Custer Died for Your Sins

by Vine Deloria Jr.

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In Custer Died for Your Sins, Deloria proclaims, “Had the tribes been given a choice of fighting the cavalry or the anthropologists, there is little doubt as to who they would have chosen.” Why would Native Nations choose to fight soldiers rather than anthropologists? What are anthropologists capable of that soldiers aren’t?

According to Deloria in Custer Died for Your Sins, Native Nations would have preferred to fight soldiers because the conflict is tangible and can be resolved. He argues that anthropologists have done more damage than soldiers by perpetuating stereotypes and about Native peoples. The scientists can use published text and policy-making positions to disseminate their ideas.

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In discussing anthropologists and other people who consider themselves “friends” of Native Americans, Vine Deloria, Jr. claims that good intentions have compounded the many problems that Native peoples face. He suggests that overt, violent conflict would be preferable to the war of words that is conducted by white sympathizers and experts who come into Native communities with a specific agenda.

In the past, missionaries dominated such efforts. More recently, anthropologists have been the primary representatives of social science investigations, which ostensibly uncover truths about Native peoples. They often base their research on flawed assumptions and try to prove their points rather than try to interact with Native people on an equal footing. The “useless knowledge” that they generate and the stereotypes that they perpetuate serve to uphold the status quo, which is based on a paternalist concepts of “helping” Native people through assimilation.

Deloria points out that anthropologists have been complicit in promoting government policies that challenge indigenous sovereignty. Applying these policies sometimes involves violating established treaty agreements or sidestepping the treaty provisions. The author is especially concerned that anthropologists and other social scientists failed to speak out against termination in the 1950s federal project of termination, which targeted indigenous sovereignty.

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