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AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES' HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE, by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese--a group review

We sat together and read this as a group. Alexis, 19 and Charlie, 16 took turns reading it out loud. Ashleigh, 13 and Michael, 17 listened and we all stopped to go over things. We rarely agree on everything, but all voices were heard and respected.

Ashleigh: When I first picked up the book, I didn't know what I was looking at. Then I realized that the words "An Indigenous Peoples'" are over the sky and "History of the United States" are over the land that has the American flag spray painted on it or creeping on it like a shadow.

Alexis: It's striking! Of course, it's the same cover as the previous adult version by Roxanne Dunbar Ortz, which it should be said none of us have read.

Charlie: This version is much more friendly for us--I mean, it was written for our ages.

Alexis: Yes! Where do you think the book would start in history? I had an interesting reaction to that.

Ashleigh: Yeah, we talked about that. How many of us just assumed it would start with First Contact. Not because that is the beginning of Indigenous peoples' history in the United States, but that's what we're used to reading!

Michael: TOTALLY! That signaled to me that this was a very different kind of book--a Native book.

Alexis: But before the first chapter, there is a Note to Readers and Introduction. That has some basic points that Ms. Debbie often discusses but most people don't know. Such as The U.S. government and tribal governments also use the names "tribe" and "nation" interchangeably. This is important because long before the United States existed, the many different Native peoples had governments and made agreements with each other, just as other nations have always done. What do you all think?

Michael: I think it's an important point, but there are some issues. I don't think they are always interchangeable. This is familiar to all of us, but the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma is the largest of three federally recognized Seminole governments, which include the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians in Florida. We don't have the same councils and courts. We use reservation or town names for shorthand.

Charlie: I like the authors' point, especially when teaching White children. It is important because some tribes and nations are currently in danger of losing sovereignty. Trump would like to do that.

Ashleigh: I agree with all that! And the point they make about tribal member and tribal citizen *not* being interchangeable is really important too. I think Ms. Debbie and Ms. Jean do a really good job of introducing basic, central concepts in a plain, direct way that is easy to understand.

Alexis: That was the first thing that struck me about the book. From the first paragraph, it's very clear and the points are well chosen to educate and challenge people's perceptions. It covers a lot of ground and I don't think it gets muddled. Because I've been thinking about writing, I am amazed by how it seems simple but has so much depth.

Charlie: I didn't know what to expect. I was worried it would be boring--but it's really not. I was looking forward to seeing what came next and how certain subjects would be addressed. I hope people are open to it. Even some Americans [who] want to think well of themselves, their ancestors, their history, and what they and their leaders do.

Alexis: The authors don't just criticize racist or anti-Native ideas, they offer alternative viewpoints. Instead of accepting ideas of Manifest Destiny and the Doctrine of Discovery, we can talk about settler colonialism. One of the bravest thing this book does is also explain why multiculturalism or seeing colonialism and genocide as a cultural clash is wrong, and "objective" and "fair" viewpoints like "There were good and bad people on both sides" does not take into account centuries of theft and cultural destruction across a continent.

Ashleigh: That we always have to accept this idea of a meeting of two (!) cultures who made bargains and helped each other makes me sick! We are exposed to this every November. Beware: evil clipart.

Charlie: The authors also take down another origin story: We are a nation of immigrants. One of the ideas basic to American settler colonialism the authors name is African American slavery.

Michael: They don't support the idea of a Bering land bridge which we are taught and which makes Europe the origin of humans in the Americas. Ughh. They write: Human societies originated in sub-Saharan Africa. About two hundred thousand years ago, the people been migrating out of Africa and around the globe.

Charlie: That's right--from Africa, hun!

Ashleigh: I like the info boxes, which can be used as class discussions. One is Let's consider the word civilization. Who decides what civilization is?

Alexis: This is all common sense to us--but it's still totally radical!!!! This book is essential. It can really change things in terms of education. I hope teachers will use it. It will lessen our pain and shame in the classroom. What else? Let's look at some of the pages we tagged.

Charlie: White teachers tell us smugly that Seminole were not "one of the original tribes of Florida." Why it's so important to them I don't know. The book shows how that statement is not layered. This book starts with the Mayans and Aztecs and there is a focus on the Indigenous history of the southeast U.S. which we don't always see.

Michael: Yup--it's usually the Great Plains or southwest or Pacific northwest, but not us.

Ashleigh: The authors talk about Indigenous principles of respectful stewardship with the land and how they shaped it, like with fire. There is a lot of talk about corn. We have the Green Corn Dance in May! That comes from a Creek ceremony. It's not something for non-Natives to witness. You can see stomp dance demonstrations sometimes in other venues.

Alexis: What were some things we learned?

Michael: That "Inuit" means "people," so when you say Inuit people you are saying people people.

Charlie: I learned a lot of history I didn't know about other tribes and nations. What stands out is the fight against all odds and survival even after atrocities. I like the question box about pacifism. My parents talk to me about Dr. King's practice of civil disobedience, but they have also talked about other choices when you are surrounded  by people determined to make war--particularly if they wish to make war on your community.

Michael: One thing that I had never thought about and kind of blew my mind: European squatters on Native land in the Americas who butchered Indigenous people (that box about making big money from scalp hunting is scary) had already butchered Indigenous people in their native lands. The Ulster Scots...has already fought the Indigenous Irish people for land, and they had perfected techniques of scalping their Irish victims for bounty. So much for them coming as innocent travelers to the New World! Apparently, many US presidents up to recent years have Ulster Scot heritage.

Charlie: We know that Whites, like the Irish, like to claim they were slaves like Africans in the U.S. Nah. I appreciate the info box about the differences between indentured servitude and slavery. I like the authors' idea of using the term "enslaved" because the words slaves turns people into objects.

Michael: I know you have some feelings, as a Black Seminole, with the way certain other issues are handled in the book.

Charlie: The first thing I did was look up "African American" and "Two-Spirit" in the index. Firstly, there is a discussion about a civil war within the Muskogee where Africans who had freed themselves from slavery became allies of the traditionalist fighters known as the Red Sticks. Then there is a box about "The All-Black Regiments in the US Army" which talks about the Buffalo Soldiers and how they took part in some of the most intense campaigns against Indigenous citizens.

Michael: Whoa! This quote about the Seminole says:

The Indigenous people who are known today as Seminole originally lived in towns along rivers in a large area that included what is now the Florida Panhandle. Born of resistance, the Seminole Nation included refuges from dozens of distinct Indigenous communities and Africans who escaped slavery.

Charlie: That is certainly different rom what the official Sem Tribe FL website says on the subject. Where tribal enrollment depends on identifying ancestors on the Dawes Rolls, it is problematic because some of my ancestors who were Seminole and African were only listed as "freedman". This is a painful topic and I won't say more here. The very beginning of the book says Most history books do not say...that some Native people used enslaved labor. But this one doesn't really either. I would have loved to have seen one of those boxes dedicated to the life of John Horse from Florida to Mexico.

Ashleigh: The book talks about slavery being abolished in Mexico.

Alexis: I was surprised by no mention of Two-Spirit anywhere. That is a pan-Native term from the 1990s and there are many other non-binary nation specific names like the Lakota wintke, right? It would have fit in well in Chapter Ten, "Indigenous Action, Indigenous Rights."

Charlie: I am Two-Spirit Queer. Can we put a photo of Indigiqueer author Joshua Whitehead here, for representation and to beg them to write a book for kids or teens?

Michael: Ten was a really cool chapter, with the fish-ins, which I never heard of, the occupation of Alcatraz (not the first!) and the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)...

Ashleigh: There is a good "To Do" box which says: When news media are reporting on ICWA cases, we recommend you read and listen to Native media who can accurately report on cases like that.

All: Yes!

Alexis: On the opposite page (193) there is a box about Vine Deloria, Jr--credited by many scholars as being one of the founders of Indigenous studies. His books were around my house when I was growing up and my mom influenced me with his ideas. It's a nice bow from Ms. Debbie, who is another major Native scholar.

Michael: Charlie, do you think that the issues you named will make some people reject the book?

Charlie: I don't know about reject. Some people may feel erased, or angry to learn those facts about the Buffalo Soldiers who they idolize and wish Black Natives were more represented. I would probably mark it down to four and a half stars (out of five) and still make it highly recommended. I realize that even very smart and careful authors like Ms. Debbie and Ms. Jean must make choices of what to include. This book covers a lot in a format that is teen friendly.

Ashleigh: This may sound silly, but I was young for #NoDAPL, so I was happy for the "Water is Life" section and especially "The Past is Present: Analyzing Events at Standing Rock." That was a good summary for me to understand main points. I think the book is a good balance of Native pain and joy, so it won't hurt Native kids.

Michael: That's not silly. Like Alexis said, it's a challenge too. This is a punch of a quote from page 61.

The idea of a society formed through a sacred covenant between God and people he has chosen lives on today in American Exceptionalism: the notion that the United States of America was destined to be like no other place on earth; that it is carrying out a unique and essential mission "under God" and is therefore exempt from criticism.

Alexis: "For Further Reading" includes something I have never seen in a history book before and it knocked me backwards and made my heart speed up! may have noticed that there is more information about Indigenous women than men. That imbalance is the result of history being written by men who choose to write about men. There is a list of women below.

Ashleigh: I love this so so much! Native women praising each other--instead of "not like other girls." There is Betty Mae Tiger Jumper! And our beloved Louise Erdrich and Cynthia Leitich Smith, who wrote some of our favorite books. And Maria Tallchief, who I crush on. It asks: What other Native woman would you add?

Alexis: So many--but right off the top of my head I'd say librarians Naomi Bishop and Alia Jones.

Charlie: Ms. Debbie, of course! I will have to look up the women I don't know. I hope there are some 2SQ femmes--or else I'd add them. My first pick is Indigo--we wouldn't be doing this if she didn't blaze a trail.

All: Truth.

Alexis: "Some Books We Recommend" is also excellent. It talks about outdated, offensive books like LHOP. Many people may not think to look up an author of a book with Native content to see what nation they're from, so I'm glad that suggestion is included. Then there is a terrific list of books! (A number of them reviewed on this site.) Of course, I would like to add this and that book--but like Charlie said even the best authors make their own choices of what to include and I can tell these titles were carefully chosen.

Michael: I think the book was overall a big hit with us--we haven't read anything else like it. It's good it was published before the election year. Of course, there is a discussion of the limitations of DNA testing and I hope White people will finally understand why their claims of some distant Native ancestry run contrary to Indigenous history in the US.

Alexis: The books we write about--Native kidlit and YA Lit--are growing and spreading in all directions. More and more all the time, I want to gather them and give them a big hug! I think this book is a part of that movement and will help place those stories into historical context. It will support and enrich them. But it's not just some trendy book of the Own Voices moment--it's a remarkable achievement which should be around for a long time.

All: Shonabish, Ms. Debbie and Ms. Jean! You definitely deserved that yummy cake for your book birthday.

BIG thanks to Mr. Abe for his feedback and suggestions. And to Ms. Ann for going over the final edit, which we all approved. If you notice any errors, please let us know ASAP!

BIG hugs to the Diversity Jedi for purchasing and mailing copies of this book for all of us. We will keep rereading and finding new things. It's a book for us to grow with and share, and we are grateful for your respect and support. We will be using these copies to host a library book discussion group in November.


  1. I'm deeply moved by your close attention to the book, all of you. I won't speak for Debbie except to say that both of us have been anxiously/eagerly awaiting your collective review. I'm glad to have had the chance to read it tonight. Your thoroughness, candor, diplomacy, and generosity are much appreciated. And I liked the images you chose to augment what you're saying.
    You've raised important points about "what was left in/what was left out." Except for the final chapter and those two lists at the end of the book, we worked from the content of Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz's original book, and we had a limit on book length, so had to make some painful decisions about what to include.
    There's SO MUCH more to say about Indigenous history in every part of what is currently called the US. We hope people will be inspired to write more detailed Indigenous perspectives on regional histories specifically for young people. Charlie also mentioned asking Joshua Whitehead to write something for young people and I'm thinking, "Oh yes, do that!!"
    I am guessing that Debbie and I will look together at what you've said and maybe continue the dialogue with you, if that's all right.
    Sunday we talked about starting a web page where we can address questions and concerns readers share with us -- and correct any errors as needed. Several of the things you've mentioned could be appropriate for that, such as the questions about 2SQ people, Seminole history, the matter of the buffalo soldiers, etc.
    Wonder if it will be possible, at some point, to do some cross-referencing between this book and "A Queer History of the United States for Young People" by Richie Chevat (also published by Beacon). Maybe you've read it but I haven't, so am not sure what the author does regarding 2SQ Indigenous people, so it's time to look at my copy and start thinking in that direction.
    Thank you so much for this work, Alexis, Charlie, Ashleigh, and Michael.

  2. Thanks for your response, Ms. Jean! We didn't want our review to go on forever--we have been editing and shaping the notes for a while--but one of the discussions we had was about how much the adaptation followed Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz's original text. Since none of us had read it to compare and contrast, we didn't include that part in our final review. We specifically wondered if there was no content about 2SQ Indigenous folx in the original book and that carried over. We also thought about "what was left in/ what was left out" of A Queer History of the United States for Young People," which we have also not read.
    We are glad you appreciate all the positives we shared! We *loved* the book and felt compelled to read, reread and discuss. We want to share it.
    It was kind of hard to be critical--because we knew you and Ms. Debbie of all people would take it to heart and truly regret omissions rather than being defensive. But Ms. Debbie was also our model for bravery and complete honesty. We have set intersectonality as a goal--we constantly strive for it but usually don't reach it either.
    To be clear, none of us thought there was anything wrong with discussing the Buffalo Soldiers horrid crimes against Indigenous people, like the rest of the US military, but we weren't sure it deserved a special box over other issues rather than just being included in the text. Something about it stood out. Because we are who we are, we often talk about and come up against misunderstanding and prejudices between Natives and POC. All of us know it's a hard subject to find a balance and not keep hard feelings. Mostly, we are united against White supremacy. More than a further discussion about some Indigenous people keeping Black slaves, we would like to see a spotlight on a prominent Black Native person.
    Oh we like that idea about a webpage--the book definitely warrants it! And we are always happy to dialogue with you and Ms. Debbie!!!!
    Now we are going to step back and think some more and take care. Once we put a review out there and it gets a lot of attention--we get nervous and start second guessing everything!

  3. Jean and I have spent the last couple of months reading closely, thinking hard, talking, and writing about the histories, the intersections... there are many. We are learning a lot. And we are sketching out a page that will eventually be at the blog page we created for the book last year.

    We were here today, which is why I'm commenting. Look at that... you and Jean were talking over a year ago! There are times when it feels like 2020 is lasting forever. The days and weeks and months do pass. They're packed with pain, for sure. I started Monday morning on a high note because that was August 10, which is when we pueblo peoples commemorate the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Because our ancestors fought back so hard, we're on our homelands, and so much of our religion is intact. As the day passed things crossed my social media feeds, reminding me of the many attacks on our existence that we've survived, and the ones that are on-going (thinking right now of an article about boy scouts, especially, appropriating and doing some of our sacred dances).

    I didn't mean to go on, there, about Pueblo people!

    I mostly just wanted to thank you for the review and give you an update on what we're doing. I think we did the first post to our companion blog for An Indigenous Peoples' History of the US for Young People on August 25th.

    Before hitting the PUBLISH button, one question: Did you read A Queer History of the US for Young People? I started to and have some things marked but haven't been able to do much of anything in the way of reviews.

  4. Outstanding information. It is very helpful and very is amazing work.


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