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"An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States For Young People" pp. 44-45

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

From "An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States For Young People" by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Terminal Narratives:

Historians have two primary theories to explain what allowed the Europeans to thoroughly colonize the Indigenous lands in North America. One is that Indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by superior military campaigns. Another is that the Indigenous populations were decimated by diseases brought by the Europeans such as smallpox and diphtheria. These theories are sometimes called “terminal narratives.” The word terminal suggests that Native nations and the peoples in them were completely wiped out by Europeans. That is not the case. Military campaigns and disease did have a devastating impact on Indigenous peoples, but efforts to exterminate them were not successful.

Neither of these terminal narratives explains why conflict between the colonizers and the Indigenous peoples continued for three hundred years before the United States was formed. They do not explain why the US military waged a ground war against Indigenous nations for more than a century after that, and why conflict continues today in the courts of the United States.

In the Americas, European colonizers used strategies they had used in Ireland, Africa, and Asia. The different European governments frequently pitted one Indigenous nation against another. Another especially effective strategy was disruption of the Indigenous trade networks, which caused food shortages and starvation. This forced some Native communities to depend on the colonizers for supplies. And of course, outright violence against Indigenous peoples by European forces occurred frequently.

In spite of everything in the European arsenal of conquest, Indigenous peoples survived more than five centuries of campaigns to take over their land and resources. Today, the presence of more than five hundred federally recognized nations is evidence of the successes Native peoples had as they fought to protect their nations, their homelands, and their families.

Most of the Europeans who traveled to what they called the New World in 1492 and after were those whose families had been displaced when the commons were converted to private property. They carried with them a hunger to own land and other forms of wealth, including gold. They believed that by virtue of being white and Christian, they were superior to the Indigenous peoples they encountered.

Over the following centuries, their descendants would develop those terminal narratives—stories about the end of Indigenous peoples—to explain and justify their actions. Those Indigenous peoples and their descendants resisted invasion of their homelands and centuries of destruction and exploitation by the colonizers. Today they speak back, as individuals and as sovereign nations, against ongoing trauma and the consequences of conquest and terminal narratives. With their bodies, their art, and their words, they tell a different story.