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Bringing on the Indians

In two books to date, Custer Died for Your Sins and We Talk, You Listen, Vine Deloria, Jr., has written about the Indian world, traditional and contemporary, in terms that are congenial as well as authoritative. Deloria is a Standing Rock Sioux, a lawyer, and a man very much in tune with contemporary Indian affairs. But in presuming to speak for the Indian in all his diversity, he has been led more than once to generalize and sometimes to err, as when he writes, for example:

The largest difference I can see between Indian religion and Christian religion is in interpersonal relationships. Indian society had a religion that taught respect for all members of society. Remember, Indians had a religion that produced a society in which there were no locks on doors, no orphanages, no need for oaths, and no hungry people.

However well taken the point may be, the statement simply isn’t true. The practice of thievery, indeed, was raised to a high art among certain tribes (my own and, for that matter, Deloria’s included, especially where horses were concerned), and God knows hungry people still abound on our reservations.

In Custer Died for Your Sins, Deloria is concerned primarily to advance a theory of “tribalism,” but, regrettably, he fails to tell us precisely what he means by that term. “If there is one single cause which has importance today for Indian people, it is tribalism,” he asserts. And again:

Tribalism is the strongest force at work in the world today. And Indian people are the most tribal of all groups in America. They are also in the most advantageous position of any tribal people in the world.

Presumably there is a relationship between what Deloria calls the tribe, as an entity, and the land.

Thus whether the land is developed or not, and whether the people desire it or not, the land determines the forms by which societies are able to live on this continent. An undeveloped land created tribes and a fully developed land is creating tribes. In essence Indians have really won the battle for cultural survival. It remains only for years to go by and the rise of youth to continue, and everyone will be in the real mainstream of American life—the tribe.

It is a bright picture, and it seems to suggest a process that is somehow automatic and inevitable. As I understand it, the argument is this: It is in the nature of man that he should define himself as part of a tribe. This the Indian, particularly, has always done. He stands now to show others, who are not Indians, the true way. But this seems too hypothetical; the prospect is attractive, but it is not true to our experience. No one, historically, has been in the least inclined to follow the Indian’s example, so far as I know. And I want to be more convinced than I am that the Indian has won the battle for cultural survival, that he will somehow prevail in waiting. He has been waiting for a long time, and it can be as easily argued that very little indeed has come of it. For all his waiting, the Indian of today earns less, suffers more ills, and lives a shorter life than anyone else in this country.

In the more recent We Talk, You Listen, the notion of tribalism is amplified, extended by legal analysis. Deloria believes that the concept of individualism, as a tenet of the democratic faith, is outmoded. “To continue merely on the basis of an abstract individual contracting with other individuals would be to court disaster,” he says. He calls for the legal recognition of a plurality of definable groups. And indeed the legal machinery is already there; it remains only to be reinterpreted: “…’We the people’ in reality means ‘We the peoples,’…and thus admits minority groups into Constitutional protection which they should have received as groups a century ago.”

As Deloria sees it, all of the recent power movements—principally the Red (which, in addition to the more or less spontaneous demonstrations of which the occupation of Alcatraz is the chief example, has been manifest in the growth of such organizations as the American Indian Movement, the National Congress of American Indians, and others) and the Black, but including also the rise of the Woodstock Nation—call for the reformation of state and federal laws in the interest of groups rather than individuals. He cites as initial landmarks of the reformation James Forman’s demand on behalf of black Americans for reparations from the white churches, and the emergence of the Alianza Federal de los Pueblos Libres, under the leadership of Reies Tijerina.

We are assured that in this respect, too, the Indian has the certain advantage of experience. (The Indian Claims Commission, it is pointed out, established in 1946, “provides a prototype of structure by which the aspirations and claims of minority groups can be realized.”) But what aspirations and claims, exactly? Central to Deloria’s thesis, again if I understand him rightly, is the idea that the basic common denominator of our legal system is, or ought to be, the group (i.e., tribe), presumably defined according to racial characteristics (as Indians, Blacks, Chicanos, etc.), and that legal protection of these groups ought to consist primarily in the guarantee of substantial rather than ideal value (material reparations, restitutions of monies and lands). Presumably, too, these considerations proceed logically from the nature and objectives of “tribalism.” An Indian is, well, tribalism.

Deloria is a thoughtful man, and he is articulate as well; but his books are disappointing in one respect: they tell us very little about Indians, after all. In neither book is there any real evocation of that spirit and mentality which distinguishes the Indian as a man and as a race. It occurs to me that we may really need to know something about the Indian just now. It is entirely possible that the Indian has in our time assumed a crucial responsibility (or can do so, if given the chance) on the very fronts in which our survival seems most clearly threatened.

First, the Indian has always had a deep, ethical regard for the earth and sky, a reverence for the natural world that is antipodal to that tenet of technology which seemingly requires that man must destroy his environment. Second, the Indian has always known who he was. His essential integrity has never been dissipated by generational or ideological schisms. That is to say, his racial experience has never been characterized, as has ours in recent times, by generation or credibility gaps. And third, he has always had a great capacity for wonder, delight, and belief. His literature, informed by a highly developed sense of the beauty and efficacy of language, is of the most creative and imaginative kind; his arts and crafts are models of proportion and design. But of these things—and they seem to me essential considerations—Deloria tells us nothing.

This seems all the more regrettable in view of the fact that he really knows something about the subject by virtue of blood as well as experience. And yet he treats it very superficially, on the whole. The chapter on Indian humor in Custer Died for Your Sins, for example, is little more than a catalogue of ethnic jokes. In it we are told nothing whatever of the essential humor, of that profound gaiety of vision and delight in being which has marked most Indians I have known. Nor are we given any better to see the religious and philosophical aspects of the Indian world. In We Talk, You Listen, there is a plea for the return to nature, in the interest of “tribalism,” of course, but it is made in the interest of an economic and not an ethical ideal; we are told nothing of what the landscape is or of how it functions as a vital entity in Indian tradition.

Much more explicitly, Deloria tells us what an Indian is not. He is particularly not a bureaucrat or an anthropologist. (The notion of an Indian writing about an anthropologist is somehow and at once sinister and just.) Deloria is very good on that score, full of righteousness and wit. He turns the tables, as it were. It is in his stereotype of the anthropologist that we see so clearly through the anthropologist’s stereotype of the Indian. Indeed, in this curious combination of reflections we have almost a definition.

Shortly before the publication of Deloria’s first book, there appeared Peter Farb’s Man’s Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. Deloria read Farb’s book and dealt with it disparagingly.

Recently, the world of the anthropologist has produced a book the influence of which will be very great. And very detrimental to Indian people…. It exemplifies all the sacred innuendos by which Indians have been hidden from view over the years. The unexamined premises under which the book was written are many and the book will merely serve to reinforce existing stereotypes concerning Indians which have been so detrimental for years.

This is a serious charge, and it ought to be examined.

Farb begins with the premise that more is known about the American Indian than about any other major aboriginal group in the world, and that it is now possible to use this knowledge in a way that will reveal to us the roots and significance of our civilization. The Indian has been “observed, described, catalogued, and cross-compared.” His experience in North America is “a laboratory for Modern Man.” Now these terms in themselves are revealing; they belong to the diction of science and suggest a method and disposition of inquiry that is necessarily exclusive. But exclusive of what? The immediate answer, in my opinion, is that in the narrow process of professional observation, description, and cross-comparison, the most essential elements of human beings are more than likely to be overlooked. The nature and meaning of human vitality and character, the definitive factors of thought, perception, and feeling do not, I submit, lend themselves to taxonomic classification.

Farb’s study—and it is that in the best sense—is a record of clear and careful scrutiny, but it is primarily a scrutiny of data and not of men. It is not therefore less valuable as a book. It is extraordinary in its scope and scholarship, and for these qualities it ought to be read. The work is divided in two parts. The first is a taxonomic classification of societies, proceeding from the band, through the tribe and chiefdom, to the state. With close reference to a number of separate and distinct Indian groups, Farb traces the evolution of social organization from a stage that is relatively simple to one that is highly complex. Thus, in the somewhat patronizing language of the dust jacket: “Beginning with the most pitiful and primitive Indians found by explorers, the Digger Indians of Nevada and Utah, Mr. Farb shows that even they are much above the highest nonhuman primate.” He proceeds through various stages to a consideration of the Aztec State.

Interesting as this discussion is, it is largely a reiteration of data that have been available to us for a long time. Moreover, it perpetuates an old and prejudicial conception of civilized man that might better be reconsidered in our time: the conception that social complexity is the equivalent of civilization. If we are going to understand and learn other than superficially from our experience on this continent, we shall have to look far more deeply into it than Farb has done in this instance.

The second, and in my view more significant, part is entitled “The Long Migration” and deals with the coming of man to North America. It is a fascinating account of prehistoric life, and it provides us with a useful background for the understanding of human dispersal and diversity in a large part of the world.

No need exists…to account for the origin of the American Indian by miraculous events or by wayward fleets of ships across the Atlantic or Pacific. The real story of the peopling of North America is fantastic enough, and it represents one of the sagas in the history of man.

This is certainly true, and the fact that Farb thinks of his subject here in terms of “story” or “saga” accounts for a distinguished quality of narration, a sense of motion and design in the verbal texture, that is not realized until late in the book. There are also in this section discussions of such matters as the importance of language as both a reflection and a determinant of culture (I for one was not before aware of the new science of glottochronology), and the effects of psychological and emotional stress upon humans which, with respect to the Indians especially, are considerations very much to the point and of profound importance.

About 25,000 American soldiers became prisoners of the Japanese [during World War II]; they were much more inhumanely treated than American prisoners in European camps. The Japanese abused them mentally and physically, and sapped them of all human dignity; more than a third of the Americans died in prison whereas less than one percent of the American prisoners in Europe died. Six years after their liberation from the Japanese camps, a group of former prisoners was studied. Their death rate was twice that of males of the same age, race, stature, and so forth who had not been imprisoned—but the causes of their deaths were not related directly to imprisonment. Twice the anticipated number had died of cancer; more than four times the expected number succumbed to gastrointestinal diseases; nine times the norm died of tuberculosis. There is no reason to believe that American Indians—herded into crowded reservations, torn from their families, submitted to indignities—suffered any less from the effects of stress.

It is true that to an extent Man’s Rise to Civilization serves to reinforce certain stereotypes. Farb’s treatment of the Plains Indians is a case in point.

The Plains Indians in their heyday were a study in hyperbole, and as make-believe as the set for a western movie…. In this world of hyperbole, many traditions that existed in non-Plains Indian societies became wildly exaggerated. Other Indians also possessed clubs and associations, but none were so extravagant in ritual and insignia as the Plains warrior societies. Indians elsewhere also believed in the reality of visions, but none so relentlessly pursued the vision quest and were so caught up in the emotional excesses of religion as the Plains tribes. Other Indians tortured captives, but none evoked pain so exquisitely in their own bodies.

The burden of this statement consists in a false view of the Plains culture, a view not of reality but of appearances. What matters, of course, in the Plains Indians’ expression of their culture and spirit at high tide is not Mr. Farb’s view of it but their own. That it was real to them is the point, and Farb misses it completely. Unless we can understand that, the stereotype is all that we can have and as much as we deserve. We have come round again to Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull.

There is a diametrical opposition, I suppose, between one who regards the tribe strictly as a social organization (and “an inherently fragile structure” at that) and another for whom tribalism is “the strongest force at work in the world today.” I am not sure that the Indian has much of a vested interest in either point of view. As far as I can see, the Indians who are giving the best account of themselves at present are doing so without any particular regard to movements, as such, or to the ways in which they are accounted for by others. They have something to say, and they are saying it—often in concert, as often not.

The sense of what they are saying, I believe, is that they will no longer allow their destiny to be determined by others or by the past. They are conceiving a new idea of themselves, imagining their reality in their own terms. As a people they are possessed of a great natural endowment, resources of spirit, intelligence, and instinct that have only just begun to be recognized and appreciated. These resources, and the potential they represent, more than the factors of race and experience, determine who and what the Indian is and will become. Beneath the surface of anger there are the currents of recovery and resolve.


Gallup, New Mexico, is where you might find out at once who the Indian is, and without reference to the printed word. (You can find out at Oakland, California, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Lame Deer, Montana, too, but for my money, Gallup is where the action is.)

Last summer I was driving across the northwest corner of the Navajo reservation, on my way to Gallup, when I was hailed by a hitchhiker, a young man in hat and boots, his long hair fashioned into a queue. He got in and we talked, joking, the rest of the way. He seemed to be very comfortable in the world, at ease, quick to laugh. He could tell me the Navajo names of the landmarks we passed. At that time there was much talk of the coming election for the office of Navajo Tribal Chairman.

Who are you for?” I asked.

MacDonald,” he replied. (The race eventually became a contest between two men: Raymond Nakai, the incumbent, and Peter MacDonald. MacDonald won.)


He shrugged, smiled, and thought for a moment; then he said: “Maybe he can do something about that,” and he pointed to a sign that marked an access road to the Peabody coal mining operation at Black Mesa, an operation which reputedly has already reduced the water level of the area significantly and which many say will soon stain the atmosphere with smoke and waste.

A while later we passed through a gray, barren landscape, ravaged by strip mining, and we could see the smoke of industry billowing up in the San Juan Basin, blotting out the sunlight over a distance of forty miles.

In the course of our conversation I learned that my passenger knew something about the law. He is active in a legal aid service on the reservation, and he belongs to an organization known as Southwestern Indian Development, a kind of research institution which recently published a study of trading posts on the reservation, by and large a revelation of economic exploitation.

This man, and others like him, are not much concerned to imitate a bygone glory, as far as I can see. They are committed to the here and now and to a future that they can at least try to determine for themselves.

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