"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

An American Indian's Thoughts on White People, Tribalism, US Culture, Churches

Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria, Jr. -- note: the author uses Indian to refer to himself and his people throughout the book when not speaking of specific tribes (e.g. Cherokee, Sioux, Seminole) so I will use Indian instead of Native American in this post, but do realize we are speaking of the inhabitants of present day United States and not the Asian country!  I have questions for you at the bottom. Be thinking how you would reply to the author if you could and what lessons we can learn from his thoughts.



Andrew asked why I got this book and I think it was mentioned in the footnotes of a book I read earlier this year. I decided I wanted to read a book about Indians from an American Indian rather than a white author so I found this one on Amazon and received it for my birthday.  I expected this book to be more about the wars between Indians and the white people who came to the United States. I expected Custer to play some role in the book (the title kind of conveys this) yet he only came up a couple of times. This "Custer died for your sins" thing was actually a bumper sticker "originally meant as a dig at the National Council of Churches" and which "referred to the Sioux Treaty of 1868 signed at Fort Laramie in which the United States pledged to give free and undisturbed use of the lands claimed by Red Cloud in return for peace.  Under the covenants of the Old Testament, breaking a covenant called for a blood sacrifice for atonement. Custer was the blood sacrifice for the United States breaking the Sioux treaty." (pg. 148)

I knew the title was a rather clever play on words since most Christians say Jesus died for our sins.  It's a bit weird and good reading this book just after Carl Medearis' Speaking of Jesus which stressed, well, our speaking more of Jesus and essentially not bringing western cultural baggage into the mix. Jesus wasn't a westerner and although many bad things have been done in the name of Christianity, Jesus never started this religion nor did he ever instruct us to go and make Christians out of people or compel them to join the Christian cause. 

As I was reading this book I was heartbroken at times especially when I realized how different things could have been and could be if we acted like Jesus instead of going into situations as Christians bent on solving the Indian problem essentially turning these "savages" into respectable white people. As if that's what Jesus meant when he told us to go and share the good news with every creature!  The disciples struggled with this. Do the Gentiles have to become Jews? Must they be circumcised? Essentially, must they be one of us, adopt our customs, follow our law in order to follow Jesus?

NO.

This book gave me a different perspective on tribes. Of course the Bible - the Old Testament - is full of tribe talk.  There are the 12 tribes of Israel as main players after all.  And, of course, I was familiar with Indian tribes. I've always loved the names and found them fascinating to say.  Yet when I hear of tribes today, I think of conflicts in the Arab world and places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. I think of divisiveness (sectarianism) and narrow mindedness and keeping women down and exalting the almighty man.  Saudi Arabia's tribal culture - rather than its religion - is often blamed for the things I don't like about that country. Sure there are a number of good things, but those tend to be overlooked when compared to honor killings and the importance of virginity in women and the control of parents over their daughters.  Honestly it makes me feel smothered reading about such things.

Yet, this book helped me see tribes in a better light. How if there is a good hunting season, everyone eats. And if there is a bad hunting season, everyone suffers. There is not this hoarding of wealth and this great divide between the haves and the have nots.  The author notes "each man must be judged according to his real self, not according to his wealth or educational prowess. Hence a holder of great wealth is merely selfish unless he has other redeeming qualities besides his material goods. Having a number of degrees and an impressive educational background is prerequisite to prestige in the white world. It is detrimental in the Indian world unless the person has the necessary wisdom to say meaningful things also."  (pg. 233)


This book was published in 1969 during the era of hippies and black power movements.  Hippies, the author notes, had shrugged off some of the prestige qualifiers of white culture yet he found fault with them for not adopting the things that make for good Indian prestige. Hippies were basically passing fads and out for publicity.  The Indians often rejected the black power movements because equality meant the blacks would be equal to the whites. To Indians, equal meant sameness and they did not want to adopt 'white culture.' They were Indian and they had their own customs thus they refused to be 'white' no matter the effort government agencies and churches undertook to make them 'white.'

Speaking of 'white culture', Deloria says it's like a cancer. It destroys other cultures and the whites essentially have no culture except the violent culture they brought from Europe to the New World.  He says when we cannot solve problems, we use violence - overkill - to stamp out our enemies.  He says this country "has never made a successful peace because peace requires exchanging ideas, concepts, thoughts, and recognizing the fact that two distinct systems of life can exist together without conflict.  Consider how quickly America seems to be facing its allies of one war as new enemies."  "Violence is America's sweetheart," and America "alienates everyone who does not automatically love it."  (pg. 256)

You can imagine how much love I felt reading this book, right?  Yes, it's often painful to see ourselves through others' eyes yet we often need attention drawn to our blind spots and things we'd rather not consider. This book has definitely made me reflect on several issues - some serious ones like how Jesus, the wonderful person that he is, got so separated from people who claim to follow him (these "Christians").  Other issues perhaps not so serious, but still thought-provoking: do we 'white' folks really have no culture?  Is violence really our "sweetheart" and why do we alienate people who don't love us? Why do we "overkill"?

Has this ever truly been a Christian nation?  Or shall we once and for all separate the word "Christian" from "follower of Jesus" since there seems to be a huge divide between most Christian action and the actions of the Christ.

Thoughts? What do you think of tribalism?  Do you tend to view it negatively, neutrally or positively? Why? What do you think of the author's view of white culture? Do you think white people have no culture? Do you agree with Deloria's thoughts on black power (equality = sameness)? This actually reminded me of Akbar Ahmed's thoughts that I expressed in this post about Barack Obama acting like the white presidents.  Do you agree that we love violence?  Why is this? Do you think we should separate Christianity in the US from Jesus?  What took your attention from this post?  How would you reply to this author if given the chance?  Any lessons we can learn from Vine Deloria's thoughts?

I've already alluded to Deloria's disdain for the Christianity as shown by most churches. You should also hear his loathing for anthropologists and his views of Democrats and Republicans.  I would share more, but this post is too long already.

12 comments:

Qusay said...

Dominant cultures (and throughout history almost every culture had its time in power) always impose their ways of living, and their names and religion etc... the other is always the savage from the time the Greeks conquered persian and indian lands (they also thought "Caucasians" were inferior and only good for slavery, imagine that :) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/books/review/Gordon-t.html)

Now, when they say so and so culture is not compatible with western values (usually comes up when jobs become scarce in an area), I always think of the native inhabitants if America and Australia and how after all these years they are sidelined... America has a "black" president, but not a native american president, and it makes me wonder.

Sorry, more questions than answers, I always enjoy your book reviews :)

Becky said...

Loved this book review!

I don't think you can say white people have no culture - but the problem is that certain parts of white culture has become so globalized and common (such as the celebration of Christmas) that it's no longer thought of as "white", but more so universal. (you can then go on to discuss the problems with that).

I do think Whites have had a superiority issue, and a disrespect for other cultures. I disagree that equality has to mean sameness, but I do believe that often sameness has been necessary for people to achieve equality (which I think is a very bad thing, but I'm only speaking about what I see). This is because White culture has often said you must adhere to our standards to be worthy of being included in our community and society.

observant observer said...

I supposed in the end its the power of money or economics that makes "the white" have superior issues. The Whites, represented the European and the American have the major portion of the wealth of the world, that's why if you see in let's say Indonesia, they have all the words to be dictated to the developing countries. Even salaries are very different between native and expatriates for the same position. Etc, etc. I wonder whether they have "power" issues, when they are worried of China becoming the new emerging power in the world.

I do think that it has nothing to do with being Christian. Christianity has been put aside as private matters, something that doesn't even play a contribution in the real world or if it does so, should be hidden for PC. I don't even think that most White people are religious. Perhaps some are, but they are not in the power of becoming the agent of change or prefer not to be or are afraid to be seen to be "promoting religion".

I also think that Catholicism has different approach now towards different culture. It is now becoming more open to local culture (very different with Protestantism), it has the element of "eclecticism" or more accurately acculturalism, a term when cultural approach as long as it only has to do with expression is allowed, if it doesn't oppose or conflicted with the main dogma. People in Indonesia are used to have different element of culture fused into the ritual of mass, whether the music, the language, the title, the theological approach, the traditional custom to be adapted etc etc.

I remember in Catholicism, many of my Chinese friends still perform the ritual prayer for the deceased parents of old folks using burning scents, as something that is a cultural must, a Chinese tradition while the Protestantism strictly prohibits it. Catholicism also allow the use of traditional clothing, elements and so on to represents "respect" to elders, the deceased and so on, while many of Protestant churches don't allow that. They are stumbled by the words of the bible that we are not supposed to follow certain "merely" men's tradition.

I suppose, there are so many interpretation in churches that makes a lot of disagreement, and somehow some churches learn to be more flexible and see no dilemma in preserving culture, but others are stumbled and don't learn from resistance and the value of the past and the genius of the locals. We are born different, we should value that. If God will us to be all the same, we should expect that the world should be made flat instead of a globe.

Susanne said...

Qusay, it's always nice hearing your point of view. Thanks a lot of your comment. I enjoyed the article. I remember a fiction book I read several years ago and the slaves were blondes from present-day Germany so it reminded me of a time in world history when - as you stated - "'Caucasians' were inferior and only good for slavery."

And there is that whole "those who don't speak Greek are barbarians." :)

"America has a "black" president, but not a native american president, and it makes me wonder."

But after reading this book, I could make the case that the natives didn't want to be president. They didn't want to play the white man's game, the way we do power here. I gathered this because Deloria faulted the black power movements and it just seemed he at least didn't want to be part of the white man's world which included how we do government.

I don't know how representative Deloria is of the Indians though. He is deceased now and the book is nearly 40 years old so who knows? Maybe one day we will have a Native President. Deloria's son for instance. I read about him the other day.

Thanks for your feedback!

Susanne said...

Becky, thanks for what you added. That's all interesting and good points. I wonder if we think whites have superiority issues because we both are white and have been told that people want to bleach their skin to be white and it's sort of fed into that mindset.

I wonder if we were in other cultures if we'd hear otherwise...that black is beautiful, for instance. I know in some tribes, they don't want to marry outside their group so maybe this is tribal superiority on their parts...they want to keep their "pure blood" and not mix it with others. It would be an interesting study.

I think there are beautiful people everywhere. One of my favorite things about the Olympics is during the opening ceremonies when all the athletes march in under their flags. I just love seeing the variety of people in the world and am often amazed at all variety of God's beautiful creation: not just plants and animals and fish, but people!

Thank you for your feedback!

Susanne said...

Observant, those are some very good observations. Yes, probably power and money have a lot to do with it. Maybe in a few years as the power shifts to China, people will start seeing "the Chinese look" and way of life as the most desirable. As Qusay's article mentioned, the 'whites' used to be slaves in the world. So it's not like they were always thought of in great ways! Maybe one day the power will shift far East and white will start representing weak...it'll be interesting to see if I'm still around.


I really enjoyed your thoughts. Thanks much for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Not sure of your age, but I must question the motivation to consider anothers' perspective in this particular context. Next, as always, remember that Jesus never wrote anything and that Rome wholly absorbed the literary results of councils. Thirdly, as one who enjoys alternate perspectives, it should be plain that issue among these indigenous people have evolved since the 1970's, as has Mr. Deloria. Fourthly, if indeed you are a sincere person of your faith as expressed, please advise your fellow adherehents to cease their missionary practices. If you feel smothered imagine how our last few generations struggling out of poverty feel. While we thirst for effectice conversations, our local organizations are thirsting for assistance with their projects. Aho/ WaDv/ MaDv...kelly_anquoe@excite.com

Susanne said...

Hello Anonymous,

Thanks for stopping by and for your feedback. I'm not sure why I decided to consider another point of view at this stage in my life. Maybe I am just curious about how reality is different from what I've always thought. I didn't realize this book was "so old" until I received it. Maybe I should have researched it better, but like I stated in the post, it was in the footnotes or select bibliography of a book I enjoyed earlier in the year and seemed interesting enough. Do you have any recommended readings for me to read a more "evolved since the 1970's" point of view?

I'm not in control of any missionaries to advise them to leave you alone. Sorry. I am not quite so influential as that. :) Actually Mr. Deloria's book helped me understand why you might feel smothered. I was truly heartbroken often while reading what European settlers - my ancestors - did.

I appreciate your comment.

Chris Vestal said...

Maybe read "Playing White", which is about white people who adopt and try to preserve Native American culture. Evidently, Native Americans are sometimes fixated on eugenics even more than Anglos...

I have a very good friend who lived in a teepee while at college, ate off the land (think road kill...) and has traveled by foot down the Appalachian trail several times and road a pack of mules across the country. He currently teaches survival techniques to rich snotty kids during the summer. He does this not because he needs the money (he is probably a multi-millionaire at this point...) but because he wanted to change their perspectives.

I give you all this background because as interesting and *sincere* as he is about promoting Native American tradition and perspectives, he has been shunned by many Native Americans through the years. He is genuinely one of the most humble guys you could ever meet... so I have always wondered why he always had to prove himself continuously to the Native Americans he admires so deeply... Personally, I think it is simple jealousy.

If you talk to many Native Americans, some are quite bitter about the past. If any group had that right I imagine it would be them, but perhaps the largest chance for their culture and people to survive is to focus on the present and personal responsibility.

Susanne said...

Chris, thanks for sharing about your friend. He sounds like quite an interesting guy with lots of good experiences to share!

Maybe natives don't like him in the same way some cultures don't like whites who act like blacks, and blacks who act like whites. Just trying to think of a reason...

There is so much bitterness fueling conflicts in the world today. I wish we could all learn the truths of Eph. 4:31 and 32. Maybe if people who say they follow Christ would start, others would see our peaceful, compassionate, kind example and want that as well.

The end of Ephesians 4 has a lot of useful advice now that I'm rereading it. :)

Thanks for your feedback.

Tarb Rennek said...

Thank you for posting this. Very few people now how much Native American blood I have and that is the way my parents wanted it. I cannot get away from the fact that my thoughts and actions are different even though my parants wanted us to be very white. My children are very much white and I feel like the last "Indian" in my family because my children do not have the culture that I grew up with and this is very sad.

Susanne said...

Tarb, thank you for dropping by and leaving your comment. I am sorry your parents wanted you to be "very white" at the expense of your Native blood and culture. I can somewhat see why they wanted this. I'm sure they wanted it for your own good and such, but it's too bad. Perhaps you can expose your children to this side of them. They may find it very exciting to learn more about what makes up their heritage. I know I would! I sometimes feel like one with shallow roots because I don't know much about where my ancestors came from. It would be exciting to learn more about their culture from way back when just to see what pressures they faced, why they came to the US, what their communities were like.

I looked at a few of your pictures of Minnesota on one of your blogs. It's very beautiful there! I've never been.

I appreciate your feedback!