This week, I finished reading Custer Died for Your Sins (1969, 1988) by Vine Deloria Jr. My reading coincided with our newest presidential administration’s violations of land rights and first amendment rights in the #NoDAPL protest at the Oceti Sakowin camp. White supremacy is rearing its ugly head in the worst ways because of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and people of color are feeling it on every front. Deloria’s book gives me much to consider on how to fix these problems, and whether or not Deloria’s solutions, which he wrote in 1969, still apply today.
Deloria is quite the writer. I really appreciate his crass, part comedian-part philosopher style. He and Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian, which I reviewed back in July 2016, write about similar material in very different ways. These differences I attribute to a number of things, of which the first has to be sun signs. Laugh if you must, but that King is a Taurus and Deloria is an Aries is quite striking in their writing. King treats writing as an art; as I said in my post, he is like a poet. It felt as though he revered the process of creating the work almost as much as he did the content. His book also came out in 2013, a time when many of the predictions that Deloria made in his 1969 book could be evaluated. Deloria, on the other hand, unapologetically bashed the United States government, Christianity, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), whiteness, white people’s accounts of history, anthropologists, and a great number of other things with a signature coarseness. His writing is more utilitarian–a way to clearly state ideas in a way that is credible and easily distributed.
King, while born in California, most recently resides in Canada, a nation of relatively liberal, friendly (albeit, super white) people who say “eh” a lot and are a lot more sympathetic to Native folks. Deloria resided in America during his life, a place where white people consistently tell other people to “go back to their country,” even though this land clearly wasn’t theirs to begin with.
To preface my analysis, I’m going to say here that there is no way in hell I will do this book any justice because there is so much in it that is so, so important. I’ll do my best with the parts I liked.
First off, I really appreciate how fucking funny Deloria is. His opening chapter is filled with too many good witticisms on the relations between American and Indian (Deloria uses the word “Indian” to refer to the indigenous people of America). Within the first ten pages, Deloria makes fun of both American values as well as old country music:
Like the deer and the antelope, Indians seemed to play rather than get down to the serious business of piling up treasures upon the earth where thieves break through and steal (1969, p. 6).
The implication here is that perhaps piling up treasure in a capitalist frenzy is a folly after all, since all it does is attract thieves. Or perhaps the thieves exist precisely because there is an uneven distribution of goods?
Another gem was Deloria’s comment on the “paternalism” of whiteness.
Whites have always refused to give non-whites the respect which they have been found to legally possess. Instead there has always been a contemptuous attitude that although the law says one thing, ‘we all know better’ (1969, p. 8).
Probably any non-white understands this sentiment. Deloria doesn’t say “the respect that non-whites possess”. Rather, they are “found to possess,” as though even the existence of the damn respect is dubious until white people say it is so. Thus white people think they are the arbiters of law, what people are worth, and basically everything and anything. In truth, white people know little to nothing of the lives of people of color and how different racialized minorities relate to one another.
I also appreciate how little Deloria does to shield the scholar-reader from poverty. For some reason, in more recent books, these descriptions are glossed over, though I can’t imagine why. Oh wait, yes I can. It’s to make sure Millenials don’t have a proper class analysis. Consider his description of the Wisconsin Menominees.
The Menominees had been so poor in comparison to other Americans that the only experience Watkins [a senator] could relate his reservation visit with was his visit to refugee camps of the Near East after World War II. (p. 68).
This was in Chapter 3 on “The Disastrous Policy of Termination”. Termination was the process in the late 50’s (p. 60-71) by which the United States government tried to end government funding of Indian entities. This is not unlike the constant conservative backlash against providing welfare. The logic is, the government gives the tribes money over a certain period for things like healthcare, building schools, and constructing homes (p. 71) until the tribe’s economy stabilizes and it can support itself. It seemed an irony at the time that the United States was concerned with “keeping its promises” in Vietnam when it hadn’t kept even one promise to the Indigenous people of America (p. 76). If anything, it continued to break those promises.
Like King, Deloria talks a great deal about land. In chapter 5 on “Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum”, he states,
Most mysterious [to the missionaries] was the Indian reverence for land. When told to settle down and become farmers, most Indians rebelled. For centuries they had lived off the land as hunters, taking and giving in their dances and ceremonies (p. 103).
In Chapter 8, “The Red and the Black”, he continues,
No movement can sustain itself, no people can continue, no government can function, and no religion can become a reality except it be bound to a land area of its own…So called power movements are primarily the urge of peoples to find their homeland…(p. 179).
Most beautifully, in Chapter 9, “The Problem of Indian Leadership”:
But when they attempt to articulate what they are doing so that the white society can understand them, unity dissolves into chaos…Indians simply cannot externalize themselves. Externalization implies a concern for the future. Indians welcome the future but don’t worry about it. Traditionally the tribes had pretty much what they wanted…The land had plenty for everyone. Piling up gigantic surpluses implied a mistrust of the Great Spirit and a futile desire to control the future (p. 221).
While each of these three quotes alone serve their own purpose in the chapters where they are written, as a whole they also put forth a philosophy on land. Perhaps more, even, than a philosophy. The way Deloria talks about land reminds me of the way Desis talk about Hinduism or Hawai’ians talk about their religion. They are things appropriated by white people that simultaneously, white people will never understand. Even if they study these things for years in their classes on anthropology and human evolution, even if they devote their lives to these things, white people will never be descendants of the people to whom these things belong. Deloria talks about land as though it is a living entity, one that should be developed, but not in the way that Americans think. It should be developed the way a child is nurtured to grow older. Dividing up land for different purposes is as futile as claiming your arm does not belong to the same body as your head. Function does not determine entity.
Custer Died for your Sins is organized into 11 chapters of which my favorites, without a doubt, are chpater 4, “Anthropologists and Other Friends” and chapter 7, “Indian Humor”. In the former, Deloria scolds academia for its futile attempts at being useful. In the latter, Deloria comments on the many entities, human or otherwise, that plague Indian existence, though he makes them sound more like mosquitoes bothering a large creature rather than the life-threatening things they are. Arguably, that is the beauty of humor. The unthinkable and inhumane can be reduced to entertainment that Americans then actually pay attention to, hell, even pay money for.
While Deloria undertook an important task in writing this book, he is not without his faults. Although he gives ample commentary on the relations between white and black people, he gives little in the way of how Indian men and women relate to one another. Gender is not given a chapter, a weakness that King incidentally does address in The Inconvenient Indian. Deloria also has a tendency to generalize, claiming that “Indians” all feel a certain way, or do a certain thing, or behave a certain way about a great many issues (see the last of the three land quotes above). I do wonder if this is not so much a fault of Deloria’s as it is a symptom of the times in which the book was published, when identity politics did not dominate so much of academia and people were not yet compartmentalized into their little individual tribes. In 1969, divisions were still quite simple: you were either a woman or a man, a person of color or white (yes, I am aware that that is a generalization as well). These days, you must specify that you are an able-bodied, black, cisgender, heterosexual, working class, right-handed, woman, or not. If you are a person with the same social identities but you are left-handed, academia now dictates you have nothing in common with your right-handed sister.
In addition, Deloria seemed to have been very optimistic about certain outcomes when this book was written. On the revival of religion in the Northwest, he appears to have been right (p. 115). Upon rekindling their connection to their ancestral religions, the tribes of the Northwest are some of the most active at the moment (at least, it looks that way to me. All the Native activists I meet on the East Coast are from there). On how whiteness has endured (and I apologize, I can’t find my tab for this citation), he was rather optimistic. I do wonder, though, if that is also a symptom of the times. The end of the Civil Rights, while tumultuous, was also a period of great leadership and uprising among many marginalized peoples. While we also see activism today in the Black Lives Matter movement and the #NoDAPL protest, both of the current organizations seem to be throwing pebbles at a fortress, where perhaps in the 60’s, organizers may have had flamethrowers. The playing field is not as even. I feel the actions of the movement are not making as much of a dent in the machine as they used to. Then again, I am still just discovering the whole picture, and may not be fully informed.
In spite of its shortcomings, Custer Died for your Sins should really be a requirement for college liberal arts degrees. There is far more in there that I did not talk about (the challenges of uniting people of a single group! The commentary on how Black and Indian relate!) that provides so much insight into community organizing and environmental justice. I now understand why this is considered a landmark of a book.
Deloria Jr., V. (1969, 1988). Custer died for your sins. New York, NY: University of Oklahoma Press.