Indian Wars: An Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

For anyone who remembers the 1980s more for acid-wash leg warmers and feathered perms than for the consolidation of free market tyranny, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s new memoir, Blood on the Border: a Memoir of the Contra War, is a wake-up call.  Dunbar-Ortiz combines a scholarly attention to detail and a stunning knowledge of history with decades of radical organizing experience and the memory of an accomplished storyteller.  In Blood on the Border, she delivers a gripping first-hand account of the devastation wrought by US-sponsored terrorism in Nicaragua, urging us to take a closer look at the continuing legacy of US military intervention. 

 BG: Early in the book, you say, "once you become a revolutionary, there is no other possible life, only self destruction if you try to escape that commitment."

RDO: Most people from the ‘60s who made that commitment, whether it was in civil rights, or in the women's movement or anti-war, none of us are very good for anything else because it's like opening a window and you see something, and you can’t un-see it. You can’t un-see the sort of internal structure of the United States: the militarism, the racism, the sexism, the patriarchy, the hatefulness, the colonialism, the taking of the land from the Native people, slavery. You see all those things, you see them being played out still institutionally, and you can’t ever un-see that. So, I think for some people, they did kind of try to get out of it, but usually with self-destructive acts: drug abuse or alcohol abuse, or even in some cases, suicide. In a few cases. And some into spiritual movements. But even some of them, they still feel like they’re doing something. So I do think you can’t ever go back to just being a normal, comfortable person once you make that commitment. That’s why I think people are very resistant to it and don’t just do it, because it is a kind of knowledge that this will change my life completely, I will never be the same. And I tell people that. I say: this is going to change you. You can’t really go back from it once you do it. I mean, no one will force you. It’s not like the Mafia, you’ll get killed or something. It’s just that you won’t be able to do it.

BG: What about the way some people assimilate into the image of revolution, without the actual politics?  Especially as things like the non-profit industrial complex have developed, where people get drawn into these models of supposed resistance which really end up bolstering the status quo. 

RDO: The non-profit world is just really insidious. I mean, it was always there, you know? I was a little concerned about it in the ‘60s and ‘70s, because as an organizer, I’ve always tried to do things without money. If you can’t organize it with people power, then it’s probably not worth doing. I’ve organized some amazing things that way… But, the non-profit world, it makes people think they can’t do things without money, and so they’re writing proposals all the time. And then they’re changing, or having to fit what they’re going to do within the parameters of the requirements of that NGO, which, if it’s a non-profit, first of all, it has restrictions on it, just legally. The non-profit itself. It will get in trouble if it does certain things, or doesn’t do certain things. Or get audited, or get pressured and all. So it’s really become so ubiquitous that I think this younger generation of activists will think that they can’t do anything unless they have some non-profit support, or they set up a non-profit. 

BG: It’s interesting to see, in Blood on the Border, all the different ways that you cross various lines of identity, and when that works for you and when that works against you. I was thinking about your interactions with druglords in Honduras, and how they would immediately assume that you were their ally because they had placed you as this white US citizen, and they would just tell you their whole stories.  You even had an encounter with Oliver North.

RDO: Yes, at a reception in Honduras.  I didn’t recognize his name at the time. But he just said outright, “What do you do with the Miskitus?” I actually told him I was a linguist, which wasn’t true, I just wanted an apolitical thing… And he said, “I work with them: I train them in underwater sabotage.” Okay? And he was proud of it. The US media who were down there, they met all these people, too. Everyone stayed in the same hotel, the Maya, you know? Tegucigalpa’s really not a tourist town. There aren’t very many hotels. That’s the only fancy hotel there. The mercenaries stayed there, the CIA stayed there, the drug kingpins of Latin America stayed there, the reporters stayed there. I stayed there a few times. There was a casino inside. I mean, I rubbed shoulders with these people. The US military was constantly there, because they had war games.

BG: How did you deal with not being—well, not necessarily not being afraid—but continuing to work nonetheless?

RDO: I was scared all the time. I always tell people: you can read this and say “Oh, here’s one of these intrepid women explorers,” you know who do this and go all over the world, or sail their sailboat around the world—I am not that kind of person at all. It was like each time just… kind of numbing myself, and part of that was drinking, but just sort of going into a… some kind of neutral state and shutting down the emotions, because I don’t think you can do these things—fly on decrepit airplanes and run rapids and be without food and kind of tiptoeing through landmines—without being kind of shattered by it. So I think you just kind of shut down, and that has it’s own effect of… it’s still there, but it’s sort of underneath the surface.  I don’t think I really started seeing the results of it until it was over

BG: You talk about seeing these architects of the Contra War, like John Negroponte or Dick Cheney or Elliott Abrams—seeing them in similar positions of power today, or maybe even positions of greater power—combined with US colonial occupations or incursions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti—do you think this is just a continuation of that same  pattern becoming even worse, or is there something new?

RDO: It’s an arc where—this is all close to Vietnam, when the US was defeated, and we really had a few years there we could have made certain choices, like renouncing imperialist ventures and all—and I think they kind of tied it all up in the impeachment proceedings and then in the resignation of Nixon, and kind of creating an “Okay, we’ve resolved that…”  But nothing really got changed.

BG: I love it that going to a secret court to authorize surveillance of US citizens was just too much for George W. Bush. Like that was hemming him in. I think it’s incredible when Nixon’s former counsel can say, “Oh, well this is the first time a President has ever admitted to an impeachable offense.”  The audacity of people in power.

RDO: It’s very purposeful. I read this thing by Jane Smiley on Arianna Huffington’s website and she said it’s very clear that this is the purpose—to not have any restraints, and to be able to spy.  I mean, Bush said it himself: “I’m not a dictator.” Which immediately makes you think: “Maybe he is a dictator.” He shouldn’t have said that. It’s like Nixon saying, “I’m not a crook.” I think that this trajectory that becomes visible really goes back to the founding of the United States—and that’s the other part of this book—that the Indian Wars and the taking of the continent really defined what the United States is—and no one wants to admit this… Iraq is another Indian war.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz will read at Black Oak Books in Berkeley, 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 6.

Matilda Bernstein Sycamore, is the editor, most recently, of That's Revolting!  Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation