A Revolutionary Identity

Published on Monthly Review, by Forrest Hylton, 2008.

A review of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra Years (Boston: South End Press, 2005), 304 pages, paperback, $18.00.

3 excerpts: … Dunbar-Ortiz’s personal-political response to the agonizing death of the New Left meant that in addition to alcoholism and domestic violence, both of which surfaced as problems in New Orleans, she confronted unexplored contradictions of the settler-colonial mentality with which she was raised. Her violent, alcoholic mother was said to have been part Cherokee and her maternal grandmother’s people had settled in Missouri after leaving Tennessee, but Dunbar-Ortiz’s Native American ancestry was a well-guarded family secret. Leaving home at fifteen, fleeing her mother’s drunken rampages, Dunbar-Ortiz would have had little occasion to reflect on family life in the tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s. However, as she organized with the American Indian Movement (AIM), she began to see her family history as “a contradiction or amalgamation of those two forces—settlers on Indian lands and resistance by the indigenous inhabitants”. This meant overcoming the shame of Indian ancestry that had been deeply instilled in childhood, in stark contrast to the quiet pride she felt with respect to her paternal grandfather’s radical activism in the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party …

… The Sandinista revolution burst onto the world scene a year before Ronald Reagan was elected pledging to rid Nicaragua of its “godless, communistic” government, but President Carter laid the groundwork for what was to come. Aged forty-two, Dunbar-Ortiz spent 1980 working at the UN in New York, before deciding that local organizing in New Mexico would have to give way to international work. Once there, she felt she could not sit back as Nicaragua burned in the flames of yet another Washington-led counter-insurgency war, so she resigned from the University of New Mexico, where she directed the Institute for Native American Development that she and activists from the Navajo Community College–Shiprock and others had founded in 1978.

Skeptical of reports on Sandinista “atrocities,” Dunbar-Ortiz went to see for herself what was happening on the Miskito or Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. In December 1981, as part of Operation Red Christmas, CIA operatives blew up a Nicaraguan plane in Mexico City that Dunbar-Ortiz, on her way to a UN Conference, was set to board. Long announced, the war to overthrow the Sandinistas had begun. Dunbar-Ortiz engaged with the indigenous (Miskitus, Sumus, and Ramas) and African-Nicaraguan (Creole) peoples of the Atlantic coast grouped into Misurasata. She offered constructive criticism of Sandinista policy in the region where Misurasata demanded autonomy and self-determination. Sandinista supporters in the United States did not wish to hear Dunbar-Ortiz’s message: “I found it difficult to talk about the revolution because the supporters were so wedded to their idea of Nicaragua as a kind of utopia and didn’t want to deal with the reality of the place” …

… Perhaps inspired by the latest cycle of popular rebellion and political rebirth throughout Latin America, Dunbar-Ortiz has returned to academic scholarship. We should not be surprised: “I think we are becoming increasingly aware that history itself is an issue, often the issue: Who owns the history of the United States? Do we accept the history of the Latino and Anglo conquerors or the indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere?” . Readers can look forward to Dunbar-Ortiz’s forthcoming volume on the history of the United States from an indigenous perspective, which will no doubt be informed by hard-won wisdom acquired on the Miskito Coast.

As readers, we are indebted to Dunbar-Ortiz for going to the Miskito Coast, for fighting to bring the story to light when it mattered, and for writing with generosity of spirit, honesty of emotion, and depth of insight, long after Central America faded from public consciousness in the United States. At its best, like blues, jazz, and country music from the southwest, Blood on the Border strikes notes that are haunting, plaintive, and tragic. It sings of love, loss, and loneliness, but also community, courage, and solidarity. (full long text).
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