In Praise of Vine Deloria


In his groundbreaking 1969 volume Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote a now famous critique of anthropologists. He argued that they—as well as academics in general—were mainly interested in their own intellectual ends and were insufficiently concerned with the real-life challenges of Indian peoples.

As Deloria so memorably put it, “The anthro is usually devoted to PURE RESEARCH. Pure research is a body of knowledge absolutely devoid of useful application and incapable of meaningful digestion.” And again: “It would be wise for anthropologists to get down from their thrones of authority and PURE research and begin helping tribes instead of preying on them.”

Strong words indeed, and they bear recalling more than 40 years later.

Today, American Indian studies programs are confronted with several intellectual challenges, all of which threaten to erode their original goal of improving the lot of Indigenous Peoples. When scholarly research on contemporary American Indian communities was new, it was welcomed as new and important. However, it soon became clear that too few scholars were being produced to fully staff American Indian Studies programs. Few state-funded colleges or universities were willing to significantly invest in this novel discipline.

To some extent, today’s tribally controlled community colleges fulfill the function of teaching tribal histories, cultures, and community building. Probably over 90 percent of American Indian studies programs and departments were formed by the cost-effective method of gathering faculty whose research included some work on American Indians. This convenient method introduced many different disciplines into American Indian studies.

But there still is no clear intellectual perspective of American Indian or indigenous studies at most institutions of higher learning. It doesn’t help that the majority of research about American Indians is produced and controlled by non-Indians. This is unheard of in departments of African American studies, Asian studies and Chicano studies, where members of those respective ethnic groups hold sway.

In 1997, writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Crow Creek Sioux, published an influential, provocative article entitled “Who Stole Native American Studies?” She offered no simple answer, but she did note that “instead of developing courses in the autonomous field of Native American studies, many Native American academics taught courses in ‘ethnic’ studies.” Perhaps not surprisingly, for this and other reasons, Cook-Lynn found that “the struggle for autonomous departmental status in Native American studies was never taken seriously by university administrators nor by the collegiate professors in either the classic or emerging disciplines.”

Admittedly, times have changed. Indigenous Peoples have become more articulate about their cultures and rights. And the world has become somewhat more understanding of them. Still, the voices of Cook-Lynn and Deloria have not been fully heard or respected. As Cook-Lynn trenchantly noted, recent intellectual trends have favored multiculturalism, critical race theory, postmodernism, and other isms that do not effectively appreciate or even take into account the rich variety of indigenous experiences.

Indeed, many of the contemporary perspectives, the indigenous experience is viewed soley in terms of victimhood, hopelessness or an inability to act in one’s own best interest. Yes, these views are intended to be sympathetic as they focus on various forms of domination and colonization that account for the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples.

But that focus is misplaced, with the emphasis on external control, rather than on indigenous identity. Most contemporary scholars simply are inapable of orienting themselves toward indigenous issues and peoples. In that sense, they fail the Vine Deloria test.

Alas, the chances of correcting this trend are not good. The development of an indigenous perspective within an American Indian studies discipline has yet to be realized. Many current indigenous scholars are still trained in a way that doesn’t sufficiently tackle indigenous issues. In the present intellectual environment, relevant points of view are marginalized. Worse than that, they are being smothered by perspectives that are inconsistent with their ideals.

Professor Deloria can’t speak, so we don’t know what he would say about all this. But we can be pretty sure it wouldn’t be complimentary.