Excerpt: Life of the Indigenous Mind

The following is an excerpt from Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Birth of the Red Power Movement by David Martínez, available now from the New Visions in Native American and Indigenous Studies series.


From Chapter 1: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Discourse on Tribal Self-Determination


In his much-overlooked afterword to Custer Died for Your Sins, Deloria stated at the end of a tour de force covering a plethora of issues confronting contemporary American Indian society: “I make no claim that this book represents what all Indian people are really thinking. Or that Indian people should follow the ideas presented in this book” [emphasis in original].1 Yet, contrary to Deloria’s proclamation, this is exactly how Custer has been remembered by generations of Indian readers. Like many before me, my initial encounter with the phenomenon of Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux, 1933–2005) consisted of a fortuitous reading of Custer Died for Your Sins. I am uncertain of how I first heard of Deloria. He is one of these figures who seems to have always been a part of my life as an Indigenous person. Whereas other Indian writers were more capable at deepening my cultural and historical understanding of Indigenous peoples—such as his contemporaries Gerald Vizenor, Paula Gunn-Allen, and James Welch—Deloria compelled me to reckon with my political existence as an American Indian. Indeed, a common reaction among first-time readers of Deloria, Custer in particular, includes some form of reexamination of themselves, be they Indian, anthropologist, missionary, or Bureau of Indian Affairs employee. At the same time, while Custer was most assuredly a seminal text, it was far from being the sum of Deloria’s contribution to the modern discourse on American Indians. For the greater part of the next three decades after Custer’s appearance in 1969, Deloria produced some seventeen books, most of which he authored alone, while a smaller portion were coauthored or edited volumes. This was in addition to two hundred or so articles and a surfeit of book forewords, chapters, and afterwords, and an array of editorials, keynote addresses, and congressional testimonies. At the same time, while Deloria’s body of work is prodigious in terms of output, numbers of topics, and years of contribution, his legacy largely rests on a corpus of early works published over a short span of time, 1969–74, the first of which was Custer, an influential text that is still being read, not to mention inspiring a new generation of thinkers and activists.

Because several works that followed Custer became canonized in their respective fields and Deloria’s advocacy for tribal political rights has resulted in positive reforms, Deloria’s writings have long held a prominent place in American Indian intellectual history. In fact, Deloria’s reputation had risen so quickly in the aftermath of Custer it even reached the halls of Congress. In 1973 when Rep. Lloyd Meeds (D-WA) introduced Deloria to the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, he stated matter-of-factly but with great admiration: “Our next witness is Vine Deloria, who is a noted author, an Indian philosopher, spokesman for [the] progressive Indian movement—probably mostly noted for his authorship of ‘Custer Died for Your Sins’—and I think [is] a spokesman for Indian people everywhere.”2 How Deloria may have felt about being designated “a spokesman for Indian people everywhere” was not recorded. After asking Deloria if he were still a Washington state resident, where he was a lecturer at Western Washington University, Meeds proceeded with the business of asking for Deloria’s testimony on behalf of the Menominee, whose federal services were formally terminated in 1961. More to the point, Deloria was asked why the Menominee deserved to be reinstated as a federally recognized tribe. As an example of Deloria’s status, the Menominee Restoration Act hearing spoke volumes, both in terms of the reach of his writings and the respect with which his opinion was accorded by Indian and non-Indian alike.


With regard to the legacy that Deloria’s writings and advocacy work created, while it was accurate that he influenced a variety of audiences, upon closer examination there were two very different but complementary legacies, Indian and non-Indian, that emerged. For Indians, Deloria’s most meaningful contribution to the needs of tribes was his discourse on self-determination as an integral part of tribal political existence. Self-determination, as the collective expression of sovereignty, is essential to each tribe’s sense of nationhood and all of the rights that that entails. Moreover, Deloria asserted that knowing one’s rights as Indigenous nations was especially important in response to ongoing developments in U.S. federal Indian law and policy, which were recurrently seeking to undermine tribes’ powers of self-governance, as indicated by the Menominee example above. As a result of Deloria’s lifelong defense of tribal self-determination, on  January 12, 2005, Indian Country Today ran a number of articles in recognition of the editorial committee’s decision to bestow the 2005 American Indian Visionary Award on him. In an editorial explaining the committee’s selection, the Indian Country Media Network staff wrote: “Deloria served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1964 to 1967. He was a young contemporary of the generation that confronted termination, active and brilliant. So that when the rallying cry of sovereignty and self-determination sounded loud and clear in Indian country, Deloria was readiest of all to make sense of it, to fortify it, to lead the discourse.”3 The other contributors praising Deloria’s distinction were Norbert Hill (Oneida), Daniel Wildcat (Muscogee Creek), John C. Mohawk (Seneca), and Hank Adams (Sioux-Assiniboine).

For non-Indians, Deloria’s most lasting legacy was the paradigm shift he created in the anthropological profile of tribes, from vanishing relics of the past to contemporary and dynamic nations, complete with societies actively adapting to the modern world. In fact, when one assesses the status of the scholarly response to Deloria’s writings, which is provided below, the most vigorous comments were from non-Indian readers in reaction to Custer’s “Anthropologists and Other Friends.” The American Anthropological Association (AAA), in fact, devoted two major symposia to Deloria’s caustic critique. First, on November 20, 1970, the Symposium on Anthropology and the American Indian was held during the AAA annual meeting in San Diego, California. Omer C. Stewart and Margaret Mead, among others, defended their science as best they could from Deloria’s accusations.4 Second, in 1997, the 1989 AAA meeting papers on Deloria’s ongoing influence in anthropology were collected into an edited volume, titled Indians and Anthropologists: Vine Deloria, Jr. and the Critique of Anthropology.5 Consequently, social scientists have been compelled to acknowledge not only the colonial roots of their scholarly discourse—white researchers amassing studies of tribes supposedly vanishing under the wheels of progress and civilization—but also the disappointing extent to which anthropological studies have assisted tribes in redressing current issues.



1. Deloria, Custer Died for Your Sins, 277. The main reason that Deloria’s afterword
has been forgotten is for the simple reason that most readers, since 1988, when
the University of Oklahoma Press published its edition of Custer, read a version
of the book in which the afterword was omitted.
2. Menominee Restoration Act.
3. ICMN Staff, “Salute to Vine Deloria Jr.”
4. American Anthropological Association, Anthropology and the American Indian.
5. Biolsi and Zimmerman, Indians and Anthropologists.

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