Vine Deloria, God is Red

Read immediately.

Read immediately.

For some reason I don’t understand–maybe I’m getting old, maybe getting content, maybe both–I’ve been rereading books lately, a number at a time, for the first time in my life. I was never one to go back to something a second time. Yet at the moment I not only reread Vine Deloria‘s essential God is Red, but I scored a copy of Michael Moorcock‘s Elric stories from the library. In any event, Deloria is always worth reading and this, of all the books of his I’ve read, is the one that has had the greatest continuing impact on how I imperfectly try to live.

No summaries here, but a description: Deloria compares actually-existing North American Christianity to Native American religious practice and finds the former, not unpredictably but quite profoundly, lacking. Christianity, born in Southwest Asia under the auspices of a Palestinian god, lost, in its movement across continents and most particularly across the Atlantic, any relationship it once bore to a specific people and, more importantly, a specific land. Native practice, on the contrary, is entirely predicated on the relationship of specific people to specific land.

The breaking, in Christianity, of that fundamental relationship, means that the religion, as it actually exists, cannot fulfil any of the functions a religion must: help people live better, be happy, not damage others or our world, etc. Look, he argues, at how Christians have behaved on this land in the last 500 years, to this day. Any argument to the contrary, it seems to me, must abstract itself from historical fact and retreat into abstractions about how the religion, ideally, ought to be. If Christianity worked, as a religion, Christ wouldn’t have come to Mexico on a cannonball.

It was in God is Red, on my first read some eight years ago, that I came across Chief Seattle‘s famous speech of 1854, which Deloria quotes at length:

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret…(173)

I cannot overstate the impact these two sentences had on my thinking over the next years. Impact, in the most profound sense, because they produced in me an impulse to ask questions about what they mean for me as a person and as a presence on this land. More critically, they pointed the direction to me through which I might deal with the questions of whiteness and settler colonialism without on the one hand white guilt and on the other an imagined objectivity. White guilt is ultimately selfish emotion, and no participant in a process can observe a process objectively. Observation itself is subjective, however comforting it might be for the white thinker to imagine otherwise. Seattle’s words, though, suggested to me that it was by approaching my ancestors in their specificity that I might find a way forward.

I practice Buddhism, and, for those who aren’t practitioners, there is a whole discourse, in North America, dealing with the question of the practice migrating–very literally–from Asia to the Americas, and what that means for the practice and for us as practitioners. The discussion takes many forms, but by and large takes place among educated, well-off white practitioners and posits an “Asian Buddhism” in contrast to a “North American Buddhism.”

Lots of problems. One, any practitioner of Asian ancestry is assumed to fall into the first group and not the second, as if a third-generation Asian-American necessarily would approach the practice in precisely the same way as her or his peasant ancestors of a century ago. There’s also the problem that the “converts” (as opposed to “ancestral practitioners”) are on the one hand assumed to be white and, on the other, assumed to be “true spiritual seekers” in opposition to the “ancestral practitioners” who are simply following, unthinkingly, the superstitions handed to them, much like the most unthinking Christian you could imagine, only in a more inscrutable and exotic kind of way. Needless to say, the entire discussion reproduces societal racism in the microcosm of the community of practitioners.

Many of the efforts to define a “North American” or “Western” Buddhism, both theoretically and in a practical approach, involve mingling Buddhist practice with various aspects of “Western” culture or civilization. Some find in Buddhist practice a complement to psychotherapy. Some, building on the popularity of martial arts or yoga, create a polyglot practice, drawing on a variety of–am I coining a term?–Asianisms, giving the practitioner a feeling of authenticity without challenging the, at best, rudimentary understanding of Asian societies we in the United States tend to have.

To Deloria: reading God is Red some years ago, and much more clearly this time around, it became clear to me that, yes, there will be and must be a particularly North American Buddhism. But, no, it will not be a Buddhism that comes from a facile mingling of disparate or even contradictory cultural practices, nor from picking and choosing elements from the “Western canon” that seem to fit the ideas one finds in the Sutras or other classic Buddhist texts. Here, think Meister Eckhart, William Blake, or Heidegger. These are all interesting writers worth reading (never put the effort into Heidegger myself, though) but a scholastic effort like this will not produce the type of results that Buddhist practice promises, and in any event, we’re talking about European, not North American writers. The sustenance of a settler colony as such is not the goal of any Buddhism I want a part of.

I could go on…

What my read of Deloria suggested to me is that the North American Buddhism we practitioners often bandy about would likely come from building a real, reciprocal relationship to the actual land upon which we practice. Land, in this understanding, isn’t inanimate. It includes all the life we find here. That means, it includes this land’s people. I do not suggest that white Buddhists should start performing sweat lodges. Anecdotally, I stayed a bit at a monastery and overheard some white practitioner talking to a much younger, fairly attractive woman about how he performed “sweat lodges,” and I had an overwhelming urge to go punch him and tell the girl to run. I should have, seriously.

Rather, I suggest that the process of coming to know the land as practitioners involves two things. First, we need to immediately stop harming the land, and that means its people, too. First, do no harm. It’s no good buying a Prius with twice the mileage of your last car if you drive the thing three times as much because you imagine it’s so green. Second, we need to come to know the land. A comment in Deloria, actually from the “The Red and the Black” chapter of Custer Died for Your Sins, suggested that Black people ought indeed to fight for their own land in North America because then they could take “two or three hundred years” to come to know it and form a relationship to it as a people. It seems to me that it will take that long, so we have no time to lose.

Next time you do your walking meditation, do it outdoors, in bare feet.

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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.