Custer Died for Your Sins

by Vine Deloria Jr.

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Discussion Topic

Deloria's critique of anthropology in "Custer Died For Your Sins" and its impact on Native Nations compared to that of soldiers


In "Custer Died for Your Sins," Deloria critiques anthropology for its exploitative research practices that treat Native Americans as subjects rather than people. He argues that this has a detrimental impact on Native Nations, similar to the harm inflicted by soldiers, by perpetuating stereotypes and undermining Native sovereignty and cultural integrity.

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What problem with anthropology is highlighted in Deloria's quote on page 81 of Custer Died For Your Sins? What can anthropologists do that soldiers can't?

On page 81 of 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.”

It can be helpful to look at the context on this page. Just a few paragraphs down, Deloria writes:

Behind each successful man stands a woman and behind each policy and program with which Indians are plagued, if traced completely back to its origin, stands the anthropologist.

The implication is that, when corporations or governments enact policies that hurt Indigenous communities, they usually look to anthropologists for evidence to back them up. If one stopped reading here, one might conclude that the main problem with anthropologists is that, because they are non-Native and carry with them the biases of the colonizer, they tend to provide misleading data to governments. Better data would lead to better policy-making and better treatment of Indigenous communities.

Deloria, however, seems to have something even more complicated than this in mind. In the very next paragraph, he writes:

The fundamental thesis of the anthropologist is that people are objects for observation, people are then considered objects 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.

The problem with anthropolists is not just the content of what they produce. It is the form and the method that they use. One anthropologist might write a report that suggests that the best way for the government to solve a clear water shortage in an Indigenous community would be policy X. Another anthropologist might write another report that suggests that actually the best solution is policy Y. Deloria is not just saying that anthropologists, as outsiders to Native communities, are unlikely to know whether policy X or policy Y is better—though that is definitely true, too. The fact is that even the way that they have set up the debate between policy X and policy Y in the first place is flawed. The assumption built into this debate is that non-Natives, if only they have the right data, can decide what is best for Native communities. This assumption is fundamentally colonial. It is, moreover, a direct consequence of the practice of anthropology itself. Thus, it is not merely what anthropologists say that is fundamentally genocidal in character. It is the fact that the discipline of anthropology even exists in the first place!

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In Custer Died for Your Sins, why would Deloria suggest Native Nations would choose to fight soldiers over anthropologists?

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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