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?
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.