Essay: Custer Died For Your Sins, tributes from Indian Country, Daniel R. Wildcat
Daniel R. Wildcat
There many reasons everyone in the United States of America should read or reread Vine Deloria, Jr’s Custer Died For Your Sins. The humor, history, political analysis, prose, cultural critique, problems and challenges Deloria offered in Custer easily justify an engagement or re-engagement with this American classic. It was after all the most direct attempt in a non-fiction work of the 20th century to place American Indians in a contemporary context and an interesting one at that - the late 1960s. There has not been a work like Deloria’s Custer since.
For the First Peoples of this land Custer remains a source book for issues that Deloria pondered and placed before us to be more closely examined. The following remarks are offered in the spirit of Deloria’s Custer, not as nostalgia, nor mere entertainment, but as an encouragement to situate several key issues raised by Deloria half a century ago in the world we now inhabit. In doing so, I believe, we might gain some insight on work that must be undertaken by Indigenous thought leaders in order shape the next half century of our tribal existence.
There are a host of issues that deserve reexamination in Custer by American Indians, not because Deloria offers explicit solutions or accurate predictions, but because he raises issues in their complex and often contradictory existence as important to our own Indigenous understanding of who we are and what we could accomplish in the future. At the top of my list, the three problematic issues that Deloria pondered and hoped American Indians would think more deeply about are: modern expressions of tribalism in corporations (also, a very timely topic in light of the media’s use of the term "tribalism" to describe the current political dysfunction in the United States), the damaging nature of the reservation vs. urban Indian dichotomy, and last but not least his hesitancy to endorse American Indian militancy, in favor of Indigenous intellectual activism.
The most consistent theme, and one demanding some serious consideration today, was Deloria’s advocacy for Indian nationalism in the form of tribalism. Whether discussing the termination acts (Chapter 3), the relationship between the Black civil rights movement and American Indian political struggles (Chapter 8), leadership (Chapter 9), modern society (Chapter 10) or the need for a redefinition of Indian Affairs (Chapter 11), no idea in Custer looms larger than tribalism. In 2019 Deloria would be the first to object to the media’s stereotypical use of the terms tribalism and tribes, although hardly surprised to find us and our misunderstood tribal social organization as the blame for the settler’s current political dysfunction. I am sure I am not the only tribal person offended when the media explains the current political stalemate in Congress on party "tribalism."
Deloria saw tribalism as a living – not frozen in the past – fundamental aspect of who American Indians were in 1969. Deloria, in what remains a radical formulation, saw the “return to nationalist philosophies which relate to the ongoing conception of the tribe as a nation extending in time and occupying space” as a positive political expression of identity for Blacks, Indians and, ironically, for so-called “white” folk. For the settlers in 1969, Deloria contended, were increasingly manifesting tribal cultural features in their corporations.
Deloria’s contention, influenced by William Whyte’s book, The Organizational Man, was that unbeknownst to corporate leaders their promotion of the corporation man was creating corporations as modern tribes for the white man. It is fair to say that in the fifties and sixties some large corporations were showing evidence of creating collectivist cultures that promised security and social services for their particular brand of an organizational man. Deloria thought the corporation might actually develop as something more than the “cold unfeeling machine’ it was commonly thought of by the public.
Today most of us would say it didn’t quite turn out the way Deloria thought it might. It looks like the cold unfeeling machine character of the corporation emerged triumphant. Tens of thousands of workers in the U.S. who saw their jobs sent overseas or outsourced can testify to “the corporation’s” bottom-line disregard for employee loyalty to the corporation. So Deloria got it wrong, let’s move on.
Sorry, but not so fast, the issues of what the settlers were doing and would do with their corporations is only half of the story. For American Indians, the accurate prediction Deloria made and encouraged was our tribal nations’ adoption of the corporation as a vehicle for social and economic improvement. Now more than ever a question worth asking is the following: As our nations adopted corporate structures to advance our economic and social interests is there a danger that we diminish the tribal features of who we are?
Or stated somewhat differently: Is there a tribal character to the corporations of our own making? The question is not unique or original, but it is timely: If corporations did not become more tribal, is it possible our tribes by utilizing corporate instruments became more like corporations? Let’s not settle for simple binary or either/or answers. We must examine the extent and manner in which our corporations have impacted tribal affairs and our tribalism. Deloria was wrestling with a difficult socio-cultural phenomenon and it would be a mistake to discard the issue of the coupling of corporations and tribalism as a settled issue. We should expect our answers to have some variance from tribal nation to tribal nation.
Another issue ripe for examination today is Deloria’s bold assertion in 1969 that some of the most the exciting economic organizational and governmental activities tribes could engage in revolved around strategies for regional tribal economic development beyond reservations boundaries. Deloria challenged tribes and tribal leaders to address the reality that increasing numbers of their members were living in urban areas where the jobs and economic opportunities existed.
Deloria recognized considerable distrust often existed between the reservation populations and urban populations of Indians and noted the division was damaging to both - his stint as National Director of NCAI in the mid-sixties taught him that much. Nevertheless, Deloria argued for coordinated on-going programs for both reservation communities and urban Indian centers. Using the geography he was most familiar with, he noted, using Sioux City as an example, one could create with numerous tribes in the region and a host neighboring towns an economic development area encompassing fifty thousand square miles.
He, also, provocatively suggested urban Indians should lead these regional economic development efforts. Indeed, one of the fascinating features of Custer for first time readers in 2019 will no doubt be the extent to which he saw very positive things happening with urban Indians and their leaders in bringing about positive change for American Indians. Among changes that Deloria called for was “the ‘recolonization’ of unsettled areas of the nation by groups of Indian colonists.”
This no doubt sounds startling to theorists of decolonization. However, when recolonization is put in the context of Deloria’s call for comprehensive planning guided by “a revival of Indian social and legal patterns” one begins to appreciate that he was advocating activities of Indigenization and exploration of Indigenous ingenuity or Indigenuity. Never satisfied with a mere negative critique of dominant society institutions, the last half of Deloria’s Custer should be read as an examination of how, if we were bold enough to return to our tribal knowledges and wisdom, we could actually improve our social and economic situation, and model a better way of living for everyone. Currently, organizations like the Indian Land Tenure Foundation are working to return lands to tribal possession, but we have only scratched the surface of what a retribalizing and indigenizing of large parts of our First Peoples cultural and geographic landscapes might look like.
All of the work described in Custer was going to require some heavy-lifting to shrug-off much what many of us were taught to accept of the “white man’s” notion of who we were and what it meant to be Indian. Phil Deloria, Vine Deloria, Jr’s eldest son, pointed out at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Custer’s publication at the University of Colorado Law School, that in Custer his father’s thinking was strikingly optimistic about the possibility of dramatically improving our own situation and in so doing influencing in a positive manner the larger society. Maybe Deloria was too optimistic.
In the final chapters of Custer, Deloria expresses optimism in what he surmises as the young Indian’s willingness to embrace their tribal cultures, without shame or a colonial imposed sense inferiority. Deloria’s admiration of Clyde Warrior and other young Indians like Warrior in the National Indian Youth Council, no doubt shaped his optimism. Deloria’s hope was encouraged in the late sixities by what seemed a growing awareness by many - not just Indians – that the institutions and values of American society were morally bankrupt and seemed to only be about what one could literally put in the bank.
Deloria saw opportunity for change, potentially led by Indigenous intellectual activists: “This country could be easily influenced by any group with a more comprehensive philosophy of man if that group worked in a non-violent and non-controversial manner.” He maintained Indians should not follow the political route Black militants advocated. Overall, given American society’s love of violence, he considered taking a militant position against the dominant society as an invitation to bring violence upon oneself. Deloria determined the ultimate struggles of Indians in American society were fundamentally rooted in very different ideologies, ways of thinking and patterns of thought or worldviews. Not surprisingly, he concluded, “So it is vitally important that the Indian people pick the intellectual arena as the one in which to wage war.”
In light of a growing anti-intellectualism in American society, one wonders if Deloria were here now, would he change his mind. I suspect not - as Deloria’s Afterword, i.e., conclusion, in Custer makes clear. As American society and increasingly the so-called advanced countries of the world face growing crises in their social institutions, our work to make better lives for our own First Peoples and do so in a world were nationalism today can never take the form of separatism or isolationism, requires the first Peoples of this land to do serious thinking about how we express tribalism in this crisis-ridden world. Deloria thought militancy dangerous in a society that historically practiced overkill when exercising violence.
Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins stands relevant now, possibly more so than in 1969, not for its solutions, but for the questions it raises about what we the First Peoples of this land did, are doing and could do in the future. Read the Afterward to the early printings of the Custer as the proper conclusion to this classic. For as ineffable and intangible as tribalism is in Custer, in 1969 it clearly stood in Deloria’s mind as the foundation of our Peoples, i.e. nations, resilience. Much has happened in fifty years since Custer’s publication and not all of it in a way that Deloria could have imagined.
A simple version of Einstein’s apocryphal quote seems particularly relevant when considering the legacy of this classic work: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” Half a century, after the publication of Custer, it reads as a bad news, good news story. First, the bad news: the settlers brought with them worldviews and philosophies that have produced monumental problems for everyone, settlers and First Peoples, in our entangled existence. The good news: these economic, education, environmental and political problems were not created by the worldviews and philosophies of the First Peoples of this land and luckily, in spite of endless attempts at colonization, the First Peoples of this land still possess a large part of their wisdom.
Given the incredible broken character of the dominant social institutions of the U.S., just struggling to remain afloat, it might be time for us to show everyone what we, the First Peoples of this land, can do. In the process we might help fix some of the immense problems, not of our making, but now affecting everyone. Deloria was hopeful about our tribal endurance and in Custer he was speaking first and foremost to young Indians, whom he saw as our future warriors in “the intellectual arena”.
Much has been accomplished in the last half century, but we still have a lot of good difficult work to accomplish. Custer remains a good place to identify the challenges facing our Peoples. In 1969 Deloria believed, “It would be fairly easy, however, with a sufficient number of articulate young Indians and well-organized community support, to greatly influence the thinking of the nation, within a few years.” We need young Indigenous thought-leader activists now more than ever.
The legacy of "Custer Died For Your Sins" will continue to evolve. I for one look forward to younger Indians reading this classic work for the first time and seizing on his hopefulness as a call to action, as Deloria envisioned, “to re-create a type of society for themselves which can defy, mystify and educate the rest of American society.”