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The Fire Inside

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 239 pages, paperback, $19.95.

Richard D. Vogel is a political reporter who monitors the effects of globalization on working people and their communities. He is the author of numerous articles including: “The NAFTA Corridors: Offshoring U.S. Transportation Jobs to Mexico,” “Transient Servitude: The U.S. Guest Worker Program for Exploiting Mexican and Central American Workers,” and “The Fight of Our Lives: The War of Attrition against U.S. Labor”. His e-mail address is: rd_vogel [at]

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. The cover art of Roots of Resistance is powerful and angry. The stark geometric design, formed by swatches of blazing orange and slashes of smoldering earth tones all descending from cosmos into chaos, highlights abstract images of the suffering, enslavement, and death of the Acoma people at the hands of a Spanish punitive expedition in 1599: falling bodies, inverted crosses, dismembered feet—the punishment inflicted on all the male residents of the pueblo over the age of twenty-five. The original 2005 oil painting by Acoma Indian artist and activist Maurus Chino, titled Acoma 1599, Acoma, Beloved Acoma, Ancient of Days, contains more than enough raw energy to illuminate the history it recalls.

Acoma 1599 echoes the content of this book—the fire on the cover is the fire inside. Roots of Resistance is a powerful, angry, and, most importantly, informative work with a critical purpose. As the author observes, “The U.S. public has had little structural framework for conceptualizing American Indian legal and human rights.” That structural framework is precisely what Roots of Resistance offers the diligent reader. This edition of the book (which was first published in 1980) updates the issues of land tenure and indigenous resistance in New Mexico and locates them in the context of the current international indigenous rights movement. Roots of Resistance is a living document; as the struggle for indigenous rights has developed, the book has evolved.

Roots of Resistance is a testimony to the enduring validity of historical materialist analysis, of which Dunbar-Ortiz shows herself to be a master practitioner. She establishes her theoretical orientation early in the book by delineating the difference between socioeconomic and legalistic approaches to the study of land tenure. Her quote from Erich Jacoby reflects her historical materialist analysis succinctly: “The patterns of land distribution and ownership reflect the actual power structure; and the saying ‘whoever owns the land wields the power’ holds true for entire historical epochs”(Man and Land [London: Andre Deutch, 1971], 19).

A quick glance at the contents of Roots of Resistance reveals the scope of the book. The main text is broken down into seven chapters: (1) “Precolonial Land Tenure” explores irrigation as the key to understanding early Pueblo land tenure and social organization; (2) “Colonization and Pueblo Land Tenure, 1598–1693” focuses on the impact of the Spanish conquest and colonization; (3) “The People Continue, 1692–1820” clarifies the contradictions and conflicts that developed under extended colonization and the importance of community land grants to the Pueblo nations; (4) “Liberation Sabotaged with U.S. Conquest, 1821–1848” revisits the U.S. military conquest of northern Mexico and the disastrous effects of Manifest Destiny on the indigenous nations and the Hispanic settlers; (5) “Capitalization of Land Under Territorial Rule, 1849–1912” highlights the capitalist expropriation of the land and the denial of the tradition of community ownership, a major blow to the Pueblo nations; (6) “Land Tenure under Capitalism” features analysis of the new conflicts that arose under capitalist domination, many of which continue up to the present day; and (7) “Land, Indigenousness, Identity, and Self-Determination” is the update of the book that explores the new global realities that effect the continuing history and struggles of the Pueblos.

Dunbar-Ortiz’s analysis of the history of land tenure in New Mexico and the consequences of conquest and exploitation for the indigenous people of the land is not only a narrative of oppression but a chronicle of resistance. Her careful analysis reveals that the call for justice for the indigenous people of the region, which has been declared a lost cause by many commentators, is actually within reach. Her willingness to openly and honestly face the difficult conflict between the aspirations of the Pueblo Indians and the claims of the descendents of the early Hispanic settlers clarifies one of the most contentious issues in the quest for justice in the American Southwest.

Underlying the text of Roots of Resistance is Dunbar-Ortiz’s white-hot anger against the exploitation and injustice suffered by the indigenous people of America that she lays bare for all to see. In reading Roots of Resistance, the perceptive reader knows that she or he is also encountering the roots of the author’s resistance. Dunbar-Ortiz’s struggle is none other than the class struggle that drives history.

In the book’s foreword, Simon Ortiz, Acoma Pueblo Indian writer and lecturer, recalls the refrain of one of his poem-songs and links it to the book:

The land will endure.
The people will endure.
The land will go on.
The people will go on.
There will be victory.
There shall be victory.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico helps to explain why there will and shall be victory! (xi)

It is altogether fitting that this book has been reissued on the eve of the global resurgence of class struggle. In light of Dunbar-Ortiz’s lifelong history of engagement, we can be sure that we will continue to hear her clarion call for justice.

2008, Volume 60, Issue 04 (September)
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