Custer Died for Your Sins

by Vine Deloria Jr.

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Discussion Topic

Deloria's proposed requirements in Custer Died For Your Sins for obtaining tribal council permission and contributing to the tribal budget prepare young anthropologists for the ethical demands of fieldwork

Summary:

Deloria's proposed requirements in Custer Died For Your Sins help prepare young anthropologists for the ethical demands of fieldwork by emphasizing the importance of obtaining tribal council permission and contributing to the tribal budget. These measures ensure respect for tribal sovereignty and promote ethical engagement with indigenous communities.

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How would Deloria's suggested requirements in Custer Died For Your Sins prepare young anthropologists for the ethical demands of anthropological fieldwork?

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In defense of the anthropologist it must be recognized that those who do not publish, perish.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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How would Deloria's proposal for anthropologists to seek tribal council permission and contribute to the tribal budget, as mentioned on page 95 of Custer Died For Your Sins, prepare them for ethical demands?

This suggestion is important because it will establish more respect and trust between anthropologists and their subjects. In particular, the anthropologist’s contribution to the tribal budget would ensure that the study was mutually beneficial. Oftentimes, anthropologists intrude on a community purely for the sake of their own academic and professional development. They can come into a community and leave a community without helping the people in any way, yet benefit off of the community's hospitality. Deloria’s suggestion would require anthropologists to play an active role in community development and enhancement. This would make the work more ethical because it would ensure that an anthropologist's presence in a community was constructive instead of just disruptive.

The ethical demand is not an enforced requirement for anthropological studies, but rather an expectation rooted in universal moral codes of human interaction. Asking the tribal council for permission would demonstrate respect for the tribe’s people and culture. The action would also show that the anthropologist is aware of the significance and value of their studies. Consider how Deloria goes on to describe current anthropologists who study tribes as “ideological vultures” (Deloria 95). This description brings to mind an image of anthropologists flying into communities, studying the culture, and flying away again with ideologies that they will now bring to other cultures. Deloria’s recommendation would ensure that anthropologists are more respectful and considerate, and thus more ethical, when conducting their studies.

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