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Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Birth of the Red Power Movement

Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Birth of the Red Power Movement

by David Martínez

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2019 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

In Life of the Indigenous Mind David Martínez examines the early activism, life, and writings of Vine Deloria Jr. (1933–2005), the most influential Indigenous activist and writer of the twentieth century and one of the intellectual architects of the Red Power movement. An experienced activist, administrator, and political analyst, Deloria was motivated to activism and writing by his work as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and he came to view discourse on tribal self-determination as the most important objective for making a viable future for tribes.

In this work of both intellectual and activist history, Martínez assesses the early life and legacy of Deloria’s “Red Power Tetralogy,” his most powerful and polemical works: Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), We Talk, You Listen (1970), God Is Red (1973), and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties (1974). Deloria’s gift for combining sharp political analysis with a cutting sense of humor rattled his adversaries as much as it delighted his growing readership.

Life of the Indigenous Mind reveals how Deloria’s writings addressed Indians and non-Indians alike. It was in the spirit of protest that Deloria famously and infamously confronted the tenets of Christianity, the policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the theories of anthropology. The concept of tribal self-determination that he initiated both overturned the presumptions of the dominant society, including various “Indian experts,” and asserted that tribes were entitled to the rights of independent sovereign nations in their relationship with the United States, be it legally, politically, culturally, historically, or religiously.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496213563
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 08/01/2019
Series: New Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 498
File size: 950 KB

About the Author

David Martínez (Akimel O’odham/Hia Ced O’odham/Mexican) is an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University. He is the author of Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought and editor of The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972.

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Vine Deloria Jr. and the Discourse on Tribal Self-Determination

Independence beyond the Reservation System


In his much-overlooked afterword to Custer Died for Your Sins, Deloria stated at the end of a tour de force covering a plethora of issues confronting contemporary American Indian society: "I make no claim that this book represents what all Indian people are really thinking. Or that Indian people should follow the ideas presented in this book" [emphasis in original]. Yet, contrary to Deloria's proclamation, this is exactly how Custer has been remembered by generations of Indian readers. Like many before me, my initial encounter with the phenomenon of Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux, 1933–2005) consisted of a fortuitous reading of Custer Died for Your Sins. 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. Whereas other Indian writers were more capable at deepening my cultural and historical understanding of Indigenous peoples — such as his contemporaries Gerald Vizenor, Paula Gunn-Allen, and James Welch — Deloria compelled me to reckon with my political existence as an American Indian. Indeed, a common reaction among first-time readers of Deloria, Custer in particular, includes some form of reexamination of themselves, be they Indian, anthropologist, missionary, or Bureau of Indian Affairs employee. At the same time, while Custer was most assuredly a seminal text, it was far from being the sum of Deloria's contribution to the modern discourse on American Indians. For the greater part of the next three decades after Custer's appearance in 1969, Deloria produced some seventeen books, most of which he authored alone, while a smaller portion were coauthored or edited volumes. This was in addition to two hundred or so articles and a surfeit of book forewords, chapters, and afterwords, and an array of editorials, keynote addresses, and congressional testimonies. At the same time, while Deloria's body of work is prodigious in terms of output, numbers of topics, and years of contribution, his legacy largely rests on a corpus of early works published over a short span of time, 1969–74, the first of which was Custer, an influential text that is still being read, not to mention inspiring a new generation of thinkers and activists.

Because several works that followed Custer became canonized in their respective fields and Deloria's advocacy for tribal political rights has resulted in positive reforms, Deloria's writings have long held a prominent place in American Indian intellectual history. In fact, Deloria's reputation had risen so quickly in the aftermath of Custer it even reached the halls of Congress. In 1973 when Rep. Lloyd Meeds (D-WA) introduced Deloria to the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, he stated matter-of-factly but with great admiration: "Our next witness is Vine Deloria, who is a noted author, an Indian philosopher, spokesman for [the] progressive Indian movement — probably mostly noted for his authorship of 'Custer Died for Your Sins'— and I think [is] a spokesman for Indian people everywhere." How Deloria may have felt about being designated "a spokesman for Indian people everywhere" was not recorded. After asking Deloria if he were still a Washington state resident, where he was a lecturer at Western Washington University, Meeds proceeded with the business of asking for Deloria's testimony on behalf of the Menominee, whose federal services were formally terminated in 1961. More to the point, Deloria was asked why the Menominee deserved to be reinstated as a federally recognized tribe. As an example of Deloria's status, the Menominee Restoration Act hearing spoke volumes, both in terms of the reach of his writings and the respect with which his opinion was accorded by Indian and non-Indian alike.

With regard to the legacy that Deloria's writings and advocacy work created, while it was accurate that he influenced a variety of audiences, upon closer examination there were two very different but complementary legacies, Indian and non-Indian, that emerged. For Indians, Deloria's most meaningful contribution to the needs of tribes was his discourse on self-determination as an integral part of tribal political existence. Self-determination, as the collective expression of sovereignty, is essential to each tribe's sense of nationhood and all of the rights that that entails. Moreover, Deloria asserted that knowing one's rights as Indigenous nations was especially important in response to ongoing developments in U.S. federal Indian law and policy, which were recurrently seeking to undermine tribes' powers of self-governance, as indicated by the Menominee example above. As a result of Deloria's lifelong defense of tribal self-determination, on January 12, 2005, Indian Country Today ran a number of articles in recognition of the editorial committee's decision to bestow the 2005 American Indian Visionary Award on him. In an editorial explaining the committee's selection, the Indian Country Media Network staff wrote: "Deloria served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1964 to 1967. He was a young contemporary of the generation that confronted termination, active and brilliant. So that when the rallying cry of sovereignty and self-determination sounded loud and clear in Indian country, Deloria was readiest of all to make sense of it, to fortify it, to lead the discourse." The other contributors praising Deloria's distinction were Norbert Hill (Oneida), Daniel Wildcat (Muscogee Creek), John C. Mohawk (Seneca), and Hank Adams (Sioux-Assiniboine).

For non-Indians, Deloria's most lasting legacy was the paradigm shift he created in the anthropological profile of tribes, from vanishing relics of the past to contemporary and dynamic nations, complete with societies actively adapting to the modern world. In fact, when one assesses the status of the scholarly response to Deloria's writings, which is provided below, the most vigorous comments were from non-Indian readers in reaction to Custer's "Anthropologists and Other Friends." The American Anthropological Association (AAA), in fact, devoted two major symposia to Deloria's caustic critique. First, on November 20, 1970, the Symposium on Anthropology and the American Indian was held during the AAA annual meeting in San Diego, California. Omer C. Stewart and Margaret Mead, among others, defended their science as best they could from Deloria's accusations. Second, in 1997, the 1989 AAA meeting papers on Deloria's ongoing influence in anthropology were collected into an edited volume, titled Indians and Anthropologists: Vine Deloria, Jr. and the Critique of Anthropology. Consequently, social scientists have been compelled to acknowledge not only the colonial roots of their scholarly discourse — white researchers amassing studies of tribes supposedly vanishing under the wheels of progress and civilization — but also the disappointing extent to which anthropological studies have assisted tribes in redressing current issues.

Of course, the demarcation between Indian and non-Indian readers is not as clear-cut as the preceding summary may make it appear, as there were exceptions on each side. For example, Puebloan anthropologist, Alfonso Ortiz, had much to say as both a social scientist and as a member of San Juan Pueblo about Deloria's excoriation of the anthropological profession; while Sen. Ted Kennedy once did an excellent job at summarizing for his peers in the Senate many of the political arguments articulated in Custer. Both of these examples will return for closer analysis at the appropriate points in the ensuing discourse. In the meantime, suffice it to say, these exceptions emphasize the rule, which was that each type of reader, Indian and non-Indian, taken as a group, exhibited the tendencies described above. As such, it is the argument of this book that these two legacies ultimately arose from what I refer to as Deloria's Red Power Tetralogy: Custer Died for Your Sins (1969), We Talk, You Listen (1970), God Is Red (1973), and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties (1974). The Red Power Tetralogy was the product of a unique time in American Indian history, when, because of a decade of termination policy in which the federal government sought to end its trust relationship with tribes, a political awakening erupted, which not only led to an organized campaign against termination, but also a growing demand for the recognition of treaty rights as well as a host of grievances against the federal government. Motivated by his work as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which began in 1964, Deloria initiated a discourse on tribal self-determination as being the most important objective for making a viable future for tribes. While certainly not the only one who advocated a protribal sovereignty agenda, Deloria nonetheless demonstrated a gift for combining sharp political analysis with a cutting sense of humor, which rattled his adversaries such as those in the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as much as it delighted his growing readership, particularly young Indians going to college and looking for ways to raise their political consciousness.

With the foregoing in mind, Custer Died for Your Sins, which is subtitled An Indian Manifesto and which laid the foundation for the three major works that followed, was more of a manifestation, or perhaps the better word is "epiphany," whose eleven chapters laid to waste the American colonial mythology that claimed that Europeans "discovered" America and were "destined" to settle the land, leaving Indians to either "assimilate" or "vanish." Deloria, to the contrary, recounted an Indian-white history besotted with misunderstandings, racial stereotypes, political malfeasance, and institutional indifference. In responding to this history, Deloria advocated for an American Indian agenda based on self-determination, cultural revitalization, and political resistance, all of which was based on a critical analysis of the statutes, case law, and policies that defined the Indian-federal relationship. Noteworthy is the fact that the works composing the Red Power Tetralogy were written and published at a critical juncture in Deloria's life, namely going from NCAI executive director to law student at the University of Colorado at Boulder to ethnic studies faculty at Western Washington University. In other words, his most influential writings arose before Deloria fully defined himself as an academic. In this sense, he was a part of a long line of Indian intellectuals who served their nations outside of academia. Throughout it all, Deloria never relented on his conviction that tribes should think of themselves as nations and demand that others, from the average person on the street to the president of the United States, respect them as sovereign powers. Deloria consistently kept faith that American Indians had a great deal to teach the white immigrants who came to these shores centuries ago looking for a better life, only for their descendants to find themselves, as of the early 1970s, in the ravages of political, spiritual, and environmental upheaval. In other words, one of the reasons Deloria wrote the things he did was because he believed that America was in desperate need of Indian knowledge and wisdom. This faith in Indian knowledge and wisdom was reinforced by the realization that tribes know a great deal more about this land than do their non-Indian counterparts by virtue of having lived here for countless generations. Similar to his predecessors, Charles A. Eastman and Luther Standing Bear, Deloria thought that America could resolve many of its problems if it took the time to listen to the native voices of this continent. What follows is a critical historical analysis of how these ideas developed across four influential works, which collectively defined a generation of American Indians in the heady process of reaffirming their nationhood.


"As long as any member of my family can remember, we have been involved in the affairs of the Sioux tribe." On March 8, 1970, Deloria recounted his humble origins in an editorial published in the New York Times, titled "This Country Was A Lot Better Off When the Indians Were Running It," which was about the ongoing occupation of Alcatraz Island. Deloria explained this event in light of American history, the Indian protest movement, reservation history, and personal experience:

I was born in Martin, a border town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, in the midst of the Depression. My father was an Indian missionary who served 18 chapels on the eastern half of the reservation. In 1934, when I was 1, the Indian Reorganization Act was passed, allowing Indian tribes full rights of self-governance for the first time since the late eighteen-sixties.

Born on March 26, 1933, a mere forty-five miles from Pine Ridge, along State Highway 18, Vine Victor Deloria Jr. was the eldest son of Vine Sr. and his wife Barbara (née Sloat Eastburn). As such, the future author of Custer Died for Your Sins was the descendant of generations of illustrious Deloria men, not to mention a paternal aunt of remarkable distinction. More specifically, the younger Vine was the grandson of Philip Joseph Deloria and the great-grandson of Françoise des Lauriers, whom the Dakota called "Saswe." The latter, as his great-grandson recounted in Singing for a Spirit: A Portrait of the Dakota Sioux (1999), was the child of a French fur trader and his Yankton wife. Saswe, more importantly, would become a respected medicine man and a leader of the White Swan community on the Yankton Reservation, where, during the 1860s, he welcomed Presbyterian and Episcopal missionaries, which precipitated, not only changes in the Yankton community, but also personal changes for Saswe and his descendants. Among Saswe's children was a son he named "Tipi Sapa," "Black Lodge," who grew to take a profound interest in the new religion that arrived with the missionaries. Upon his baptism, Tipi Sapa accepted the name Philip Joseph Deloria. Among Philip's accomplishments as a proponent for his new-found faith, and as an advocate for his community, was cofounding the Planting Society, Wojo Okolakiciye, in 1873, which was an ecumenical association. Philip also "served as a lay reader and was an ordained deacon in 1883 and as a priest in 1892." He was then "appointed to supervise all Episcopal mission work on the Standing Rock Reservation," a position he held until his retirement in 1925. Equally significant, Philip named his son Vine Victor Deloria, raising him in the family's adopted religion, in which he too distinguished himself. When the latter died on February 26, 1990, the obituary that appeared in the New York Times noted that Vine Victor Deloria Sr. had been ordained as an Episcopalian deacon in 1931. "In 1954 he was appointed national executive secretary for the Episcopal Church's work among Indians, the first Indian named to a top executive position by a major Protestant denomination." As for Vine Sr.'s survivors, the obituary acknowledged his wife "Barbara, in addition to two sons, Vine Deloria Jr., an author, of Tucson, and Sam, of Albuquerque, NM; a daughter, Barbara Sanchez of Puerto Rico, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren." Not mentioned, because she had passed away in 1971, was an elder sister, Ella.

Ella Deloria had achieved, comparable to her brother's, a life of accolades, which must have had an untold influence on her nephew, Vine Jr. Perhaps her most important work was Dakota Texts (1932), which rendered translations of Dakota myths and oral histories, complete with the original stories in Dakota, all of which was complemented with linguistic analysis. In Speaking of Indians, which appeared in 1944, Deloria assembled the public lectures she gave in New York City at the behest of the Missionary Education Movement, in which she spoke about traditional Dakota and Lakota culture that demonstrated how Indians were also a part of the modern world, including participating in the ongoing war effort.

About his aunt's impressive qualities, Vine Jr. shared two anecdotes in his preface to the 1998 reissue of Speaking of Indians that said as much about Vine as they did about Ella. First, with respect to the number of elders Ella spoke with from a young age and the traditional knowledge they passed on to her:

I tried one time to get her to talk about these things, but she got very angry and told me that these things were so precious to the old people that my generation would not appreciate them and should not know them. They should not be talked about by people who cannot understand, she argued, and when she died an immense body of knowledge went with her.


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Table of Contents

Prologue: Fanfare for the American Indian,
1. Vine Deloria Jr. and the Discourse on Tribal Self-Determination: Independence beyond the Reservation System,
2. Coyote Old Man Tells a Story: History, Plight, and Indian-White Relations,
3. The Law of the Land: Tribes as Higher than States, Indians as Lower than Human,
4. For the Good of the Indian: Termination Policy and the Pillaging of Indian Country,
5. Not Your Minority: Tribalism during the Civil Rights Era,
6. Here Come the Anthros!: A Tribal Critique of the Social Sciences,
7. "Merciless Indian Savages": Christianity, Churches, and the Soul of the Indian,
8. The Scandal of Indian Affairs: Policy, Reservations, and the Future of Indian Freedom,
9. Twentieth-Century Tribes: Nonlinear People in a Linear World,
10. The Good Red Road Ahead: Self-Determination,

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