The Majority of This Country: An Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Originally published in Clamor, Summer 2006

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 (South End Press), 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.  Active in the women's liberation movement of the 1960s, a member of an underground sabotage organization in the early 1970s, and a respected academic on Native American history by the end of the 1970s, Dunbar-Ortiz began traveling to Nicaragua in the early 1980s to witness the results of the Sandinista revolution.  In Blood on the Border, she delivers a gripping first-hand account of the devastation wrought by U.S. military intervention, urging us to take a closer look at the continuing legacy of U.S.-sponsored terrorism.

CLAMOR: When you first travel to the Miskitia region of Nicaragua, you talk about the immediate similarities that you see between that area and the part of Oklahoma where you grew up.

RDO: Yeah, it was the most unlikely comparison, because Oklahoma is dry, semi-arid—or where I grew up, the western part—and the soil is red, so there’s a kind of red dust in the air all the time. And it’s, of course, Baptist, and country music is the favorite music. And Church music. So here I am in this exotic Western Caribbean rainforest and I feel like I’m back in the rural town where I grew up. And so I realized—well, yeah—the music—and that’s because the people were missionized by the Protestants, some of them Baptist, mostly Moravians—but the same thing. They use the same music—“Old Rugged Cross” and “Who Will My Co-Pilot Be?”—these kinds of Protestant songs; and then the country-western music because the area had been literally occupied by United States corporations and workers. And the soil is red, just like Oklahoma.

You also talk about anti-Communist fervor and racism, and the hunger for U.S. products.

I tell the story of being in one home and the family was complaining that they couldn’t even get toothpaste. They were blaming the Sandinista Communists that they couldn’t get toothpaste. Even though I told them the U.S. Reagan Administration had put into effect a boycott and asked companies not to export to Nicaragua, they still blamed the Sandinistas: They said they couldn’t get toothpaste. And I looked up, and on the windowsill was a big long tube of what was obviously toothpaste, with toothbrushes around it, and I pointed to it and they said, “No, no. That’s from Mexico. That’s Mexican. Ipana is toothpaste.” That made me think also about home when, for us, “bread” was Wonder Bread, although my mother baked this fabulous bread.  When I think about it now, I think of all the good yeast bread I missed because she sold it in town so that she could buy us Wonder Bread, ’cause that’s what was advertised and that’s what we wanted. Also the lack of information when I was growing up—where the preacher from the pulpit, anything he told us, we had no way of measuring it against something else. Or anything the government told us. We just trusted the government.

You talk about these different layers of colonialism [in Nicaragua], from anthropologists to missionaries to military “assistance,” and it’s interesting, what you say about feeling like you were inside this moment in history.

Yeah, it was a funny feeling that first night that I spent out there in the Miskitia in the coastal capitol of the region, Puerto Cabezas, walking through the streets and thinking of all this and knowing that the Reagan Administration—this was May 1981, Reagan had only been in office for about four months but had moved very quickly to try to overthrow the Sandinistas and started the Contra War a few months later—and just being aware that I was witnessing something inside a historical moment that was going to change everything. I could just kind of feel it, and I had never felt that way before. It wasn’t the same as feeling you’re part of history—I didn’t really feel a part of it. I was very much an observer that first time, but I did feel inside, kind of inside this bubble, you know, where I could see the whole thing play out. And it wasn’t a pretty sight.  I felt I had to do something. I had to sort of commit myself to try to stop it.

You describe these signs all over the Miskitia region that said “Welcome to Vietnam,” and I was wondering if you think these signs reflect a similar global consciousness, a feeling that something had to be done to bear witness?

Yeah, that was when the Contra War really was gaining a great deal of steam at the end of 1982. And there were a lot of landmines, and there were still a lot of Nicaraguan Sandinista troops up there [on the border with Honduras].  And I was traveling with members of the North American Indian Movement, two of which were Vietnam vets. They both were very emotional about it; they felt like they were back in Vietnam. And then suddenly we see a sign, this little handmade sign that said “Welcome to Vietnam.” They just burst into tears, these two big Native American guys. It was almost as if the United States was trying to re-enact Vietnam, and this time win. You know, a country of two-and-a-half million people and three elevators and five bridges is not like Vietnam, with millions of people, masses of people and allies—the Soviet Union and China. It was a small enemy, but no less Nicaragua was just a little microcosm. They did feel that … I guess the Sandinista soldiers had put these signs up, because everything they had ever known about Vietnam … it seemed like the U.S. repeating itself.

It’s very popular right now for people to appropriate the styles of the late ’70s and early ’80s—the exact period you’re talking about—without having any sort of critique of what’s behind those styles. So I’m wondering: How do you think such a critique could occur?

Well, I hope this book helps a little bit. It was one reason, among several, that I wrote it. It’s also that the roots were being planted then—you can see a kind of arc to the present—including the same people, the architects of the Contra War being inserted by the Bush Administration to do this. Even before 9/11. That’s why it’s very clear they had a plan because they’re putting those same people in positions: John Negroponte, who was the architect of the Contra War—he was the ambassador to Honduras—putting him in as ambassador to the U.N. and ambassador to Iraq, after we invaded it; and now national intelligence chief. So he’s very much involved. He always slips out, but he is a Machiavellian, and I’m sure he had something to do with the surveillance that was taking place as national intelligence chief.

Many in the younger generation have kind of come of age knowing nothing else in some ways—this has been their lives: 1979 to the present. I wasn’t paying enough attention then. I was so obsessed with the Contra War. I was determined to be obsessed with it. I think in a way, to really do something, you almost have to be obsessed with it. I think two things: We weren’t paying enough attention to what was happening in the culture, and we weren’t paying enough attention to the Middle East and Afghanistan, where the U.S. was carrying on the largest CIA operation in its history. That’s also another arc or trajectory from that time. So, I don’t think I’ve completely done it in this book, but I think we need to look at that time. For young people now who are trying to bring back that time, to really look at it in full.

I have a question about the idea of acts of treason, because I think in the book it comes up in several different ways. One is the ideal of treason toward the U.S. government, but secondly whether, when you’re participating in the U.S. government, through diplomacy or lobbying—whether that is treason. And at the end of the book you come back to treason when you’re talking about going to a protest to commemorate the murder of a U.S. citizen by the Contras, and accidentally ending up at a protest against the Endangered Species Act, and thinking that something feels really familiar—but also really wrong—about the demonstration. And then you realize that these are Oklahoman loggers in the Northwest and someone comes over to you and says, “Oh, our demonstration’s over here—we didn’t know that these rednecks were going to be here,” and then you feel this treason towards the people you had grown up with.

I think that being a traitor to themselves is what people sort of feel about the Left establishment. Because, something has to change with the Left establishment in terms of how we have a contempt for the population in the middle, the red states, that they’re—like that book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?—they’re a bunch of dummies, they don’t know what their real interests are. When they’re not voting. They are not involved. Most of the poor people in this country—and working-class people—simply are not participating in government. To me, that can also be read as saying that they feel alienated from it. But they also feel alienated from the Left, who has contempt for them. I really think something—if it doesn’t start in the South or the Southwest or the middle of the country—we’re never going to get anywhere. I think we need to have a new effort that is outside of those gatekeepers. They’re all still up there in their world of the wealthy and the celebrity and important people. Even the ones that aren’t rich, you know—they’re important because they’re a columnist for The Nation. Certainly we need to get out of that. I think there is a lot that we can do here in that respect that is outside of that.

I think in a way what you’re saying about people who feel outside of the political process not voting, in a way that’s a great sign, because they’re not invested in the same way.

It’s like, who are you supposed to vote for? I think they’re less foolish than some of us who say, “I’ll vote for Kerry”—he’s for the war. So does anyone know how to read such people? But I do think they are deeply steeped in patriotism—how could they not be? And of course religion. I learned a lot from the Sandinistas about how you can work with people in raising their political consciousness without demeaning their lives. It does kind of fall aside like a shell, like it did with me, as I became politicized. Those things kind of fall away. I no longer needed them. But I think if someone had really attacked me, I would have defended those things. But you do feel attached to who you are. You’re kind of where you came from and the sort of culture you grew up in. You know, they [the Democratic establishment] feel that way also—there’s a kind of a racism that they now can’t practice against blacks and Latinos, but with poor whites it’s fair game. A bunch of idiots. They’re still the majority of this country.

For more information about Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, visit