Vine Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins

Vine Deloria had two intended audiences: Indians and white people.  His project, throughout his whole career, was to undermine the intellectual assumptions that continue to undergird the United States’ occupation of North America.

So it is vitally important that the Indian people pick the intellectual arena as the one in which to wage war.  Past events have shown that the Indian people have always been fooled about the intentions of the white man.  Always we have discussed irrelevant issues while he has taken the land.  Never have we taken the time to examine the premises upon which he operates so that we could manipulate him as he has us.  (257)

Demolish the intellectual underpinnings of white settler colonialism.  It’s in this sense that the book’s subtitle is warranted: “An Indian Manifesto.”  As Marx well understood that action without analysis would lead nowhere in the long run, so Deloria knows that either a loss or a victory based on the intellectual assumptions or white hegemony reaffirms that hegemony in substance.  Deloria is one of those intellectuals who is not just intellectual about the world.  He writes to communicate with as large a public that he can, so that real things can happen.

He opens to communication in his prose above all by using clear, simple prose, the hardest kind to produce.  That, and, more interesting to me, through humor.  As an analogue, I went through a phase where I read a bunch of Czech literature, Jaroslav Hasek‘s The Good Solder Svejk and a ton of Karel Capek.  Hasek is to Czech literature what Pushkin is to Russian, only he not only wrote a riotously funny book, he began a tradition that was simultaneously satirical and canonical, canonical for Czech literature, that is to say.  I always understood this elevation of satire as a very correct response by a people from whom control over their own land and lives had been taken from them to their situation.

Humor is at least potentially a weapon, because it can open people who had been closed.  Gogol, in Nabokov’s understanding, leaves one’s eyes “Gogolized.”  We see the world in its comic, absurd aspect not only during a read of “The Nose” but long afterward.  Phenomenologically–not ontologically–the world has this aspect to it, as it has others, as in the Greek drama the tragic aspect.  One can view tragic art and undergo a catharsis of some sort, but if one lives viewing the world tragically it’s hard to avoid despair, which leads to stasis.  Humor of any sort leads to motion, as it frees one mentally from the stasis of despair.  One can move again.

Deloria does not make this point at all, but I wonder if he might: in white America, humor is a diversion from the world, while in Indian Country humor is a path through it.  There’s a whole chapter on the subject, returning to the book:

A favorite cartoon in Indian Country a few years back showed a flying saucer landing while an Indian watched.  The caption was “Oh, no, not again.” (148)

Throughout the book, Deloria contrast a white settler society that chases abstract ideals, be they a religion based on a Palestinian god that nobody can see and a heaven to where one wants to go that is far away from this world, to the Federal oversight of Indian Country in which policy formulation takes place in isolation from the places and people the policy affects.  As I referenced in another piece, white negotiators needed to designate an abstracted political office of chief in order to carry on negotiations:

In treating for lands, rights of way, and minerals, commissioners negotiating for the government insisted on applying foreign political concepts to the tribes they were confronting.  Used to dealing with kings, queens, and royalty, the early white men insisted on meeting the supreme political head of each tribe.  When they found none, they created one and called the man they had chosen the Chief.  (204)

Leadership in Indian Country is more a practical matter.  What works?  A leader is someone who can deliver for the people.  Historically, this may have been in hunting, and today it takes other means.  In the United States, Bush was President because he bore that title, not because he delivered for the people.  So too, with gradations, have been all Presidents.  It’s not such a good way to have leaders, when one sees it this way.  So too with religion.  Does a medicine man’s medicine work?  If so, it’s legitimate.  If not, it’s not.  It is not a question of belief, but rather of experience, quite different than that of missionary Christianity, the most characteristic form of which is the catechism, but very much like Buddhism.  I was just listening to a Dharma talk in which one of Thich Nhat Hanh‘s monks said that Thay taught that one knows one is practicing correctly because one immediately feels a sense of relief.

Deloria, in the aforementioned chapter on humor, notes, significantly:

During the 1964 elections Indians were talking in Arizona about the relative positions of the two candidates, Johnson and Goldwater.  A white man told them to forget about domestic policy and concentrate on the foreign policies of the two men.  One Indian looked at him coldly and said that from the Indian point of view it was all foreign policy. (155)

I point this out because from a United States left perspective much of what Deloria writes seems very off.  Deloria is not exactly what we in the US left, particularly the white US left, would imagine him to be.  To take an example, he finds in the form of the corporation the closest thing in United States society to a tribal form, and in it the best opportunity for Indian people to build a better life.  I was nearly in shock when I read it, of course.  This is a good example of how the white left–that is to say, me–needs to keep its mouth shut and mind open, and listen for a change.  Indeed, Deloria’s second book was called We Talk, You Listen.  My instinctive reaction was aversion, but the more I thought about the more I realized how valid Deloria’s point was, particularly after he referred back to in a number of times and contextually deepened it.  I read “corporation” and I think “surplus value.”  A corporation, strictly put, is, however, a group of people that form a legal existence as a group, rather than as individuals.  We know how problematic this can be, but just because something can be and is does not mean that it must be.  In this light, the problem in corporate capitalism is not the corporation, but the capitalism.  If I listen, I learn things.

I would note that while Deloria makes a lot of valid points in the “The Red and the Black” chapter, he was at least at this point in his career clearly unfamiliar with the history of Black people in the Americas.  He conflates the movement for integration for a movement for assimilation, and then sees in Stokely Carmichael‘s Black Power something new.  Black Power wasn’t a new idea, it was a new expression of an idea that had been a part of the Black presence in the Americas in one way or another since the beginning.  Carmichael would certainly not have claimed to be making a new argument, and it surprises me that Deloria didn’t deal with Malcolm X at all.  This I think is where it bears remember Deloria’s point that all things United States are foreign affairs to the Indian.  He wrote much more knowledgeably about white American society, with which he clearly had more direct experience.  One cannot come to any real knowledge about Black American experience through the United States white media.  Direct experience is necessary.  Deloria makes a worthwhile point, though, in the chapter, that keeps things clear:

But the understanding of the racial question does not ultimately involve understanding by either blacks or Indians.  It involves the white man himself.  He must examine his past.  He must face the problems he has created within himself and within others.  The white man must no longer project his fears and insecurities onto other groups, races, and countries.  Before the white man can relate to others he must forego the pleasure of defining them [emphasis mine]…

Surely many if not most white people would read that as an attack against them, which confirms Deloria’s point.  In fact, Deloria is deeply compassionate.  This is one of those cases where the friend is the one who directs the alcoholic to AA, rather than the one who buys her or him another drink.  For white people’s own sake, this nonsense needs to stop.

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