Red Power, Black Lives Matter, (Historians of) Anthropology and Other Friends: Thinking with Vine Deloria in 2021

David Martínez. Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Birth of the Red Power Movement. New Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies. 480 pp., notes, bibl., index. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

I discovered David Martínez’s biography of Vine Deloria, Jr. a few years ago while looking for books that might offer some background on the Red Power Movement and its impact on developments in mid-twentieth century American anthropology. An enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Deloria advocated for Native American rights throughout his life and became (and remains) one of the most prominent and influential voices on the subject of Indigenous sovereignty. Martínez, who teaches American Indian Studies and is of Akimel O’odham and Mexican descent, notes Deloria’s seeming omnipresence within discourse on Native American activism from the book’s start. As he reflects: “I am uncertain of how I first heard of Deloria. He is one of these figures who seems to have always been a part of my life as an Indigenous person” (11). As a historian of anthropology interested in the discipline’s “period of crisis” during the 1960s and ’70s, I was aware of the way Deloria and his well-known critique of “anthropologists and other friends” likewise had embedded themselves in my mind as critical markers of this historical moment. I realized, however, that despite my passing familiarity with Custer Died for Your Sins—his first and probably most famous book—I knew relatively little about Deloria beyond what had coalesced alongside the now iconic images of the American Indian Movement’s takeovers of Alcatraz in 1969 and the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in 1972.

Sitting down to read Martínez’s book and eager to learn more about Deloria and his life, it quickly became clear with the extended discussion of Deloria’s death in the first chapter that this would not be the traditional biography I had anticipated. The book is instead something much more complex, both in terms of its treatment of Deloria’s legacies and its organizational structure. Life of the Indigenous Mind strives to contextualize Deloria’s influence on Native American activism by presenting an “intellectual history of a body of work” (45). It eschews a linear discussion of Deloria’s life and writings in favor of close readings and critique of four pivotal texts—Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), We Talk, You Listen (1970), God is Red (1973), and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties (1974)—what Martínez calls Deloria’s “Red Power Tetralogy.” In doing so, the book accounts for how Deloria’s writing and ideas contributed to two “very different but complementary legacies”: first, the establishment of tribal self-determination as a critical part of Native American politics and activism; and, second, the “paradigm shift” in anthropology away from reinforcing “vanishing Indian” tropes and towards engaging with the contemporary experiences of Indigenous peoples (13).

Of these legacies, it is clear that Martínez is especially interested in parsing the implications of the former. As he notes, the publication of Custer and the rest of Deloria’s Red Power Tetralogy was a response to the long history of broken treaties and Native dispossession enacted by the US government and most immediately a critique of 1950s termination policies, which aimed to withdraw federal support of Native Americans under the guise of assimilation. As Deloria and countless others have shown, the Termination Era undermined the sovereign rights of Indigenous nations and had a disastrous impact on Indigenous health and economic wellbeing. Martínez suggests that Deloria’s arguments throughout the Red Power Tetralogy for tribal self-determination and his part in championing a message of Indigenous sovereignty may have aided in the reversal of federal policies of termination and played a role in the 1975 passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

Martínez further maps the development of Deloria’s ideas onto his career trajectory. He begins with Deloria’s decision to step down as Executive Director of the National Conference of American Indians in 1967 to pursue a law degree at the University of Colorado, Boulder, leading to his entrée into academia with appointments at Western Washington University in 1970 and the University of Arizona in 1978—where he would establish the first master’s degree program in American Indian Studies (15). Martínez suggests that the five-year period between the publication of Custer through the 1974 publication of Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties encompassed a shift in his approach away from reviews of legal cases towards explorations of contemporary applications for self-governance and Native sovereignty.[1] Central to this evolution is Deloria’s conceptualization and mobilization of the idea of “tribalism” and its importance for reinforcing the authority of Indigenous nations in governing their own affairs. Moreover, Deloria’s discussion of tribalism stressed the contemporary lives and experiences of Indigenous peoples, in turn pushing back against stereotypes reinforced by white culture and anthropological studies that established Native Americans as “relics of the past.”

Although the book’s aims and analysis are meticulously argued and clearly focused, its overall narrative arc is nonetheless difficult to grasp. The main reason for this is the book’s structure, which Martínez has deliberately organized to mimic the flow of Deloria’s arguments in Custer and, subsequently, the rest of the Red Power Tetralogy. To his credit, Martínez is explicit about this decision, noting both Deloria’s own resistance to linear thinking and his efforts to convey Deloria’s specific manner of layering examples in his arguments for self-determination (46). That said, the absence of a more linear or chronological chapter arrangement detracts from the historical and biographical context in which Martínez seeks to situate the intellectual development of Deloria’s Red Power Tetralogy. Despite his case for contextualizing the Tetralogy during the height of the American Indian Movement and immediately before Deloria’s ascension within academic circles, much of this background is lost as a consequence of the book’s structure. In fact, his main discussion of Deloria’s life and work are almost exclusively reserved for the book’s prologue and first chapter, while the remaining nine chapters are organized topically and provide close readings of the thematically-analogous chapters in the order they appear in Custer. As a result, the book fails to deliver the narrative conventions expected of a biography—even an intellectual biography of a body of work—a decision which undermines its promise to reveal the “life of the Indigenous mind” and the particular circumstances through which Deloria’s ideas gained traction and “gave birth” to Red Power.

Its shortcomings as a biography aside, the book is brilliant when read as a companion to Deloria’s own writing. While it did not provide me with the historical background on Deloria and Red Power that I had hoped for, Martínez’s close readings did prompt me to pick up my own copy of Custer and to spend some time revisiting Deloria’s words. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Deloria’s first entry in his Tetralogy is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 1969. On July 9, 2020, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the sovereignty of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in eastern Oklahoma with its 5-4 ruling on McGirt v. Oklahoma—a decision that held that the state of Oklahoma did not have jurisdiction to convict McGirt, a citizen of the Seminole and Muscogee Nations, for crimes committed in Indian Country. While McGirt is indisputably a “bombshell” decision with important ramifications for the future of federal Indian law,[2] it’s hard to overlook that only six days prior to the ruling a group of about 400 Land Defenders assembled in South Dakota’s Black Hills to protest Donald Trump’s scheduled Fourth of July event at Mount Rushmore. The demonstrators called for the return of the sacred Paha Sapa (Black Hills) stolen from the Lakota by the US government in 1877 and demanded the removal of Mount Rushmore as a monument symbolizing centuries of anti-Indian policies and colonialism.[3] These actions in turn catalyzed the NDN Collective’s LANDBACK campaign, which officially launched on Indigenous Peoples Day in October 2020 and continues to grow as a movement dedicated to the return of Indigenous land and the dismantling of white supremacist structures. Such recent examples reflect criticisms articulated by Deloria throughout Custer over the federal government’s continued failure to honor Native treaty rights, as well as his arguments for the importance of Indigenous self-advocacy.

I began writing this review the same week as the January 6, 2021 violent occupation of Congress by radical Trump supporters seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Like many, I could not help but draw comparisons between the images unfolding before me of mostly white insurrectionists posing for selfies with Capitol police and the brutal treatment Black Lives Matters protestors received at the hands of law enforcement officers following the murder of George Floyd. That same week, I came across a passage in Custer that made those images and the insurrectionists’ language of “patriots” and “traitors” all the more chilling:

American society has, in fact, institutionalized rebellion by making it popular. Once popularized, rebellions become fads and are so universalized that not to be rebellious is to be square, out of it, irrelevant […] The import of institutionalizing rebellion is that when real rebellion occurs, society climbs the walls in its fright. A democratic society is always up tight about real rebellions because its very operating premise is that rebellions are nice. When rebellions turn out to be not so nice, panic prevails.[4]

There is a reason why Deloria’s ideas have gained such notoriety and seeming omnipresence in discourse on social and racial justice, and that’s his innate ability to convey truths and criticisms that transcend the politics of the 1960s and ’70s. Reading Custer at the end of 2020—a year marked by heightened racial tensions, political upheaval, and the loss of lives and livelihoods as a result of a global pandemic—showed how much that’s still true. I frequently found myself sharing quotes from Custer with friends and loved ones throughout the first weeks of 2021, as Deloria seemed best able to articulate the feelings of the moment. In his comments on the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., he described how Americans had come to see these events as “symptomatic” of a “deep inner rot that had suddenly set in.”[5] Yet Deloria, through remarks both humorous and cutting, remained unphased: “They needn’t have been shocked. America has been sick for some time. It got sick when the first Indian treaty was broken. It has never recovered.”[6] News coverage in the hours and days following the January insurrection contained similar sentiments about the unprecedented and shocking nature of the event, yet downplayed the extent to which it, too, reflected a longer legacy of the nation’s double standards and violence against people of color.

Custer continues to resonate because Deloria did not mince words. His discussions of systemic racism against Blacks and Native Americans are especially biting. In his chapter “The Red and the Black,” Deloria explores the differences between Native and Black race relations as a legal and economic problem that whites had historically sought to “resolve” by assimilating Native Americans while excluding Blacks. Furthermore, he described whiteness as an “amalgam of European immigrants” in search of a common identity and an abstract “cancer” that destroys other cultures through its adoption and dissemination of mythologies like the Doctrine of Discovery.[7] As Martínez shows, Deloria pointed to the loose grounds on which white identity had been constructed and used it as evidence of tribalism’s power to support Indigenous claims to self-determination. He also cited it as a lesson to Black civil rights organizers, who, according to Deloria, had made a misstep by fighting for “equality” as opposed to “independence.”

In his analysis of Deloria’s writings on US race relations Martínez is particularly adept at integrating close readings with historical and biographic context. He unpacks the underlying tension behind Deloria’s reluctance to participate in the Poor People’s Campaign, citing, among other factors, the threat of racial equality to his arguments for tribalism, Deloria’s lack of experience working with the Black community, and his complicated relationship with Christian theology and his association of civil rights with Christian values (153-160). Likewise, Martínez does not shy away from flagging other instances of overgeneralizations, absences, or biases in Deloria’s thinking. Two prominent examples mentioned throughout the work are the regional gaps in Deloria’s arguments (Martínez cites Alfonso Ortiz’s criticisms of Deloria’s “predilection for Plains-oriented references” (2)) as well as the absence of women’s voices despite the clear early influence of his aunt, Ella Deloria. Martínez’s conclusion identifies these as fruitful and deserving areas for future study, and recommends that additional attention might also be given to how Deloria’s ideas intersected with global decolonization movements and tensions with negotiating urban indigeneity.

“A common reaction among first-time readers of Deloria,” Martínez notes in his introduction, “includes some form of reexamination of themselves, be they Indian, anthropologist, missionary, or Bureau of Indian Affairs employee” (11). I can safely say that “historian of anthropology” should also be added to this list. Although I found solace in thinking with Deloria over the past months, my re-reading of Custer was not without a certain amount of critical reflection on my own academic research. As Martínez relays, Deloria’s critique of the social sciences and especially anthropology as disciplines that suppressed or denied Native interests under the guise of academic objectivity contributed to the creation of Native American and Indigenous Studies during the late-1960s and early ’70s as a field that explicitly centered Native voices. Given that the history of anthropology also gained traction during this time, I was left wondering to what extent the originators of my field of study had followed the missteps of their historical actors by not engaging with Indigenous perspectives from the outset. What might a history of anthropology look like if framed not around the life and theories of the anthropologist, but instead centered on the communities and individuals he studied? This seems to be a question that many of us working on HAR are—and have been—grappling with as we continue to explore and redefine the contours of this intellectual project and strive to make it more inclusive of different disciplines, time periods, and points of view. But as Deloria reminds me: “Academia, and its by-products, continues to become more irrelevant to the needs of people.”[8] Reading Custer and Martínez’s book has caused me to further question my assumptions about the value of ideas and how they are created, as well as their efficacy for enacting justice.


Additional Resources

Nick Estes, “#NativeReads Ep. 7: Custer Died for Your Sins w/ Phil Deloria,” The Red Nation Podcast, August 10, 2020, https://therednation.libsyn.com/nativereads-ep-7-custer-died-for-your-sins-w-phil-deloria.


[1] In his conclusion, Martínez comments that Deloria’s investigations of Native civil liberties in the aftermath of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act would be explored in American Indians, American Justice (University of Texas Press, 1983) and The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Sovereignty (Pantheon Books, 1984), both co-authored with Clifford Lytle. Detailed discussion of these publications and their reception are otherwise absent from Martínez’s book.

[2] Robert J. Miller, “McGirt v. Oklahoma: The Indian Law Bombshell,” Federal Bar Association Journal (January 2021). First published on SSRN, February 12, 2021, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3732406.

[3] “NDN Collective Calls for Closure of Mount Rushmore and for the Black Hills to Be Returned to the Lakota,” July 3, 2020, https://ndncollective.org/ndn-collective-calls-for-closure-of-mount-rushmore-and-for-the-black-hills-to-be-returned-to-the-lakota/.

[4] Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 98.

[5] Custer, 76.

[6] Custer, 76.

[7] Custer, 188-189.

[8] Custer, 93.

Authors
Adrianna Link: contributions / website / alink@amphilsoc.org

2 Comments

  1. Link’s final paragraph (and apparently the book she is reviewing) raise difficult questions about the relationships among (1) scholar-authors, (2) their social backgrounds, (3) the audiences their writings address and (4) the effects of their writings on those audiences. Many academics of the late 1960s expressed the kind of outrage that we find in Custer Died for Your Sins–especially with regard to the Vietnam War. To what extent their writings became absorbed as scholarly “production” and hence as the ticket to advancement within the establishment academy, as opposed to contributing to political progress outside the academy, is one such difficult question. One of the angriest and most brilliant of those writers in anthropology was Jules Henry, whose work has been largely forgotten. In a 1967 essay on sham (in the North American Review and reprinted in a collection of essays called On Sham, Vulnerability and Other Forms of Self-Destruction), Henry wrote about “the ghetto riots” as “the expression” of an “underlying schizophrenic dialectic” (in US society itself) in which African Americans were violently excluded from democratic participation yet told “that [they] live in a democracy and that everything is being done to improve [their] lot.” At the same time, Henry added, “the biggest sham is the war in Vietnam, where the United States, while proclaiming to the world that it is building a nation, is destroying one.” A much better known example is, of course, Noam Chomsky.
    Richard Handler

  2. Thanks for this comment, Richard. The question of the changing locations of politically engaged (or “activist” or “public” or “applied”) anthropology was central in the HAR reading group this month (https://www.chstm.org/content/history-anthropology), discussing ethnographies of policing and work by Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Laurence Ralph, Christen Smith, and Merrill Singer. It’s also relevant to Tracie Canada’s soon-to-be-published HAR essay with interviews building from Harrison et al.’s _Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology_ (2018). To pick up on another of your points, HAR is planning a “Generative Texts” entry on Jules Henry’s _Culture against Man_, so maybe his moment is still ahead. Thanks, Adrianna, for this fascinating piece on Deloria today, and on Martinez’s important book.

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