5 Questions with Roxanne Dubar-Ortiz

indigenousAnother week, another block days of great events at the City Lights Bookstore. This Wednesday, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: advocate for American Indians, activist, scholar, and author/editor of seven books. She’ll be sharing her newest book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon), the first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples.

Our 5 Questions are always the same and our events are free and open to the public.

Event: Wednesday, October 1, 7:00PM, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz discusses her new book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.

About the Book: In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz challenges the founding myth of the United States and shows how policy against the indigenous peoples was genocidal and imperialist—designed to crush the original inhabitants. Spanning more than three hundred years, this classic bottom-up history significantly re-frames how we view our past. Told from the viewpoint of the indigenous, it reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the U.S. empire.

About the Author: Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a farmer and half-Indian mother. She has been active in the American Indian Movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at UCLA, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University and helped found the departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book, The Great Sioux Nation: Sitting in Judgement on America , was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indians in the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. She has author and edited seven books in total.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: I’ve visited City Lights hundred of times since I arrived in San Francisco from Oklahoma in 1960, 21 years old, filled with romantic aspirations of becoming a beatnik writer. I had dreamed of hanging out at City Lights, which I did several evenings a week until I moved to Los Angeles in 1964. Then I moved to other parts of the country as an organizer/activist, returning to San Francisco in 1975 to stay, and to frequent City Lights.

That first visit, in early 1960, a week or two after arriving in San Francisco, was on our way walking home from the Jazz Workshop––my husband, also from Oklahoma, and I lived at Hyde and Broadway. We were euphoric from two hours hearing the great jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson. Surprised that the bookstore was open until midnight, we stopped in. That became my favorite time to hang out at City Lights. I was enchanted with the downstairs, and that is where I would return often to sit at one of the tables, reading books as if it were a library. I still do. I also buy a lot of books there. I cannot imagine a world without City Lights.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

RDO: Pepper’s Pow Wow by Jim Pepper. The late Jim Pepper (1941-92), a Kaw Indian, took up the saxophone and became a major jazz musician, adapting his father’s peyote songs and inventing others. While writing this book over the past six years, Pepper’s Pow Wow was in reality the soundtrack playing nearly every morning as I sat down to write, or struggled over the writing, and then during rewriting. The resilience of Native America seem encapsulated in Jim’s notes and rhythms and words, and that is what I hope my book achieves. It’s not easy to survive the United States of America.

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

RDO: We didn’t have many books around other than the Bible where I grew up in rural Oklahoma. The little country school that included grades 1-12 had a tiny library the size of a walk-in closet. By the time I left that school in the 11th grade to move to the city and go to trade school, I had read all the books it contained multiple times.

I believe the first book I read through, maybe in the 6th grade, was Anne of Green Gables about the same time as I read A Girl of the Limberlost and The Secret Garden, and then started on the Nancy Drew books. Anne was an adolescent orphan girl with whom I identified. I got the idea that the story was set in England, and was surprised to learn in 1991 when visiting Prince Edward Island off the east coast of Canada that it was set there, a favorite tourist site for Japanese—there’s a kind of cult around Anne. Visiting the site brought a memory of the landscape described in the book back to me. I suppose it is how I imagined England. Its unique landscape and angry sky, almost frightening in its northern sea-bound roughness.

CL: If you weren’t a writer, what might you do?

RDORDO: Tile setter. Although I already wanted to be a writer at 18, I got married and went to work full-time to get my husband through college to become an engineer. It was 1957, and I got a job running an IBM proof machine in a big bank in Oklahoma City, but I got fired a year later for suggesting to the other women that we needed a union—right in the middle of the Eisenhower-era recession. Suddenly, there were no jobs, plus I learned from one personnel director that my name was on a corporate blacklist for trying to organize a union.

My father-in-law, a retired (union) carpenter, started building coffee tables and embedding them with glass mosaic tiles. He invited me to help him out for a small pittance that made me feel less guilty about not working. I fell in love with tiles and setting them, especially the glass mosaic ones. I hadn’t even been to Mexico yet, but when I went there in 1964, all I saw were tiles, the most beautiful tiles. I got a job finally, promising not to talk union, and never completed my apprenticeship in tile setting.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi).

RDO: Assuming it’s a tropical island with low hanging fruit, and I would not have to worry about shelter and keeping warm or foraging for food: books, books, books. Also, a telescope and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book on cosmology. Maybe I would take Finnegan’s Wake and read it until I fathomed what it is about. That probably would take all the time available until I were rescued, or died.


For more about Roxanne, go to her official site. For more about the event on Wednesday, find the details here and all the rest of the events this fall at City Lights here.

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