Vine Deloria, Jr. Interview with Bobby Bridger

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the publication of
Custer Died For Your Sins
Winter Issue, Hoka Hey! 1989

Hoka Hey!: Why did you write Custer Died For Your Sins?

Deloria: Americans traditionally "group" peoples by category. At the time, the late 1960s, all radical minorities were grouped with blacks in the sense that -without asking us- it was assumed that everyone wanted assimilation and integration. Many tribes were still reeling from the shocks of termination in the previous decade and, in fact, the Colville termination had been rigorously supported by Henry Jackson, then chairman of the Senate Interior Committee. "Integration", and I say it with quotes, was the primary social excuse for terminating tribes. We knew perfectly well that land developer, mining interests, oil companies, and banks were behind the drive for termination because they saw it as a way to get hold of Indian property. So we had to find a way to make clear that the idea of assimilation -integration as is were- was anathema to us. That way Jackson and the pro-termination forces would have to find a better excuse to support the policy, and that would force them into the open where they could not justify what they were doing.

So Stan Steiner had already alerted the public to the existence of Indians in The New Indians. After that, publishers wanted an Indian book, and I was interviewed by Macmillan, offered a contract, and saw a way to raise some of these issues -at least to back off the more prominent people who were mixing in Indian affairs- the antros, churches, business interests.

Hoka Hey!: What was the white reaction to the book?

Deloria: Well, the antros were livid. They had puffed themselves up to believe that by treating Indians as specimens for research, they were somehow saving Indian culture. Just as the museum directors today argue that by digging up and displaying Indian human remains, they are "preserving" Indian culture. So they were quite upset. The rest of the groups I discussed didn't really respond very well -the churches and especially the BIA. But some ideas in the book go put into effect in federal law -contracting with tribes, allowing federal employees to work for the tribes, and the whole idea of sovereignty, which had been lying dormant for decades, became a major issue, even though many Indians at the time ridiculed me for mentioning it.

Hoka Hey!: And what was the Indian reaction?

Deloria: Well, the book helped to crystallize Indian thinking in some areas, but by and large, most Indians were already ahead of the ideas in the book as far as anthros and the BIA were concerned. The younger generation seemed to like it, and I used to get quite a few letters from young Indians thanking me for writing the book.. I had gotten a lot of the ideas from older Indians, Indian politicians as a matter of fact, that I had worked with in NCAI [National Congress of American Indians]. So, it was kind of a mix. Indian anthropologists were horrified for the most part, and like the finks they are, were very bitter that I had jeopardized their status within Anthropology. But my Aunt Ella Deloria , was kind of amused by it all, and she was a very prominent linguist. When Floyd Westerman did the album with the same name the book and record sort of complimented each other, so the whole message pretty well got across. I wished I had written up the adventures Floyd and I had getting that record done. They would have made a real funny book. I'm glad Floyd did the record because he is sure to present a protest message.

Hoka Hey!: Why, or rather, how did you pick that title?

Deloria: Well, as you know, I have always been thinking in theological terms. I have a seminary degree, and I was playing around with some of the theological concepts one day, and decided that sacrifice is probably a universal experience for the human race. There have been a whole helluva lot more sacrifices than Jesus when you come to think of it -al those boys in Viet Nam, and the people now being killed in Central America- so blood-letting has not even slowed down in human history. It will probably always be an experience of ours. Custer was just one example of a universal experience.

Anyway, I printed up these little business cards that said Custer Died For Your Sins, and passed them out during the reception for Bob Bennett when he was appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of it, and when my editor had rejected half a dozen other titles, he finally set on that one and I said alright. It turned out okay because later someone did a book called Tom Mix Died For Your Sins. It was a popular phrase for a while.

Hoka Hey!: It is said that in your writings you try to highlight the inconsistencies in American life. Is this true, and, if so, why do you do it?

Deloria: I'm not sure I understand the inconsistencies in American life. And I don't know whether I do concentrate on them. The problem is there are so many of them, primarily, I'm sure, because we tend to accept myths instead of reality, like the expectation that Ronald Reagan would reduce the national debt, or that there is liberty and justice for all, or that all conflict in the world is the result of the Communists. It's pretty difficult to get people to look at some situations realistically, so if I comment on a number of things, people say I dwell on inconsistencies. But, to me the question is why we accept myths in the face of reality in the first place.

Then there are, of course, absolute inconsistencies. We have one set of laws for the rich and another for the poor. We have a different set of qualifications for social programs for rich and poor, and we have all kinds of distinctions between whites and racial minorities. Whites want laws enforced against minorities, but they don't want them enforced against themselves. A dark-skinned kid holds up a convenience store for $100, and he gets a stiff jail sentence. Ivan Boesky walks away with $500 million, and he gets a tap on the wrist. Remember when Spiro Agnew got probation for his crimes on the excuse that getting caught was punishment enough? The inconsistencies are that laws do not really apply to the rich whites in the same way they apply to others -and why is that?

Hoka Hey!: Some people have said that you are in the forefront of the Indian movement in this country. Others say you are now in the older generation. Exactly where do you think you are today?

Deloria: Damned if I know. On some things I know I'm far ahead of everyone else. On other things I'm hopelessly behind and will never catch up. Even worse, I recently saw a list of the most popular singers and records of the 1980s, and I only recognize one singer's name and none of the records. Basically, I just listen to old records -Hank Snow, Slim Whitman, and so forth- and I let popular culture go on by. So I'm hopelessly behind on most things.

But I think I am also deceptive. I have done very little in the way of publishing in legal journals, because I have wanted to be sure of what I was going to say when I did write. So if you look at the publishing record for the past decade, I am behind. But I am about ready to release a whole set of writings -legal theory, theology, and so forth, which represent more than a decade's careful work and thought. I suppose I will be regarded as far ahead again. But who cares? The important thing is to make some kind of constructive contribution when you are asked, and I think I am current with most of my obligations.

Hoka Hey!: What was your relationship with Immanuel Velikovsky, the famous scientific heretic who advocated planetary catastrophes during the early years of human history?

Deloria: Well, not so much of a relationship as many other people actually, but then again I suppose it was something that meant a lot to me. I originally started to be a geologist, and while I was taking historical geology, I happened to read Worlds In Collision, Velikovsky's first book. The idea of catastrophes within human memory was not new to me, because our tribe has legends of earth-changing disasters that are fairly literal and realistic. But the fact that someone much more intelligent than myself had done such a complete job of trying to describe the probable sequence of the really impressed me. In 1964 I was driving in the east and I decided to stop in and see him. I went to Princeton and knocked on his door.

He invited me in and, even though he was terribly busy with some scientists from Australia who where there to discuss something like sun spots or sun magnetism or something very complicated like that, he told me to sit down. His wife gave me a cup of tea, and he took about half an hour to talk with me -me, who knew nothing scientific, linguistic, or really anything about ancient history. So I was very impressed. About ten years later I was invited to a special symposium to give a paper on myth and he was in the audience. I did the best I could, and he liked the presentation, and asked me to come up to his suite, where we talked for several hours about myth. After that, it seemed like he would call me when he was feeling a little depressed over some criticism of him by establishment people, so I never knew when to expect his calls. But when they did come, I did my best to help him see that he had already forces some drastic changes in the way about half a dozen academic fields looked at themselves, and that seemed to be what he wanted to talk about when he stopped to think about it.

His theories have been severely criticized, and several people have launched bitter critiques of his use of source materials in the years since his death. But I think that the line of inquiry which he led a lot of us to take will eventually be verified as essentially correct. That is to say that there really were major earth disasters during human history which stand behind the myths and legends of the old people. I doubt if his basic sequence of action will withstand the test of time, but certainly some amended form of what he was working on will eventually prevail.

Hoka Hey!: You are a college professor now. Why?

Deloria: Well that's a good question. Most of the time when I'm driving around campus looking for a parking space I ask myself why in the world I'm wasting my time with the academic setting. First, I suppose I was always inclined to study things, rather than do a lot of activism. Being basically lazy, I don't want to put a whole lot of effort into something that can be done in an easier way, or that might not need to be done at all. But I was more or less forced into an activist role early in life, because there was no other Indian to take over the National Congress of American Indians at the point that I did.

But I wanted to know a lot more about what had caused the conditions under which Indians lived. Even when I was active I was studying and reading everything I could get my hands on to be up to date on things and understand how they came to be that way. The problem is that I can file and endless series of notes in my mind, but can't retrieve them easily unless people ask me about things. I was hoping that being an academic would help me become more systematic. But in academics so much time is spent on useless things that I'm not sure I have improved myself very much. I have wanted to be helpful to younger Indians and try to get them to see that you have to know almost an infinite number of things in order to be effective in Indian affairs. To some degree, I have succeeded in that effort. Right now I'm looking around to see if there isn't a better way to earn a living and write instead of teaching. Well, I spend as much time looking for a parking space as I do teaching. Big universities are really not worth much as far as producing anything significant. You just get lost in the bureaucratic maze.

Hoka Hey!: What do you think will happen in the coming decades in Indian-White relations?

Deloria: Boy, I sure don't know. No one could have predicted what we have seen in eastern Europe in the last two months* -not even last summer- so asking me to predict something like that is kind of risky. *[Vine was referring to the historic fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Berlin wall.] Hoka Hey! Well, go ahead and predict.

Deloria: Well, I would say that a lot depends on what happens in the environmental movement, how serious people are about turning things around, and how much they understand. I don't say that because Indians are supposed to be the great ecologists, but because unless non-Indians understand human relationships with the land there is a chance they will ease up the pressure on Indians to exploit the reservation lands. Then we can gain some measure of stability in using our lands and develop our own kind of rural economy. Right now, there is actually immense and intense pressure by the BIA and large corporations to get as much of the mineral wealth as possible, to cut as much Indian timber as they can, and use every drop of water they can steal from the reservations. Indian communities are split between protecting what is left, or trying to develop some programs for the reservation people. The people always seem to come out last, because if you lose that land base you have lost everything.

There will be all kinds of articles and investigations of the social problems on reservations, and everyone says that Indian communities are falling apart. They are not falling apart so much as they are very frustrated in trying to gain control over their own lands and resources. If you own land and you can't use it the way you want, then you turn to some avenues to release your frustrations. Of course booze and drugs are available everywhere in America, so there you are.

Land use and the stability of Indian communities will be dependent on how the larger society sees its responsibility to the land. The prospects are grim because hardly anyone is really serious about it. Ecology is really just a hobby for most people. But in addition to land, I really believe we will see the emergence of a very powerful Indian religion that spans many tribes and is composed of a few elements from the Plains tribes. A lot of borrowing is now going on between tribes, and of course we have these alleged Indian medicine men who are running around the country holding sťances and sweatlodges for just about anyone who wants to attend. These people are dealing with some powerful spiritual forces and at some point the spirits are going to call a lot of people to some very rough missions in life. We are going to see radical reforms in the way Indians live and there is going to be a corresponding movement in white society to be serious about religious experiences. I see a real spiritual contest for the soul of the continent, and there is no doubt in my mind that it will result in astonishing changes in the way we look at societies and human beings. I think a lot of whites will have inexplicable religious experiences, and a lot will go crazy -if they are not crazy right now- when they come to see how wrong they have been. That movement will probably call forth some severe religious oppression, and when it does, we will see some major natural disasters, because the continent has to balance itself. Spiritually, psychologically, this country is about to take a dreadful freefall, and where it will land is anyone's guess.

Hoka Hey!: If you had to summarize your work, what would you say is the overall intent of your writing?

Deloria: Hard to say. If you had to classify the, all the present books except God Is Red and The Metaphysics of Modern Existence are what I would call protest and interpretive books. They either identify problems and villains, or they attempt to lay out some basic frameworks for understanding existing problems like The Nations Within and self-government.

The articles I have written were basically little things done to help friends, earn some money, or deal with specific problems and I would like them to remain articles of the past instead of having people want to put them into anthologies and so forth. I have a massive study of Indian diplomacy nearly done. It is a collection of all the unratified treaties, inter-tribal treaties and so forth. None of these texts have been available in one source. You have to look for them in a thousand federal documents, diaries, and other places. I have over 1,400 pages of them already on computer, and when I get the Mexican treaties translated and printed up, I will have an astounding collection to publish. I think it will revolutionize the way people look at federal Indian law, because everything will be there and arranged in a systematic manner. Everything we have said about treaties for a century will be in place. Hopefully, outside of a book on how the Supreme Court has treated racial minorities, I will be done with legal/political writing for many years.

But I also have several manuscripts nearly done which deal with Plains religion, Jungian psychology and Plains ceremonies and visions, and, an ethics book based on Indian kinship patterns. The ethics book will be a significant work, I think, because it is not based on the idea of the solitary individual, as are almost all ethics. This book will use the extended family as the basic unit, and will really be a response to western ethics from Aristotle forward to John Rawls and modern writers. Sounds ambitious and perhaps I can't bring it off. But I have been running chapters of it through my head for years, and if I had time and could get away from people for a few months, I could sit down without taking two deep breaths, write the whole thing up almost without stopping.

I hope that these two later efforts in law and theology will be the real contributions I have to American thought, and that people will look at those writings and not "Custer", etc. as the real body of work with some serious intent behind it.

Hoka Hey!: Any other predictions?

Deloria: Denver Broncos by 13 points against whoever shows up in the Super Bowl in January.

Back to Hoka Hey main page