Custer Died for Your Sins

by Vine Deloria Jr.
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On page 95 of Custer Died For Your Sins, Deloria suggests that “each anthro desiring to study a tribe should be made to apply to the tribal council for permission to do his study. He would be given such permission only if he raised as a contribution to the tribal budget an amount of money equal to the amount he proposed to spend in his study.” How would these requirements prepare young anthropologists for the ethical demands (IRB, informed consent, NAGPRA) of anthropological fieldwork (ethnography or physical dig sites)?

Deloria's suggestion is mostly designed to improve the moral formation not of anthropologists but of Indigenous leaders, particularly young people. However, he does indicate that it may also have a positive impact on the moral formation of anthropologists, namely, that they would be more likely to be loyal to Indigenous communities, which they claim to want to "help."

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Deloria’s argument in the chapter “Anthropologists and Other Friends” is not, primarily, about institutional ethics. While his suggestion that anthropologists should have to gain the permission of a tribe before studying them is very much in line with IRB requirements, those requirements are primarily intended to form ethical researchers. Deloria, on the other hand, is interested in the formation of Native communities themselves. In the preceding pages, he has argued that a not only settler governments, but even Indigenous leaders themselves—particularly the young—have come to adopt anthropologists’ core assumptions. Chief among these is that the problems of indigenous communities can largely be explained by singular, large-scale cultural dynamics like being “caught between two worlds” or having yet to find an appropriate outlet for the “warrior spirit,” rather than the multifaceted and material realities of economic immiseration stemming from tribes’ lack of control over their own land base. Deloria argues that culture-centered narratives, peddled by anthropologists, tend to convince Indigenous people that their problems are not solveable through concrete political and economic means. In this sense, anthropology acts as a kind of “opiate of the Indian,” lulling native people into a false sense of helplessness in the face of overwhelming problems.

Delria does, however, address the moral formation of anthropologists themselves in one place. On page 94 he writes as follows:

In defense of the anthropologist it must be recognized that those who do not publish, perish. That those who do not bring in a substantial sum of research money soon slide down the scale of university approval. What university is not equally balanced between the actual education of its students and a multitude of small bureaus, projects, institutes, and programs which are designed to harvest grants for the university? The implications of the anthropologist, if not for all America, should be clear for the Indian. Compilation of useless knowledge “for knowledge’s sake” should be utterly rejected by the Indian people. We should not be objects of observation for those who do nothing to help us. During the crucial days of 1954, when the Senate was pushing for termination of all Indian rights, not one single scholar, anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or economist came forward to support the tribes against the detrimental policy. How much had scholars learned about Indians from 1492 to 1954 that would have placed termination in a more rational light? Why didn't the academic community march to the side of the tribes? Certainly the past few years have shown how much influence academia can exert when it feels impelled to enlist in a cause? Is Vietnam any more crucial to the moral stance of America than the great debt owed to the Indian tribes?

In this passage, Deloria argues that the institutional requirements of universities are morally malformative for anthropologists too. Because of the “publish or perish” mentality, anthropologists have an interest in Indigenous communities’ remaining a fixed point from which they can write as many books and journal articles as possible. They need tribal communities to always be there to write about. Having set out to study Indigenous communities’ problems, anthropologists are naturally subconsciously predisposed against those problems actually being solved, lest they find themselves out of a job! The result of this is that, politically, anthropologists tend to be neutral if not opposed to Native people in their concrete struggles with the settler government. This is only natural, since, even though they claim to be “friends” to Indigenous communities, anthropologists’ and Indigenous peoples’ interests are actually opposed.

This insight is relevant to the question of how Deloria’s suggestion would form researchers. Because anthropologists would depend upon Indigenous communities’ approval for their continued research, they would be more likely to be invested in those communities’ well-being. This would help to ensure that the research they produced would not be “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” but, rather, real insight into practical solutions to Indigenous communities’ problems.

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