Custer Died for Your Sins

by Vine Deloria Jr.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1889

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.

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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 treaties and agreements with Indian tribes. . . . It is doubtful that any nation will ever exceed the record of the United States for perfidy.” Deloria argues, however, that this perfidy is not merely a fact of America’s past; more damage is being done to Indian people in the 1960’s than was done in the entire nineteenth century. Adding to the Indian people’s resentment of their treatment at the hands of a government that daily tramples on Indian treaty rights while insisting on maintaining its commitments in Vietnam is their outrage at the complicity of the Christian churches in the mistreatment of Native Americans. Why, Deloria asks, if the churches actually want justice, do they not speak out about the mistreatment of the Indians?

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The essay concludes that America “has always been a militantly imperialistic world power eagerly grasping for economic control over weaker nations,” including the Indian nations that were conquered one after another in the United States’ march across the North American continent. The war in Vietnam is seen in the essay as only the most recent symptom of the basic lack of integrity of the American government, “a side issue in comparison with the great domestic issues which must be faced—and justly faced—before this society destroys itself.”

The next four essays—“The Disastrous Policy of Termination,” “Anthropologists and Other Friends,” “Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum,” and “Government Agencies”—discuss the ways in which those white people who were sympathetic to the Indians have inadvertently caused them more harm than good. Termination was a policy, initiated in the 1950’s, intended to end the federally recognized status of Indian tribes, thereby solving the “Indian problem” by assimilating the Indian people into the general population. According to Deloria, however, it was used as another excuse by the government to get its hands on Indian lands.

Anthropologists, no matter how well intentioned, treat Indian people “as objects for observation . . . for experimentation, for manipulation, and for eventual extinction. The anthropologist thus furnishes the justification for treating Indian people like so many chessmen available for anyone to play with.” Deloria urges Indian people to reject the anthropologists’ “compilation of useless knowledge” and argues that Indians should not cooperate with those who raise no hand to help them. “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.” According to Deloria, these scholars were not really interested in helping Indian people but merely in exploiting them to further their own academic careers.

Deloria attacks Christian do-gooders and especially Christian denominations that are determined to keep Indian congregations in a mission status and refuse to admit Indians to the ministry for fear that the “purity” of the doctrine will suffer. Thus, Indian people are offended and the “impotence and irrelevancy” of the churches meant a return to traditional religion and the rapid expansion of the Native American Church. Deloria believes that Indian religion, not Christianity, will be the salvation of Indian people, primarily, he says, because Indian religions, regardless of the tribe, view death as a natural occurrence and not a punishment from God. If the Christian missions were really interested in serving the Indians’ best interests, they would assist in the creation of a national Indian Christian Church incorporating existing missions and programs into one all-encompassing organization to be put wholly in the hands of the Indian people themselves.

In “Government Agencies,” Deloria explains the structure and history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), points out its inefficiencies and failures, and offers proposals for changes that need to be made if Indians are to be able to make progress comparable to that of the rest of society. Programming should be based on the size of the tribe, with special consideration for funding given to the thirty-five or so tribes with sufficient population, land, and resources to make large programs feasible. Area BIA offices should be given the bulk of the budgets in discretionary funds in order to maximize flexibility to meet local needs. People employed directly by the tribes should be given civil service status so that they can leave the BIA and work directly for tribal governments without losing time in grade and retirement benefits. The BIA itself should be transferred from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Commerce, where it could be merged with the Economic Development Administration, an agency better able to match tribal projects to available government and private-sector programs.

The best known and most often quoted essay in the collection is the one entitled “Indian Humor.” It is based on the premise that one of the best ways to understand a culture is to know what it finds humorous. For too long, Deloria thinks, the stereotype of the humorless, “granite-faced grunting redskin has been perpetuated by American mythology.” In contrast, Deloria points out that humor was an integral part of traditional Indian cultures. Teasing was used as a method of social control for centuries before the white invasion; it made it possible to correct and mold social behavior while preserving egos and minimizing disputes of a personal nature—an alternative to direct confrontation and public denunciation that preserved the dignity of the accused. In the politically charged atmosphere of the 1960’s, humor served as a method of bringing Indian people from various tribes together by focusing on commonalities and creating goodwill, and thus it was an important political tool in the struggle to gain “red power.” Satire can circumscribe problems so that possible solutions are suggested, and people are often awakened and “brought to a militant edge” because of jokes.

Among the most politically useful targets of Indian humor are the BIA, where Deloria often counsels Indians to run in case of earthquake because nothing can shake the BIA, and General Custer, who was well dressed for the occasion of his last stand, his body having been found afterward dressed in an Arrow shirt. Humor, according to Deloria, is the cement that holds the Indian movement together: “When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive.”

The remaining essays are more dated, focusing on what Indian people can do to help themselves in the 1960’s. Deloria concludes by reminding Indian people of the great war chief Crazy Horse, who “never drafted anyone to follow him” but was followed because people recognized that what he did was for the people. When he was dying, bayoneted in the back, Crazy Horse said to his father, “Tell the people it is no use to depend on me any more now.” Deloria writes, “Until we can once again produce people like Crazy Horse all the money and help in the world will not save us.”

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