How We Are Often Trapped by A Fictitious Belief in "Manifest Destiny"

The following is an excerpt from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's new book,  An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2014).  Reprinted here with permission.

Teaching Native American studies, I always begin with a simple exercise. I ask students to quickly draw a rough outline of the United States at the time it gained independence from Britain. Invariably most draw the approximate present shape of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific—the continental territory not fully appropriated until a century after independence. What became independent in 1783 were the thirteen British colonies hugging the Atlantic shore. When called on this, students are embarrassed because they know better. I assure them that they are not alone. I call this a Rorschach test of unconscious “manifest destiny,” embedded in the minds of nearly everyone in the United States and around the world. This test reflects the seeming inevitability of US extent and power, its destiny, with an implication that the continent had previously been terra nullius, a land without people.

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” celebrates that the land belongs to everyone, reflecting the unconscious manifest destiny we live with. But the extension of the United States from sea to shining sea was the intention and design of the country’s founders. “Free” land was the magnet that attracted European settlers. Many were slave owners who desired limitless land for lucrative cash crops. After the war for independence but preceding the writing of the US Constitution, the Continental Congress produced the Northwest Ordinance. This was the first law of the incipient republic, revealing the motive for those desiring independence. It was the blueprint for gobbling up the British-protected Indian Territory (“Ohio Country”) on the other side of the Appalachians and Alleghenies. Britain had made settlement there illegal with the Proclamation of 1763. In 1801, President Jefferson aptly described the new settler-state’s intentions for horizontal and vertical continental expansion, stating: “However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar form by similar laws.” This vision of manifest destiny found form a few years later in the Monroe Doctrine, signaling the intention of annexing or dominating former Spanish colonial territories in the Americas and the Pacific, which would be put into practice during the rest of the century.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_small","fid":"587749","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-left","style":"float: left;","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]Origin narratives form the vital core of a people’s unifying identity and of the values that guide them. In the United States, the founding and development of the Anglo-American settler-state involves a narrative about Puritan settlers who had a covenant with God to take the land. That part of the origin story is supported and reinforced by the Columbus myth and the “Doctrine of Discovery.” According to a series of late-fifteenth-century papal bulls, European nations acquired title to the lands they “discovered” and the Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land after Europeans arrived and claimed it. [5] As law professor Robert A. Williams observes about the Doctrine of Discovery:

Responding to the requirements of a paradoxical age of Renaissance and Inquisition, the West’s first modern discourses of conquest articulated a vision of all humankind united under a rule of law discoverable solely by human reason. Unfortunately for the American Indian, the West’s first tentative steps towards this noble vision of a Law of Nations contained a mandate for Europe’s subjugation of all peoples whose radical divergence from European-derived norms of right conduct signified their need for conquest and remediation. [6]

The Columbus myth suggests that from US independence onward, colonial settlers saw themselves as part of a world system of colonization. “Columbia,” the poetic, Latinate name used in reference to the United States from its founding throughout the nineteenth century, was based on the name of Christopher Columbus. The “Land of Columbus” was—and still is—represented by the image of a woman in sculptures and paintings, by institutions such as Columbia University, and by countless place names, including that of the national capital, the District of Columbia. [7] The 1798 hymn “Hail, Columbia” was the early national anthem and is now used whenever the vice president of the United States makes a public appearance, and Columbus Day is still a federal holiday despite Columbus never having set foot on any territory ever claimed by the United States.

Traditionally, historians of the United States hoping to have successful careers in academia and to author lucrative school textbooks became protectors of this origin myth. With the cultural upheavals in the academic world during the 1960s, engendered by the civil rights movement and student activism, historians came to call for objectivity and fairness in revising interpretations of US history. They warned against moralizing, urging instead a dispassionate and culturally relative approach. Historian Bernard Sheehan, in an influential essay, called for a “cultural conflict” understanding of Native–Euro-American relations in the early United States, writing that this approach “diffuses the locus of guilt.” [8] In striving for “balance,” however, historians spouted platitudes: “There were good and bad people on both sides.” “American culture is an amalgamation of all its ethnic groups.” “A frontier is a zone of interaction between cultures, not merely advancing European settlements.” Later, trendy postmodernist studies insisted on Indigenous “agency” under the guise of individual and collective empowerment, making the casualties of colonialism responsible for their own demise.

Perhaps worst of all, some claimed (and still claim) that the colonizer and colonized experienced an “encounter” and engaged in “dialogue,” thereby masking reality with justifications and rationalizations—in short, apologies for one-sided robbery and murder. In focusing on “cultural change” and “conflict between cultures,” these studies avoid fundamental questions about the formation of the United States and its implications for the present and future. This approach to history allows one to safely put aside present responsibility for continued harm done by that past and the questions of reparations, restitution, and reordering society. [9]

Multiculturalism became the cutting edge of post-civil-rights-movement US history revisionism. For this scheme to work—and affirm US historical progress—Indigenous nations and communities had to be left out of the picture. As territorially and treaty-based peoples in North America, they did not fit the grid of multiculturalism but were included by transforming them into an inchoate oppressed racial group, while colonized Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans were dissolved into another such group, variously called “Hispanic” or “Latino.” The multicultural approach emphasized the “contributions” of individuals from oppressed groups to the country’s assumed greatness. Indigenous peoples were thus credited with corn, beans, buckskin, log cabins, parkas, maple syrup, canoes, hundreds of place names, Thanksgiving, and even the concepts of democracy and federalism. But this idea of the gift-giving Indian helping to establish and enrich the development of the United States is an insidious smoke screen meant to obscure the fact that the very existence of the country is a result of the looting of an entire continent and its resources. The fundamental unresolved issues of Indigenous lands, treaties, and sovereignty could not but scuttle the premises of multiculturalism.

With multiculturalism, manifest destiny won the day. As an example, in 1994, Prentice Hall (part of Pearson Education) published a new college-level US history textbook, authored by four members of a new generation of revisionist historians. These radical social historians are all brilliant scholars with posts in prestigious universities. The book’s title reflects the intent of its authors and publisher: Out of Many: A History of the American People. The origin story of a supposedly unitary nation, albeit now multicultural, remained intact. The original cover design featured a multicolored woven fabric—this image meant to stand in place of the discredited “melting pot.” Inside, facing the title page, was a photograph of a Navajo woman, dressed formally in velvet and adorned with heavy sterling silver and turquoise jewelry. With a traditional Navajo dwelling, a hogan, in the background, the woman was shown kneeling in front of a traditional loom, weaving a nearly finished rug. The design? The Stars and Stripes! The authors, upon hearing my objection and explanation that Navajo weavers make their livings off commissioned work that includes the desired design, responded: “But it’s a real photograph.” To the authors’ credit, in the second edition they replaced the cover photograph and removed the Navajo picture inside, although the narrative text remains unchanged.

Awareness of the settler-colonialist context of US history writing is essential if one is to avoid the laziness of the default position and the trap of a mythological unconscious belief in manifest destiny. The form of colonialism that the Indigenous peoples of North America have experienced was modern from the beginning: the expansion of European corporations, backed by government armies, into foreign areas, with subsequent expropriation of lands and resources. Settler colonialism is a genocidal policy. Native nations and communities, while struggling to maintain fundamental values and collectivity, have from the beginning resisted modern colonialism using both defensive and offensive techniques, including the modern forms of armed resistance of national liberation movements and what now is called terrorism. In every instance they have fought for survival as peoples. The objective of US colonialist authorities was to terminate their existence as peoples—not as random individuals. This is the very definition of modern genocide as contrasted with premodern instances of extreme violence that did not have the goal of extinction. The United States as a socioeconomic and political entity is a result of this centuries-long and ongoing colonial process. Modern Indigenous nations and communities are societies formed by their resistance to colonialism, through which they have carried their practices and histories. It is breathtaking, but no miracle, that they have survived as peoples.


5. See Watson, Buying America from the Indians, and Robertson, Conquest by Law. For a list and description of each papal bull, see The Doctrine of Discovery, (accessed November 5, 2013).

6. Williams, American Indian in Western Legal Thought, 59.

7. Stewart, Names on the Land, 169–73, 233, 302.

8. Sheehan, “Indian-White Relations in Early America,” 267–96.

9. Killsback, “Indigenous Perceptions of Time,” 131.


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