to “seem right” by being exactly “no history at all.”

This emptying out of history allows for great varieties of dehumanizing practices. Comparing slavery to infantile paralysis and reducing the civil rights movement to whining about the inevitable are part and parcel to the very same mentality that allows for the rampant execution of unarmed black civilians by police. Although the histories of dehumanization of black Americans and Native Americans have been very different ones, maintaining the romance with this “no history at all” allows for similarly suspicious deaths of Native Americans in police custody to go uncounted.

It allows for the sale of Apache holy lands to private mining concerns such as is the case with Oak Flat in Arizona. It allows for the the fact that Native American women are more than two and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women in the U.S. in general.

The myths that Native Americans are long dead or that Native American struggles transpired long before the present day are directly descended from the same genocidal tendencies and policies that were in place at this nation’s founding. And those myths, tendencies and policies have been tied up with land use since even before the founding of the United States.

The construction of the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota is in no minor sense simply the most recent (and the currently most visible) act of settler colonization and the roiling, multitribal resistance to that pipeline is a vivid picture of the struggles that have been ongoing since the first Europeans arrived on the continent.

If Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson and John Wayne are, in our cultural mind’s eye, trailblazing heroes, then by all means, so must be the mercenaries who sicced attack dogs on Native American demonstrators at the site of the Dakota Access pipeline in September.

This is what one really finds out there beyond the tall grass. These are the things that make up the dream upon which John Wayne would not intrude. "All the Real Indians Died Off" seeks to intrude upon that dream.

By Mark Trecka

MORE FROM Mark Trecka