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Born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1938 to an Oklahoma family, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in Central Oklahoma, daughter of a sharecropper and a half-Native American mother. Her paternal grandfather, a settler of Scots-Irish ancestry, was a landed farmer, veterinarian, a labor activist and a Socialist Party member in Oklahoma and also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, "Wobblies." Her father was named after the leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World—Moyer Haywood Pettibone Scarberry Dunba. Her father's stories of her grandfather inspired her to lifelong social justice activism.
Married at eighteen, three years later she and her husband moved to San Francisco, California, where she has lived most of the years since, although the marriage ended. Her account of life up to leaving Oklahoma is recorded in Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie. She has a daughter, Michelle.
Dunbar-Ortiz graduated from San Francisco State College in 1963, majoring in History. She began graduate study in the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley but transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles completing her doctorate in History in 1974. In addition to the doctorate, she completed the Diplôme of the International Law of Human Rights at the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France in 1983 and an MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College in 1993.
From 1967 to 1974, she was a full-time activist living in various parts of the United States, traveling to Europe, Mexico, and Cuba. She is also a veteran of the women's liberation movement. Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years outlines this time of her life, chronicling the years 1960-1975.
In 1974, she accepted a position as Assistant Professor in the newly established Native American Studies program at California State University at Hayward, near San Francisco, and helped develop the Department of Ethnic Studies, as well as Women's Studies. In the wake of the Wounded Knee Siege of 1973, she became active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the International Indian Treaty Council, beginning a lifelong commitment to indigenous peoples' right to self-determination and to international human rights.
Her first book, The Great Sioux Nation: An Oral History of the Sioux Nation and its Struggle for Sovereignty, was published in 1977 and presented as the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indians of the Americas, held at United Nations' headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The book was issued in a new edition by University of Nebraska Press in 2013. It was followed by two other books: Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico (1980) and Indians of the Americas: Human Rights and Self-Determination (1984). She also edited two anthologies on Native American economic development, while heading the Institute for Native American Development at the University of New Mexico.
In 1981, Dunbar Ortiz was asked to visit Sandinista Nicaragua to appraise the land tenure situation of the Miskito Indians in the northeastern region of the country. Her two trips there that year coincided with the beginning of United States government's sponsorship of a proxy war to overthrow the Sandinistas, with the northeastern region on the border with Honduras becoming a war zone and the basis for extensive propaganda carried out by the Reagan administration against the Sandinistas. In over a hundred trips to Nicaragua and Honduras from 1981 to 1989, she monitored what was called the Contra War. She tells of these years in Caught in the Crossfire: The Miskitu Indians of Nicaragua (1985) and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (2005).
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is Professor Emerita of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Hayward. Since retiring from university teaching, Dunbar-Ortiz has been lecturing widely and writes.
- The Great Sioux Nation: Sitting In Judgment on America (Random House, 1977), (University of Nebraska Press, 2013).
- Roots of Resistance: Land Tenure in New Mexico, l680-l980. Berkeley: University of California, l980; new edition, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.
- Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie. Verso, June 1997; new edition, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
- Blood on the Border: Memoir of the Contra War. Boston: South End Press, 2005.
- Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-75. San Francisco: City Light Books, 2002.
- Indigenous Peoples: A Global Quest for Justice. (ed.) A Report for the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, Geneva. London: Zed Press, l987.
- The Miskito Indians of Nicaragua: Caught in the Crossfire. London: Minority Rights Group, l988.
- La Cuestión Mískita en la Revolución Nicaragüense. México D.F.: Editorial Linea, l986.
- Indians of the Americas: Human Rights and Self-Determination. London: Zed Press; New York: Praeger, l984.
- Native American Energy Resources and Development. (ed.) Albuquerque: Institute for Native American Development (INAD), University of New Mexico, l980.
- Economic Development in American Indian Reservations. (ed.) Albuquerque: INAD, University of New Mexico, l979.
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, University of Oklahoma Press, 2006
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, City Lights, 2002
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, South End Press, 2005