Clearing space for cultural and policy alternatives

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WASHINGTON - Vine Deloria Jr. has earned the recognition of Indian Country
Today newspaper's 2005 American Indian Visionary Award for his cultural and
policy achievements supporting American Indian freedom. Among the many
things the author, scholar and activist is known for is an uncompromising
insistence that words like "religion" and "religious" don't describe the
realm of activities Indians historically held to be sacred. Likewise, a
word like "policy" probably doesn't capture the impact Deloria has had on
public policy toward tribes in the past four decades.

Deloria has certainly played a role in changing several specific policies
for the better. His early successes, seen in practical contributions to the
Indian Capital Conference on Indian Poverty that brought about an Indian
presence in the Office of Economic Opportunity in the early and mid-1960s,
and to the pan-Indian Trail of Broken Treaties that ended in the American
Indian Movement-inspired occupation of BIA headquarters in 1972, are
evidence enough of his engagement in the great policy issues of his time.
His publications have been helpful too in encouraging the course of tribal
self-determination as federal policy; and his ringing denunciations of past
federal policies, such as termination and the damming of the Missouri
River, have enlightened many - and increased the difficulty at least of
those politicians hopeful for a return to paternalism toward tribes.

But beginning in 1969, with the publication of "Custer Died For Your Sins:
An Indian Manifesto", he has done more for pro-Indian policy reform than
even the best set of changes, limited to specific instances, can hope to -
he has cleared a space in the marketplace of ideas for American Indian
perspective, thought and culture. He has imposed "a different framework by
which we can view the data" on Indians in America, to make different use of
a phrase from his own most recent book, "Evolution, Creationism, and Other
Modern Myths."

When Indian issues arise, they are no longer coming from outside the
framework of almost any American they may reach. They are coming from the
context of a culture that is at least glancingly familiar to millions of
people. Deloria wasn't alone in creating that context or introducing that
culture, of course. But he more than anyone has given it a gravitas that
can't be dismissed. In legislative settings that put a premium on the
quickest way to say no, to deny access and response, that is an achievement
on par with any.

Beyond familiarizing millions with Indian culture, he has injected Indian
culture into the policy debate as a possible solution.

Consider only the thousand-and-one policy decisions that flow from
America's insistence on being guided by the Christian God. In vain do the
ancient scriptures tell us the footsteps of that God are in the great sea -
untrackable. Americans today are in a war of occupation because our great
policy decisions give the name of God to leadership artifices that track
the almighty from our national beginnings in a mythic "freedom" to a future
City on the Hill, Zion, or the City of God, or democracy in the Middle East
if you will. No matter how many tears may be shed along the trail, we can't
deviate from the track; for once policy decisions are taken in the name of
God, to change them is to question the track one has followed, to disavow
the will of God one has advertised.

Deloria breaks trail, but he is not one to track the seas for a single path
to God. He invests his public faith in free and open discussion. Addressing
a Supreme Court decision in a case that pitted the teachings of evolution
against creationism, he penned words that appear more and more prophetic in
the Internet age: "Perhaps the idea of freedom of thought for the
individual will begin to achieve equality with the demands of the
educational establishment that one and only one explanation for the origin
of life can be believed. The proper place to settle these issues would be
in free and open discussion. Do we have thinkers on both sides [evolution and creationism] that could play this role? Would we not be hard-pressed to
find people who could see and respond to the larger questions? Pending a
move forward to open discussion, we are left with the question: Do we need
a beginning to make sense of the world?"

He leaves it at that in this passage from his latest book, but his writing
in its entirety - books, essays, introductions, editorial credits and
commentary - suggests that we need to appreciate what we have: Beginnings
in the plural, Indian beginnings Included, rather than a beginning that
narrows our cultural framework to any one narrative, ripe for manipulation
by authority figures.

Time and again Deloria has turned to the policy history of Indian country
to warn of such manipulations. Today it seems feasible our posterity will
receive this admonition with equanimity. And in combination with
information-gathering trends that empower individuals to know more and more
about decisions made in their name, perhaps their conclusions will displace
money as the currency of policymaking in a constitutional democracy.

But just in case, Deloria has already seen the principle of multiplicity
enshrined in his most obvious policy triumph, the National Museum of the
American Indian and its partner in law, the Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act.

If Deloria's fingerprints are not all over NMAI and NAGPRA, it's because he
made the essential analysis in the early going and stood by it through
thick and thin: The Native objects that formed the museum's core formed
more than a collection; they were an irreplaceable heritage.

This has become evident in the decades since, but it could not have been an
effortless call in the 1970s - it involved the acceptance of uncertainty
regarding a monumental trust obligation to the Indian past and future. It
involved trusting instincts against the well-reasoned blandishments of New
York City's powerful political establishment. For as the Museum of the
American Indian debated changing its quarters (this had to be done as the
decaying older quarters were a danger to the collection), the city put
forward an offer to house it in the American Museum of Natural History. New
York's interest was pretty clearly an effort to absorb a unique collection
at minimal cost to the city. During the prolonged, multi-year negotiations
around the proposal, the Indian museum directors eventually rejected it. In
the process, they arrived at a conviction that Native heritage was the
heart of the collection.

Roland Force, the Indian museum's director in those years, and later
historian of the long labors that gave birth to NMAI, related the following
minutes from meetings in 1984, when debates over the change of venue were
already far along: "Deloria: We have been discussing how large the annual
budget of the MAI should be - some saying four million, others three. I
believe we have to address more important issues first. I mean policy and
program. We want assurance that we are doing more than just transferring
our collection." - that is, they must also reach terms to protect and
improve it.

Later, Deloria would compare the negotiations to a corporate takeover,
adding in Force's notes, "This is a struggle to control our collection.
They have talked to the architect without our knowledge. We're shooting in
the dark, and if we continue we'll still be shooting in the dark. All we've
talked about is when we will be taken over."

But his intransigence had turned the tide. The Indian museum wasn't
absorbed by an anthropology-minded traditional institution, but became its
own independent entity. One could not have thought up a better
representation of Deloria's struggle to clear space for Indian-specific
policy alternatives than the National Museum of the American Indian, in its
assertion of Native presence on the National Mall.

But once Congress had made that decision, another struggle remained: Native
remains, grave items and funerary objects would have to be repatriated to
tribes from national museums, including NMAI's supervisory institution, the
Smithsonian. Here too Deloria was one of the main persuaders, drawing on
decades of engagement against the anthropological assault on tribes by
Western science at its worst.

The great hope of NAGPRA went beyond the repatriations, though. For the
return of lost beings and belongings to Native communities, the
preparations, ceremonies and emotions that go into receiving them, would
speak loudly for a return to traditions and the recovery of lost knowledge,
pathways back to the beginnings, it may be, of wisdom.