Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a historian, writer, public speaker, and former university professor whose primary area of academic interest is the indigenous tribes of North America. In her books and speaking appearances, she maintains that these peoples have been the victims of genocide and oppression on the part of the United States.
Dunbar-Ortiz was born on September 10, 1939 in San Antonio, Texas and grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a sharecropper. Her paternal grandfather had been a labor activist and Socialist in Oklahoma with the Industrial Workers of the World between 1900-1920. The young woman married her first husband, with whom she went on to experience what she called a “prison of marriage,” at 18. She subsequently moved to San Francisco at 21, then graduated from San Francisco State College in 1963 with a degree in History. She was a full-time anti-war and “anti-racist” activist from 1967-1972, moving around the U.S. as well as Europe, Mexico, and Cuba. And in 1968 she founded “Cell 16,” a militant, U.S.-based feminist organization whose members were required to practice celibacy, avoid contact with men, and become trained in self-defense techniques.
In 1974, Dunbar-Ortiz obtained her doctorate in history from UCLA. That same year, she became an assistant professor in Native American Studies at California State University (CSU), East Bay, where she assisted in developing the Department of Ethnic Studies and the Department of Women’s Studies. In 1983 Dunbar-Ortiz received a diploma in International Law of Human Rights from the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. And in 1993 she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College in California.
Subsequent to the famous siege of Wounded Knee in 1973, Dunbar-Ortiz became active with the American Indian Movement and the International Indian Treaty Council. In the Seventies as well, she developed alliances with groups like the Students for a Democratic Society, the African National Congress, and the Weather Underground. And in the 1980s, Dunbar-Ortiz traveled frequently to Nicaragua to observe the war between the Marxist Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega, which she supported, and the U.S.-funded Contra rebels. As the arts-and-culture magazine Pasatiempo puts it, “she spent months-long stints in northeastern Nicaragua, living with the Miskitu, an indigenous tribal people, as they fought against Contra mercenaries, many of them trained by the CIA.” Dunbar-Ortiz’s 2005 book, Blood on the Border, which is highly critical of U.S. policy as to the war, describes her experiences in Nicaragua.
From the late 1970s into the 1980s, Dunbar-Ortiz was active in the Oakland, California-based Maoist organization Line of March.
In 1992, Dunbar-Ortiz endorsed the national conference of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism, which was held on the campus of UC Berkeley. Also in the ’90s, she worked closely with young Bay Area activists who were affiliated with radical groups like STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement), SOUL (School Of Unity and Liberation), and POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights).
In her 2002 book, Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, Dunbar-Ortiz recalls her early years as a feminist and revolutionary, including her work with revolutionary groups like the Venceremos Brigades, which were created by the intelligence agency of Communist Cuba to recruit and train American leftists as “brigadistas” capable of waging guerrilla warfare.
A list of all of Dunbar-Ortiz’s books may be accessed on her personal website, reddirtsite.com. These publications deal not only with Native American issues, but also with the author’s experiences as a feminist and, more recently – an opponent of gun rights and the Second Amendment.
In early 2002, Dunbar-Ortiz was an endorser of War Times, an anti-Iraq War newspaper established by a coterie of San Francisco leftists affiliated with STORM.
In April 2002, January 2006, and December 2007, Dunbar-Ortiz lectured at the Sacramento Marxist School.
In 2002 as well, Dunbar-Ortiz was the featured speaker at a book reading entitled “The War Years from a Woman’s Perspective,”which was held at the San Francisco-based Center for Political Education, an organization with close ties to the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism.
In August 2004, Dunbar-Ortiz endorsed a protest against the George W. Bush administration outside the Republican National Convention in New York City. The demonstration was organized by Not In Our Name, a movement closely associated with the Revolutionary Communist Party.
In 2007, 2009, and 2011, Dunbar-Ortiz was a guest speaker at the annual Left Forum national conference.
In 2015, as part of a book series entitled ReVisioning History, Beacon Press published Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, which was inspired by the late Marxist historian Howard Zinn’s A Peoples’ History of the United States. In her book, Dunbar-Ortiz characterizes the history of the United States as “a history of settler colonialism” where “the founding of a state” was “based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.” She also claims that the United States, after it had achieved “utter military triumph on the continent,” subsequently “set out to dominate the world.”
When Indian Country Today interviewed Dunbar-Ortiz about her Indigenous Peoples’ History in 2016, the professor described the U.S. Army as “the most corrupt institution in the world” and claimed that the American military was originally “organized for no other reason than to invade other countries—first Native countries, then Mediterranean countries with invasion of the Berbers in North Africa in 1806, and of course Mexico.” “The sacredness of the Second Amendment,” she added, “has to be seen as part of the culty sacredness of the Constitution itself, which maintains a colonial structure. It’s absolutely essential that at some point there has to be a different form of government than one founded upon chattel slavery and Indian killing. That it’s worshipped (sic) as such is mind-boggling.” Also asserting that “the Second Amendment … was hugely expanded as the militias were used as slave patrols in the South after the ethnic cleansing [of Indians] in the 1830s,” Dunbar-Ortiz lamented that “the core of that impulse to defend the land against savages still exists, but now the savages are on the other side of the world.”
In a November 2016 interview with the progressive radio program Democracy Now!, Dunbar-Ortiz aimed to expose “the real history of the United States.” Among her remarks were the following:
In a November 2017 interview with the American Herald Tribune, Dunbar-Ortiz stated that “United States founders were explicit in spelling out their intention to occupy and colonize the continent from ocean to ocean and even had plans to colonize the Caribbean and Central America.” Mocking “the narrative of the U.S. as [a nation] founded in liberty,” she lamented the plight of “oppressed African-Americans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans” who have suffered under the “genocidal policy,” “expropriation,” “colonialism,” and “virulent … racism of Anglo Americans” seeking “to dominate the world economically and militarily.” Further, Dunbar-Ortiz claimed that “essentially U.S. patriotism/nationalism IS white nationalism, as are the laws and institutions of governance.” Stating that “a massive, white nationalist backlash has come to dominate national politics as well as many local and state politics” since the 1970s and ’80s, she added: “Donald Trump represents the success of these reactionary moves…. [T]here has always been an extreme element of white supremacy in the U.S. that serves to allow mainstream white supremacy [to] seem rationale and more desirable.”
Since her retirement (in 2001) from teaching at CSU, where she is now a professor emerita, Dunbar-Ortiz has remained an active writer and speaker. She resides in San Francisco with her current husband, Simon J. Ortiz, a noted Native-American poet.
Further Reading: “Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz – Teacher and Activist” (Shaping San Francisco, 7-6-1999); “Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz” (Keywiki.org); “Sisterhood Is Powerful (Los Angeles Times, 7-14-2002); “Becoming a Revolutionary” (Interview with Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Marxists.org, April 2008); “Native Myth-Buster: Scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz” (Pasatiempo, 10-6-2017); An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014); “Indigenous Peoples’ History: A Chat With Author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz” (Indian Country Today, 1-13-2016); “Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on Thanksgiving: ‘It Has Never Been About Honoring Native Americans’” (Democracy Now!, 11-23-2016); “Interviewing Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz” (American Herald Tribune interview, cited in Taking Down White Supremacy, by the CCDS Socialist Education Project, pp. 117-122).