Roots of Resistance: An Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a writer, teacher, historian, and social activist, is Professor Emeritus of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at California State University, East Bay, and author of many articles and books, including Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005), Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975 (City Lights Books, 2001) and Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997). Her most recent book is Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico (University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).

In this interview, Dunbar-Ortiz talks about her new book, Roots of Resistance, indigenous land revolts in the US, international solidarity and the importance of learning about the history and current issues of Native Americans.

Toward Freedom: Please tell us a little about how you came to write the first version
of Roots of Resistance in 1980?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: A seed for the idea of it was planted in September 1958 when I first visited New Mexico from my home in western Oklahoma. Like most visitors to New Mexico, I was amazed by the beauty and apparent magic of the land and the people. I visited New Mexico time and again over the years, always pondering the question as to why "they," the outsiders, could not leave it alone, let it be as it should be. Then, in June 1967, while I was a graduate student in Latin American history at UCLA, headlines in newspapers across the country told of the National Guard occupying the tiny village of Tierra Amarilla in northern New Mexico, where Hispanic farmers had seized the county courthouse, demanding land grant restoration, challenging the Anglo-dominated establishment and the federal government. I stopped off on my way to Oklahoma and talked with people. Chicano friends asked me why the Pueblo Indians did not support the land grant struggle, and I did not know what to say. Two years later, I spent some time trying to find out if there was conflict between Indians and Hispanics, and if so, what was the historical basis of the conflict. Returning often, I could not identify the nature of the conflicts, although they clearly existed. Thanks to the inspiration of Elizabeth "Betita" Martínez, who founded and published El Grito del Norte in Española, New Mexico, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I decided to write my doctoral dissertation on the history of land tenure in northern New Mexico. Only through understanding history and land, I believed, could the present be understood.

TF: What did the initial writing and research process entail?

Dunbar-Ortiz: During 1973-74, I researched the dissertation, even entering law school to learn Anglo-American property law and water law. Following acceptance of the dissertation in 1974, I revised it six times in all to produce the book, which was co-published in 1980 by the Chicano Studies Research Center Publications and the American Indian Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. The two research centers have kept the book in print for nearly three decades.  While I was writing the book in 1978-80, I was director of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, continuing my research, including oral histories. I also taught a course each semester on the history of land tenure in New Mexico, working with dozens of Pueblo Indian students. In establishing a Native American research institute, I worked closely with Pueblo officials and with the All Indian Pueblo Council (AIPC). The late Delfin Lovato, who was then chairman of AIPC; Frank Tenorio, then secretary of AIPC; and Joe Baca, then director of the All Indian Development Association, demonstrated to me the contemporary nature of the Pueblo struggle for land, water, and self-determination and helped me consistently and generously. Herman Agoyo, director of the Tricentennial Commission for the 1680 All Indian Pueblo Revolt, encouraged, taught, and trusted me; the commission selected the 1980 edition of Roots of Resistance as one of the official publications of the tricentennial in 1980. Then and since that time, Simon J. Ortiz, writer and poet; Petuuche Gilbert; and Maurus Chino of Acoma Pueblo have given me insights into and understanding of the Pueblo Indian perspective. In fact, they have untiringly educated me in hopes that my work would be useful for their people.

TF: How does this new and revised edition differ from the initial edition?

Dunbar-Ortiz: Unfortunately, all the historical and contemporary problems as of 1980 when the book was first published have mostly grown worse.  The natural resource base has shrunk, and water rights are unresolved. Historical antagonism between the Hispanic and Pueblo Indian communities have sharpened while Anglo-American corporate dominance has increased.  I took on the subject initially in 1969, two years after the Tierra Amarilla courthouse raid that brought to the world’s attention the unresolved land grant situation in New Mexico.  At the time, I met and spoke with only Hispanic land grantees, their lawyers, and supporters.  Four years later when I decided to do my history doctoral dissertation on the history of land tenure in New Mexico, I learned about the Pueblo Indian land and resource issues. Most books and articles on the subject deal either with the Pueblo Indians or the Hispanics.  Roots of Resistance deals with both.

TF: What are some of the major characteristics of Indigenous Pueblo Indian land-use system prior to colonization? Do any of these characteristics persist in Pueblo Indian land-use today?

Dunbar-Ortiz: The Pueblos had been in the Río Grande area approximately three centuries when the Spanish invaded, but they were part of a larger socioeconomic network that had been using irrigation for agriculture in the arid southwest of the north American continent for twenty- three centuries. Hydraulic agriculture produced a particular set of social relations that was expressed in Pueblo ceremonies and social institutions. Never an isolated cultural entity, Pueblo communities had long been involved in trade with communities from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River and to the valley of Mexico. At the time the colonialists arrived in the late sixteenth century, the Pueblo subsistent economy was closely related to trade and social interaction with the bison-hunting peoples who surrounded them. The ninety-three Pueblo villages were politically autonomous but similar in social structures, economies, ceremonies, and historical development. They were linked by their mutual dependency for their livelihood on the Río Grande and its tributaries.

TF: Could you briefly describe the Pueblo revolt of 1680? In later decades and centuries, did this revolt remain a unifying symbol of resistance among indigenous groups in the area?

Dunbar-Ortiz: The Pueblos and Apache/Navajos began outright resistance in the 1650s, but plans for revolt made in Navajo country were intercepted and thwarted.33 By the 1670s, the Pueblos were able to amass 6,000 warriors, while the colony could produce only 170 potential fighters. Officials reported in 1675 that Pueblos were openly asserting religious independence, apparently led by early converted Tewas. They claimed that the Pueblos were using witchcraft to kill priests and settlers. The governor ordered punishment of the rebels, and ceremonial halls were burned, religious leaders executed, and others punished by whipping and imprisonment. Following the attacks, seventy Tewa warriors rode into Santa Fé demanding the release of the prisoners; significantly, the governor acquiesced.  All Pueblos, including the distant Hopis and except for the Piros, were involved in the 1680 Revolt. Apache and Navajo allies also supplied warriors. Although officials were informed of the impending revolt several days beforehand, they did not have time to organize defenses adequately. In addition, the revolt began earlier than scheduled when Indian leaders learned that Spanish officials knew of the plan. Rebellion occurred simultaneously in each Pueblo. Franciscans and soldiers were killed and squads of Indian soldiers blocked roads and attacked isolated settlements. The only course open to the governor was to attempt a defense of Santa Fe, which was increasingly surrounded by soldiers from all the Pueblos.

Negotiations were arranged between Governor Otermín and a once-friendly Pueblo official who presented the ultimatum of war or the peaceful exodus of all the colonists. According to Otermín: "All classes of Indians who were in our power were to be given up to them, both those in the service of the Spaniards and those of the Mexican nation of that suburb of Analco. He demanded also that his wife and children be given up to him, and likewise that all the Apache men and women whom the Spaniards had captured in war be turned over to them, inasmuch as some Apaches who were among them were asking for them." By mid-August the settlers had removed to El Paso. Approximately 2,000 people, of whom 317 were Pueblos from southern villages, arrived in El Paso, leaving 21 priests and 380 settlers unaccounted for and presumed dead.

The Pueblo view of life under the colonial regime was revealed in interrogations of Pueblo prisoners. An eighty-year-old Pueblo man said that persecution of religious leaders was the cause of the revolt and that planning had been going on during his entire lifetime. Another prisoner stated that Tano captains had told him of twelve years of planning before the revolt. When asked why they were plotting rebellion, one Pueblo said he was told that the people were tired of the work they had to do for the Spanish settlers and missionaries. This work did not allow them to plant and do other things for their own needs; being weary of the situation, they had rebelled. Testimonies identified Popé, a Tewa religious leader living at Taos, as the principal strategist. They described the means of communication as a knotted rope carried from village to village. Given the fact that Pueblos had to have passes to travel between villages, that all the other oppressed peoples were severely restricted in their movements, and that none were allowed horses, meticulous planning must have been necessary. That all forces from what is now western Arizona to eastern New Mexico, from southern Colorado to far south of Albuquerque, rose up at the same hour belies the idea of "spontaneity."  The All Indian Pueblo Council, which exists today, dates its origins to the Pueblo Revolt.  The leader of the revolt, Popé, is the most revered Pueblo historical figure.

TF: Could you tell us about the Navajo and Apache resistance in this area and what the US military did to suppress it?

Dunbar-Ortiz: Following the second invasion of the Spanish and during the remaining 120 years of Spanish colonial rule, the Navajos and Apaches never ceased their resistance to expansion of Spain into their territories and continued to drive them out.  For Pueblo Indians and other settled villagers who wanted to join the resistance, and many did, the Navajos and Apaches welcomed them, and their encampments became refuges.  The resisters considered the villages, including the Pueblos, as appropriate targets to destabilize the regime.  They continued the resistance against the Republic of Mexico once it assumed governmental powers when Spain was driven out.  And they continued resisting when the United States invaded and occupied the Southwest in 1848.  Their resistance was suppressed after decades of unrelenting U.S. military attacks that included search and destroy missions, burning their crops, capturing women and children, and finally incarcerating thousands of Navajos in a military camp where more than half of them died.

TF: Please tell us about some of the current indigenous struggles over access to land and water in New Mexico. Has the situation improved in recent decades?

Dunbar-Ortiz: In New Mexico and much of the West it’s not that complicated.  In New Mexico, 40 percent of the land is in the direct hands of the federal government–military weapons labs, National Parks, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Monuments, like El Malpais near Grants.  All it would take is the stroke of a pen to reinstate the land to the indigenous inhabitants.  Most of that alienated land includes sacred sites necessary to Pueblo ritual practices.  One suspects that there really is a kind of policy in the federal government to deprive indigenous peoples of their sacred sites never to be returned.  Many of them were taken under the Theodore Roosevelt administration under the guise of environmental protection, but the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Black Hills, are all sacred sites. The struggles continue at many levels-congressional lobbying, alliances, establishing casinos to gain funds to buy back land, and during the past 3 decades appealing to the international community to pressure the United States.

TF: Many readers who may be familiar with landless farmer movements in Brazil and elsewhere in South and Central America, might be surprised to hear of similar contemporary land rights movements here in the US. What similarities are there between indigenous struggles for land in Mexico, Central and South America and in New Mexico? What past and current organizational connections are there between these movements in the north and south?

Dunbar-Ortiz: I was a history graduate student specializing in Latin America in 1967 when the Hispanic farmers (Alianza) in New Mexico rose up.  I was familiar with such struggles throughout Latin America, but that just doesn’t happen in the United States I told myself.  Although the Alianza was inspired directly by the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the form their protest took was about the land and on the land.  It made me acutely aware of the role of the State in the United States in suppressing land issues and revolts, the daunting power of the United States as compared to Latin American states, which can appear more brutal in quelling protest, but turn to brutality because their States do not have the kinds of control the United States has, that is ideological hegemony which has convinced the left that land is no longer a viable issue.  

Additionally, U.S. leftists do not want to really acknowledge that they live within not only an imperialist state, but also one founded on being a colonizing state.  Actually, indigenous land struggles had never stopped in the United States; social activists and leftists had little interest in Indians, and their struggles were simply not publicized, but beginning in the late 1950s they became more frequent and more widespread and began to be noticed, leading up to the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973. The following year, the American Indian Movement formed the International Indian Treaty Council and made connections with indigenous and other self-determination struggles (such as the Sandinistas in Nicaragua) in Latin America. The treaty issue broadened to the overall situation of Indians in the Americas, with an international conference at the United Nations in 1977, and then to indigenous peoples in the Pacific and Arctic regions as well by 1981, when the UN established a Working Group on Indigenous Peoples.  

I worked intensely during that time, learning the UN system and publishing a book on it in 1984, also training many indigenous individuals in the work, including Rigoberta Menchu. By that time, hundreds of indigenous representatives from around the world had become involved and participation has increased, with numerous initiatives being established in the UN system.  In the process, I became educated in the UN system, international human rights and humanitarian law, and also worked on the refuge crisis in Central American during the 1980s civil wars, the majority of the refugees being indigenous, particularly the Mayans from Guatemala. In the past two years there have been continual meetings between North American indigenous leaders and Evo Morales.

TF: What can people do in solidarity with these struggles?

Dunbar-Ortiz: U.S. activists are always enthusiastic about and do solidarity work for agrarian uprisings in Latin America, such as the Zapatistas and the previous national liberation movements that had agrarian reform/revolution as their bases.  But, they have not taken the time and made the commitment to understand indigenous and other agrarian struggles in the United States. Even the Civil Rights Movement in the South was weakened by not taking up the issue of land, and when voting rights were achieved organizers fled north and west to work in urban areas.  Regarding indigenous land struggles, they are essentially territorial struggles and include resource issues, particularly water. The issues are extremely complex and colonialism is still alive in Indian Country, with many factions.  Non-indigenous organizers and activists, if they even take an interest, which most don’t, tend to choose or even appoint, and of course fund, indigenous leaders they can understand easily, who fit into their view of what a movement should look like, and often bolster charlatans or worse. They just want a face to fit in the rainbow configuration of panels, etc., but such invented leaders play havoc in Indian Country.  

I think the best place to start in developing solidarity with indigenous and other land struggles is the work being done at the international level, mostly in the United Nations system.  Below are several websites that contain a wealth of information and provide a kind of consensus of indigenous issues and viewpoints.  I think it should be considered an obligation by U.S. activists of any ethnicity or nationality to learn the history and current issues of Native Americans.


For more information about Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, her work and writing, visit