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Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War

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Human rights activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has been described as “a force of nature on the page and off.” That force is fully present in Blood on the Border, the third in her acclaimed series of memoirs. Seamlessly blending the personal and the political, Blood on the Border is Dunbar-Ortiz’s firsthand account of the decade-long dirty war pursued by the Contras and the United States against the people of Nicaragua.

With the 1981 bombing of a Nicaraguan plane in Mexico City—a plane Dunbar-Ortiz herself would have been on if not for a delay—the US-backed Contras (short for los contrarrevolucionarios) launched a major offensive against Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime, which the Reagan administration labeled as communist. While her rich political analysis of the US-Nicaraguan relationship bears the mark of a trained historian, Dunbar-Ortiz also writes from her perspective as an intrepid activist who spent months at a time throughout the 1980s in the war-torn country, especially in the remote northeastern region, where the Indigenous Miskitu people were relentlessly assailed and nearly wiped out by CIA-trained Contra mercenaries. She makes painfully clear the connections between what many US Americans today remember only vaguely as the Iran-Contra “affair” and ongoing US aggression in the Americas, the Middle East, and around the world—connections made even more explicit in a new afterword written for this edition.

A compelling, important, and sobering story on its own, Blood on the Border offers a deeply informed, closely observed, and heartfelt view of history in the making.

ISBN-13: 9780806153841

Media Type: Paperback(Revised)

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 08-03-2016

Pages: 312

Product Dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a writer, teacher, historian, and social activist, is Professor Emerita of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at California State University, East Bay, and author or editor of numerous scholarly articles and books, including the award-winning An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, as well as two other memoirs. Margaret Randall is a feminist poet, writer, photographer, and social activist who has published more than 80 books, including Sandino's Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle and To Change the World: My Years in Cuba.

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Blood on the Border

A Memoir of the Contra War

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz


Copyright © 2005 Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5384-1


The Road to Nicaragua Runs through the Black Hills

What ended up being my road to Nicaragua began when I was "born again" as an American Indian. That thin red line, inherited from my maternal grandmother, was tapped in 1970 when, following the Alcatraz call to "Indians of all Nations," Wallace "Mad Bear" Anderson, the famed Tuscarora traveling diplomat (and merchant seaman by trade), encouraged me to embrace my Native heritage. I finally did so during the siege of Wounded Knee in February 1973, when I was a functioning alcoholic working in a Nevada casino, burnt out and isolated from the radical movements that had been my family for the previous decade.

I always had known that my mother was part Indian of unspecified heritage, most likely Cherokee, although I grew up in west-central Oklahoma, Southern Cheyenne territory. One relative has fantasized that we were from the Nez Perce of Idaho, who had been forced onto a reservation in southeastern Oklahoma following the defeat of the resistance led by Chief Joseph, but that seems unlikely. It was known that my grandmother's family had left the Tennessee mountains, part of the former homeland of the Cherokee Nation, to settle in Missouri. In any case, my mother was not proud of being part Indian, and it was far from fashionable to be an Indian in Oklahoma when she grew up or when I grew up. I knew about her — and my own — Indian ancestry only through whispers by relatives on my father's side of the family and my father's taunts during the nearly daily conflicts between him and my mother. At seventeen, my mother married my father, who was nineteen, an itinerant ranch hand and farm laborer. My father was of old-settler Scots-Irish heritage on both sides of his family — except for his grandmother, who was said to be Indian or perhaps Mexican. He could have been a prosperous rancher rather than a hired hand but for his own father's devotion to radical politics. Emmett Victor Dunbar, my grandfather, a veterinarian and Oklahoma settler-farmer, was a member of the Oklahoma Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or "Wobblies"). He named my father Moyer Haywood Pettibone Scarberry after the Wobbly leaders then on trial in Boise for murdering former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, two years after the IWW was founded in 1905.

In the early 1920s, the family was forced to flee rural Canadian County in Oklahoma, my grandfather a victim of KKK violence and the Palmer Raids aimed at the Wobblies and Socialists during the Wilson administration's repression of anyone opposed to World War I. My teenaged father defiantly remained in his county in Oklahoma, and there he met my mother, who was then incarcerated in a home for juvenile delinquent girls but allowed visits to a sister who lived in the county. The teenaged couple married and began sharecropping and picking cotton with other migrant laborers. Hard as her life was as the wife of a white sharecropper, at least my mother had escaped the fate of being Indian in an Oklahoma where stray dogs were far better regarded. A red — a socialist — in the closet on my father's side, a red — an Indian — on my mother's, and the red dirt of Oklahoma formed my identity.

The nearby federal Indian boarding school at Concho was in the same basketball class (the smallest towns) as my town, and our teams played each other twice a year. There was always tension in the gym on those nights, and sometimes fights between the Indian boys and the white boys. My older brothers were especially targeted, surely perceived as being mixed-bloods passing. That, and seeing Indians on skid row in the county seat, El Reno, were my only encounters with Indians growing up. Shame, that is what was instilled in me, the shame of being Indian. I was well aware then, and now, that I was not a citizen of a Native Nation or a member of an Indian family having to survive as Indians. Yet my whispered Indian heritage had always been an important part of my ambivalent identity, even if I had not yet acted on it. I had spent my years at San Francisco State College, UCLA, and after as an activist — against the Vietnam War, in solidarity with African liberation movements, for women's liberation. Toward the end of that period, I was involved in some labor organizing that devolved into clandestine plans that never materialized but led to my arrest, torture under interrogation, and trial in Louisiana. Though I was released on probation, I became depressed, started drinking heavily, and, after my trial in 1972, avoided the movement spotlight. I returned to California and worked under a false name in electronics assembly plants in Silicon Valley and under my own name in Harrah's Casino at Lake Tahoe. I know now what I did not know then — that many full-time activists like me, and even the movement itself, were collapsing in various ways.

I was thirty-five in 1973, and I was a wreck. I spent my nights working the graveyard shift in the casino, and my days drinking away a history of broken relationships and crushed dreams, personal and political. My only other activity was practicing Tae Kwon Do, which I had first taken up with my women's liberation group in 1968. In fact, I found out about the Wounded Knee standoff when the news interrupted my favorite television show, Kung Fu.

Wounded Knee and the American Indian Movement (AIM) became the magnet that drew me back to open activism and gave me back my life; once you become a revolutionary, there is no other possible life, only the self -destruction of trying to escape that commitment. On February 27, 1973, on the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota, traditional Oglala Sioux, led by young warriors of the American Indian Movement representing seventy -five Native Nations, seized the Wounded Knee trading post at the iconic site of a US army massacre of unarmed and starving Sioux in 1890 and proclaimed their independence from the United States. For seventy-one days, they held out against federal marshals, the FBI, and units of the National Guard with their tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. The defenders were prepared to die, and believed that they would be required to do so. But unlike 1890, the whole world was watching the event, as I did, on television.

In August 1973, I came down from the mountain to enter law school at the University of Santa Clara. There, I was recruited by one of the attorneys working with the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee (WKLDOC) — San José–based attorney John Thorne, who had represented many radicals, including George Jackson and Angela Davis. Work on the committee taught me a great deal about the limitations of the legal system, but it also led me to the American Indian Movement. I entered AIM thinking of myself as an orphan, alienated from the culture as a whole, but also from the left and the women's liberation movement that had consumed my life from 1964 to 1972.

As a member of AIM, I found a new set of friends, mainly Native Americans who had grown up poor, rural, isolated, without running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity, just as I had grown up in rural Oklahoma. In a kind of shorthand language I could never use in the left and women's movements, I could communicate with my newfound comrades. I remained unnecessarily secretive about my past radical activities, however, often letting others fill in the blanks. One early AIM friend, Robert Mendoza, a Muskogee from Oklahoma, recognized my name as a leader in the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and had seen my picture and an article in Newsweek, in which I was quoted as saying that I grew up in Oklahoma and that my father was a cowboy, my mother an Indian. He was impressed to meet me face to face, but I lied and said that the woman in the article wasn't me. When we became friends, I told him the truth but asked him not to tell anyone else. Later, when my credibility was on the line for supporting the Sandinistas, this fundamental error in judgment would come back to haunt me as I was both red-baited and denounced as a fraud pretending to be Native American. I never knew back then where to draw the line between being identified as Indian and being in solidarity with Indian aspirations, and felt more conflict in dealing with non-Indians than with Indians. Non-Indians, unfamiliar with the chaotic conditions produced by warfare, reservation incarceration, and forced assimilation, tended (and still tend) to have a monolithic image of Indians rather than comprehending the complexities and contradictions of Indian life and heritage.

Most of my Native American friends were from families with alcoholic members, and some were alcoholics themselves. AIM itself had strict rules against drinking and using drugs, though they were often broken in daily life. Up to that time, I had feared becoming like my mother, whose drunken violence drove me away from home at age fifteen and ultimately led to her death at age fifty-nine. Being with Indians gave me permission to remain the out-of-control drinker that I had become in the early 1970s. But it also made drinking appear as a political act, as if when drinking I was somehow more authentically Indian than when I was sober.

* * *

The American Indian Movement began as a pan-Indian organization that embodied a missionary zeal, with AIM pretty much taking in anyone who claimed to be Indian and accepted the movement's goal of asserting Native rights to Indigenous territories and to political sovereignty over those territories. Anyone who reclaimed Indian roots, especially Chicanos, Indians who had been adopted by white families, and anyone like me with a likely, but not validated, Indian identity was welcome. AIM was an ambitious populist movement that envisioned cultural, social, and political hegemony in North America — AIM operated in Canada as well — if not the hemisphere. AIM's founders saw themselves as following the tradition of the nineteenth-century pan-Indian resistance to US settlement on their lands and the revered leaders of that resistance, from Tecumseh in the Ohio Valley to Crazy Horse in the Northern Plains.

Although most US citizens, and indeed the rest of the world, view the US War of Independence as the first example of resistance to colonialism, Native Americans know better. They see the United States as imperialist from its founding, the most extensive colonial-settler project in the five-hundred-year history of European expansion; the Declaration of Independence thus did not end a colonialist venture that began in 1607 at Jamestown but merely announced a change of flags. The Treaty of Paris between Britain and France in 1763 that ended the French and Indian War had forbidden European settlement over the Allegheny/Appalachian mountain spine and required the return of settlers already there, since the British preferred profits from the fur trade to more settlements. A few months after the peace treaty took effect, in the summer of 1763, a Native confederacy of Ottawa, Anishinaabe (also called Ojibwa, Chippewa), Potawatomi, Huron, Shawnee, and Delaware led by Pontiac, an Ottawa, attacked British military forts in the region. In their search-and-destroy response, the British commander, Lord Jeffery Amherst, used biological warfare by having his soldiers give out smallpox-infected blankets to Delaware refugees, causing an epidemic. Pontiac's Confederation was soon crushed. The colonies meanwhile balked at implementing provisions of the treaty limiting western settlement, and settlers began filtering into the Ohio Valley (think of the near-mythical Daniel Boone), then called the "Northwest Territory." Gaining free access to western lands was thus one of the colonists' main goals in 1776.

The first land law following the Declaration of Independence was the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established a national land system and the basis for its implementation. This act included maps that extended the boundaries of the original thirteen colonies all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 then set forth a plan for white settlement and colonization. It established a procedure for the creation of new states in order of military occupation, territorial status, and finally statehood, which could be achieved when the number of settlers outnumbered the Indigenous population — a provision that required either the annihilation or forced removal of the original inhabitants. Thus began the long, hard struggle of a number of Native confederations between the Appalachian/Allegheny mountains and the Mississippi River that culminated in their mass, forced removal to Oklahoma in the 1830s.

The American Indian Movement thus saw itself as an anticolonial movement like other national liberation movements against colonialism around the world, a movement that began with the onset of European colonialism in the Americas, particularly the establishment of the United States.

I began to see my own family history as a contradiction or amalgamation of those two forces — settlers on Indian lands and resistance by the Indigenous inhabitants. This history had political implications that burned in me, but was also deeply personal.

I learned to connect the Monroe Doctrine — the early US government's announced intention of controlling the whole Western Hemisphere — to Manifest Destiny — the settlers' belief that expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific was their destiny, willed by God. Later I began to see how Native resistance to settler expansionism in North America was linked to resistance to US intervention in Central America, particularly Nicaragua. In the mid-nineteenth century, after half of Mexico had been annexed and gold was discovered in northern California, goldseekers and settlers rushed westward, but were forced to travel by ship around South America to get there because the territory between the Missouri River and California was Indian — Lakotas and Cheyennes in the northern plains, and Navajos, Apaches, and Comanches in the southern plains and deserts, forming a solid wall of resistance to encroachment. It was during this time that a band of mercenaries from the United States led by William Walker seized control of Nicaragua, which had only recently become independent from Spain. Walker reintroduced African slavery during his presidency (1856–57). Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had been shipping goods and goldseekers from northeastern ports to San Francisco by way of Tierra del Fuego, made deals with the Nicaraguan authorities to transport his cargo through the rivers and lakes of Nicaragua to its west coast, transferring to his ships waiting there and cutting the voyage in half. Thus began the quest for a South American deepwater canal that was finally cut through Colombia, detaching the province of Panama from that country. But the longer-term goal was to gain access to land routes from St. Joseph and Omaha to California, both for wagon trains and eventually railroads. At first, the United States made treaties of "peace and friendship" with the Lakota and Cheyenne, but settlers did not abide by the terms of the treaties, and the Plains Indians responded by attacking wagon trains. The federal government sent troops to accompany the settlers, leading to armed engagements between soldiers and Indian fighters.

During the US Civil War, the federal government was distracted from its campaign to gain control of the Plains, although it did remove the Navajos from their territory to a desert prison in 1864 and sanctioned massacres of the Cheyenne at Sand Creek and the Dakota in Minnesota. Soon after the end of the Civil War, the federal army's battle-experienced regiments, including Black troops whom the Indians called "Buffalo soldiers," invaded Sioux and Cheyenne territory. Even so, the Indians were strong enough to make a treaty with the United States in 1868 that guaranteed their territorial and sovereign rights. Soon after, the government broke the treaty, annexed the Black Hills (Paha Sapa in Lakota, sacred to the Sioux and the Cheyenne), and signaled that it would be satisfied with nothing less than the complete pacification or eradication of the Plains peoples.

This new round of expansion triggered the rise of a new pan-Indian movement, led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, who took the offensive against the invaders, most notably defeating Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Soon after, Crazy Horse was murdered, and by the end of 1890, after Sitting Bull was assassinated, Custer's old unit took its revenge on a group of starving and freezing Lakota refugees who were trying to reach the Pine Ridge federal Indian agency, killing hundreds of unarmed Indian women, children, and old men at Wounded Knee Creek.

These events were vivid in the memory of Lakota survivors and in the memories of their children and grandchildren on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota when the Lakota took their stand at Wounded Knee in 1973. In a salute to this heritage of resistance, AIM adopted the slogan "in the spirit of Crazy Horse," and it was no accident that it chose Wounded Knee as the site of its protest, which, thanks to the overreaction of the Nixon administration, became world news and put AIM on the map, bringing thousands of recruits from many Native Nations to its side.


Excerpted from Blood on the Border by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Copyright © 2005 Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents

Foreword Margaret Randall ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Prologue 3

1 The Road to Nicaragua Runs through the Black Hills 15

2 Starting Over and Finding the Sandinista Revolution 39

3 Desaparecidos 55

4 A Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party 67

5 House Arrest 83

6 Culture Shock 97

7 Red Christmas 109

8 A Cruel Spring 125

9 Getting to Know Rigoberta 135

10 Drinking for Courage 149

11 International Law-and International Lawlessness 165

12 Guide 177

13 City of Refuge 193

14 Missionaries and Mercenaries 207

15 Refugees 219

16 Quemada 237

17 The Final Chapter: Rednecks and Indian Country Again 255

Epilogue 269

Afterword 281