Custer Died for Your Sins

by Vine Deloria Jr.

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What was the author's purpose in Deloria's Custer Died for Your Sins?

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The author's purpose in Deloria's Custer Died for Your Sins is twofold. First, she wants to demonstrate that the US continues to be structured in a way that ensures the continued degradation and erasure of Indigenous peoples Second, she is critiquing well-meaning non-Natives who seek to "help" Indigenous peoples without deconstructing the way that their own institutions, cultures, and ways of being in the world are structured in a way that assumes Indigenous erasure and must therefore be restructured.

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In the preface to the 1987 reprint of Custer Died for Your Sins, Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote that although there had been substantial changes to the US federal government's policies towards Indigenous peoples and a widespread shift in Indigenous modes of organizing and the wider social and political context,

the Indian task of keeping an informed public available to assist the tribes in their efforts to survive is never ending, and so the central message of this book, that Indians are alive, have certain dreams of their own, and are being overrun by the ignorance and the mistaken, misdirected efforts of those who would help them, can never be repeated too often. (1987, xiii)

This quote basically sums up Deloria's original task in writing Custer Died for Your Sins. This book raised strong, often polemical objections to the ways that Indigenous people continued to be mistreated in the 1960s through economic immiseration, the suppression of traditional spiritual practices, and, most importantly, the de facto or de jure "termination" of Native tribes, aka "paper genocide." Yet he did not expect those responsible for these policies to read or take his work seriously. Rather, as the quote above indicates, Deloria had another audience in mind: well-meaning White liberals, in church or society, who sought to "help" Indigenous people without deconstructing their own perspectives and institutions, which, like US society as a whole, have the "passing away" of Indigenous nations built in as a foundational assumption. For Deloria, this assumption runs through US politics, religion, social movements, and, perhaps most controversially, even Indigenous nations' own systems of tribal governance. The book is organized into chapters, each of which discusses one of these areas and suggest ways that prevailing institutions and attitudes will need to change so as not to be grounded in a genocidal mentality towards those whom they are trying to "help."

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