Vine Deloria, Jr., who was one of the most important Native American intellectuals, first achieved prominence with the publication of Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, a collection of eleven essays and an afterword on a variety of topics related to American Indian social, legal, and political issues of the 1960’s. Coming at the end of a decade in which the fundamental values of American culture were being rigorously questioned, when American history was being rewritten, and when the younger generation was eagerly searching for alternative lifestyles, Deloria’s book quickly became a best seller praised for the wit, the humor, and the energy of its style as well as for its articulate and witty presentation of the Native American point of view and its penetrating critique of mainstream American culture.
Earlier in the 1960’s, interest in American Indians was generated by the reissue, in 1962, of Black Elk Speaks (1932), the life story of an Oglala Sioux holy man that became a cult classic on college campuses. Then, in 1968, the Pulitzer Prize in fiction was awarded to N. Scott Momaday, the author of House Made of Dawn (1968), the first novel written by a Native American to be so honored. Next came Custer Died for Your Sins in 1969, quickly followed by Dee Brown’s revisionist presentation of the history of the Indian wars in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), which also became a national best seller. In their different ways, these four books urged the rejection of the old stereotypes of American Indians and gave a more realistic and more sympathetic view of them than had previously been available in literature that was written almost exclusively from the perspective of white Americans.
Thus, in his opening essay, “Indians Today: The Real and the Unreal,” Deloria comments that he intends to discuss the Indian people’s feeling of unreality that “has been welling up inside us and threatens to make this decade [the 1970’s] the most decisive in history for Indian people.” Among the “unreal and ahistorical” beliefs and attitudes that Deloria goes on to enumerate is the claim by many white people to have an Indian ancestor, usually an Indian princess grandmother, and Deloria humorously comments that he “once did a projection backward and discovered that evidently most tribes were entirely female for the first three hundred years of white occupation.” Indians, Deloria comments, suffer from misconceptions and stereotyping because white people believe that they are so easy to understand: “Anyone and everyone who knows an Indian or who is interested, immediately and thoroughly understands them.” Among these “understandings,” Deloria lists many myths about Indians, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s mistaken belief that the native peoples he met were the inhabitants of India, the later view that they were the ten lost tribes of Israel, and the yet later view that they were little better than wild animals to be “hunted and skinned. Bounties were set and an Indian scalp became more valuable than beaver, otter, marten, and other animal pelts.”
However, Deloria argues, not all the harm was done by the Indians’ enemies; much of it was done by their “friends,” the white do-gooders, missionaries, promoters, scholars, “and every conceivable type of person who believed he could help. White society failed to understand the situation because this conglomerate of assistance blurred the real issues beyond recognition.” The essay ends with an enumeration of tribal governments and political organizations as they existed in the 1960’s, an analysis of their accomplishments and prospects for the future, and a plea for “fewer and fewer ’experts’ on Indians. What we need is a cultural leave-us-alone agreement in spirit and in fact.”
The essays that follow take up individually the concerns that are outlined in “Indians Today: The Real and the Unreal.” The second essay, titled “Laws and Treaties,” begins by pointing out a tragic irony in the history of the United States government’s treatment of the Native Americans. President Lyndon Johnson stressed the importance of the United States keeping its commitments in Southeast Asia, and President Richard Nixon pictured the Soviet Union as a menace to world peace because it did not honor its treaties. However, Deloria comments, “Indian people laugh themselves sick when they hear these statements. America has yet to keep one Indian treaty or agreement despite the fact that the United States government signed over four hundred such...
(The entire section is 1889 words.)