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d'Errico: Revisiting Deloria’s words on tribes and corporations

Vine Deloria Jr., once wrote, “The corporation forms the closest attempt of the white man to socialize his individualism and become a tribal man” (“Custer Died for Your Sins,” 1969). He penned these words at an optimistic moment in American history, when, as he further wrote, “modern society and Indian tribes will finally reach a cultural truce” through the development of corporate structures. His remarks echoed sociologist Émil Durkheim, who suggested corporations provided the answer to overcoming modern man’s moral and spiritual malaise, integrating him into society through new communal bonds.

If we read Deloria’s words superficially, we might conclude the cultural truce arrived with the January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, declaring that “corporate persons” have a constitutional right to spend as much money as they wish in political campaigns, participating just like real people. The court had already decided in 1978, a decade after Deloria’s writing, that corporations have a constitutional right to political “free speech” (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti).

Deloria’s analysis of the similarity of corporate and tribal structures is worth reading. It sheds light on the hopeful side of 1960s American culture, and suggests a number of thought-provoking questions. Nevertheless, we must be careful to see the profound differences between corporations and tribal structures. It would be a mistake to conclude that corporate-based politics is a fulfillment of an Indian way of life.

We must be careful to see the profound differences between corporations and tribal structures. It would be a mistake to conclude that corporate-based politics is a fulfillment of an Indian way of life.

As a matter of fact, the first major intrusion of corporate power into U.S. constitutional law occurred simultaneously with the destruction of the buffalo, the basis of independent Indian life on the Great Plains.

The case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, stating that a business corporation is a “person” entitled to the protection of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, was decided in 1886. That same year, the Smithsonian Institution sent its chief taxidermist to obtain specimens of the buffalo “before this animal becomes extinct in this country” (Science magazine, June 11, 1886).

We know that buffalo today are not extinct and play a part, albeit greatly diminished from former times, in Indian economic and social life, while corporations play an increasingly greater role in American economic, social – and now political – life. There is, as Deloria projected, a convergence between corporate and tribal structures to the extent that Indian governments themselves engage with corporate projects. But, it is still an open question whether these developments amount to a “cultural truce.”

Corporations have not adopted the “social responsibility” that Deloria imagined as the equivalent of a tribal concern for people. As the collapsed global financial bubble shows, corporations do not even show concern for stockholders, their nominal owners. Indeed, if corporations have demonstrated anything, it is their ability to enrich their managers at the expense of everyone else. This is hardly an Indian way of life.

Meanwhile, in Indian country, tribal leaders grapple with efforts to provide economic security through various corporate forms, for housing, casinos, resource extraction, etc. These are difficult struggles, to say the least, and they take place against a background of continuing concern for traditional Indian ways. If there is any possibility that corporate structures will provide a “truce” between modern society and Indian ways, it will only come from the Indian side. The side of modern society has been thoroughly cannibalized by the artificial “corporate person,” in the name of “freedom.”

Maybe this is a rare example of where Deloria made a mistake. The basis of corporate power is not local, landed traditions as in tribalism. Instead, corporate power is based on highly centralized market position. Supreme Court decisions creating and enhancing “corporate persons” produce a corporate managerial class that dominates society. This is not “tribalism” in any recognizable American Indian form. Rather than leading to a “cultural truce,” the corporatization of American society produces a situation quite similar to Fascism, as described by the Italian political theorists who advised Mussolini that individual citizens are “passive” members of state-recognized institutions.

If there is any possibility that corporate structures will provide a ‘truce’ between modern society and Indian ways, it will only come from the Indian side.

Advertising promotes the image that life itself is the province of corporate persons. Real human individuality is replaced by a commoditized individualism: “Be yourself,” say the ads. “Buy this (mass-produced product).” This situation, unfortunately, does fit what Deloria warned would happen if the “humanistic basis of. … Indian traditions” were lost: “the white conception of a person as a part of the production machine would take hold, destroying the necessary value of man in his social sense.”

Perhaps it is the notion that “a corporation has no soul” that has allowed the corporate person to so far outstrip its human origins that it threatens to consume the earth in a mad war for global domination. Perhaps the antidote to law’s soulless corporation is human self-awareness and mutual association. Even if Deloria’s optimism was wrong, we have to thank him for posing the question.

Peter d’Errico is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues. D’Errico was a staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services from 1968 – 1970. He taught legal studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst until 2002.