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Library Learnings: God is Red


On “the superiority of the Indian tribal religions”

It will be when Indigenous people “rise and begin to reclaim their ancient heritage,” that “the invaders of the North American continent will finally discover that, for this land, God is red.” 

It is with this profession that the late Vine Deloria, jr., concluded his seminal work, which he entitled God is Red: A Native View of Religion

Written almost half a century ago, updated in 1994—this is the book now to be had in the SSUC Library—and reissued in 2003 as a 30th anniversary edition, God is Red “advocates for the return to traditional ways,” as indianz.com puts it. “It is the ultimate book on Native American religion and spirituality,” rambles.net declares, in which the author “pulls no punches”; the University of Chicago Press Journals reckons it to be “groundbreaking”; and Spirituality & Practice declares it a “controversial volume”. Indeed.

Deloria juxtaposes the philosophy, traditions, and understandings of the First Peoples with those that Christians profess—and these don’t fare well. This is “his real subject,” Robert Fleming writes in the Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature: “a vigorous attack on Christianity as it is practiced today,” and as it was “during the centuries when nominally Godfearing white men drove…aboriginals off their land, that is, when they did not exterminate them completely.” 

It’s as a Summary & Study Guide (that once was published to accompany the book) has it: “It is obvious that the author finds many of the traditions and beliefs in the Christian doctrine to be groundless, and often absurd. The majority of the book seems to be focused toward pointing out the superiority of the Indian tribal religions….” For rambles.net, Karen Elkins explains, “He puts Christianity under the microscope…and blows apart all those carefully constructed beliefs. …The end result is that the Native Americans are the enlightened ones.” “…the true Christian,” Fleming adds, “will have to agree with far too much of what he says.”

In their book review for Spirituality & Practice, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat observe, “The red man…offers people a religion of community, reverence for the earth, continuity between life and death, a treasure house of myth and ritual, and a way of understanding the spirit of life….” In all that, what’s not to like?

Christian beliefs and Native American percepts “appear to stand in direct opposition,” Deloria writes in God is Red. The “two traditions are polar opposites in almost every respect, and come to different conclusions about the meaning of life and the eventual disposition of the soul….” It’s his determination that “the whole [of the Christian] religion has been misdirected from its inception,” and that—and here he is referring to believers—it “has no bearing on their lives.”

Still, he allows, “The validity of these two religious views is yet to be determined. One, Christianity, appears to be in its death throes. The other, the tribal religion, is attempting to make a comeback,” but it’s having to do this in “a world as different from the world of its origin as the present world is different from the world of Christian origins. Can tribal religions survive? Can they even make a comeback?” As this hints, and as Channing Kury states in a review of the book in Natural Resources Journal, Deloria “leads the reader to an understanding of the modern crisis for the American Indian.” 

God is Red was published initially in 1973, near the beginning of a two decades-long period that Deloria refers to as “the Indian movement.” And look: “…religion played a critical…role in the Indian movement.” 

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Wounded Knee: “…it was a beautiful experience”

Surely the most high-profile instance of activism began on February 27, 1973, when perhaps 250 armed American Indian Movement leaders and followers, critical of the federal government’s failure to fulfill treaties with First Peoples, occupied—for 71 days—a trading post on the Pine Ridge Reservation town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The snarl, which came to involve FBI agents, prominent entertainment figures, and lots more, and claimed the lives of two of the occupiers, began over a controversial tribal chairman viewed by some segments of the tribe as a corrupt puppet of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

Indian Country Today’s account of the occupation includes this affirmation: “’In a way, it was a very beautiful experience,’ said Len Foster, a Navajo man who joined AIM in 1970, and was at Wounded Knee for the entire 71 days. ‘It was a time to look at the commitment we made, and a willingness to put our lives on the line for a cause.’” 

Wounded Knee was, of course, the site of the infamous massacre in 1890 of as many as 300 Lakota men, women, and children, by the U.S. 7th cavalry, the very corps that, under George Armstrong Custer, had been decimated 14 years earlier in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. That “massacre was the climax of the U.S. Army’s late 19th-century efforts to repress the Plains Indians,” britannica.com reports. “It broke any organized resistance to reservation life and assimilation into white American culture.”

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Among Native Americans, one result of “the Indian activist movement,” according to Deloria, “was the tremendous surge of interest in traditional religions and customs.” This back-to-the-future revival “attempted to recoup the lost ground, and return to the culture, outlook and values of the old days.” It was a time in which “Indians in their respective tribes began a serious revival of their religious traditions. Ceremonies that had long been discarded or suppressed were once again performed. …Young Indians all over the country felt it imperative to experience a vision quest, and some groups even reinstated a version of the ghost dance….” 

So it is that, “In the last several decades, tribal religions have seen a renewal that astounds many people,” he confirms. “On the reservations we are seeing an amazing resiliency in restoring the old ceremonies. A massive shift in allegiance is occurring in most tribes away from Christianity and secularism, and back towards the traditional ways.”

It’s being an uphill battle: true, once “tribal religions held their own in competition with the efforts of the Christian missionaries. But a whole new generation had grown up, educated in mission and government schools, and living according to the bureaucrats’ dictates; these young Indians rigorously rejected old religious activities as a continuation of paganism,” he regrets. “They grew up in a period of time when any mention of tribal religious beliefs was forbidden, and they have been taught that Indian values…are superstitions, and pagan beliefs must be surrendered before they can be truly civilized.” 

He worries that “the day may be fast approaching” when Native Americans and their ways “will fall before the complexity of modern life,”  citing as one example how “employment opportunities away from the reservations have caused nearly half of the members of Indian communities to remove themselves from the reservations…. For that reason, the future may be already a threat to Indian tribal and religious existence as it has never before appeared to be.” 

Be that as it may, Deloria understands that, “One of the greatest hindrances to the reestablishment of tribal religions is the failure of Indian people to understand their own history. The period of cultural oppression in its severest form—1887-1934—served to create a collective amnesia in contemporary people.”

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A necessary task that’s “virtually impossible”

That whites are uninformed about First Peoples both frustrated and amused Deloria. He tells of “one memorable evening” when he, as a guest on Bill Barker’s call-in radio show in Denver, “was asked by a radio listener how the Indians celebrated Christmas before the coming of the whites. Bill and I broke out laughing, and he had to punch in a commercial so I could compose myself before trying to answer this silly question.” 

Overcoming such ignorance in order to achieve reconciliation will be essential: “Before any final solution to American history can occur, a reconciliation must be effected between the spiritual owner of the land—American Indians—and the political owner of the land—American whites.”

But he’s not optimistic. “Many thoughtful and useful systems of belief of ancient peoples have been simply rejected a priori by Western religious thinkers.” So, “The minds and eyes of Western people have thus been permanently closed to understanding…[the] religious experience [of First Peoples].” And, “For people…deeply imbued with Christian beliefs, the task [of grasping the essential meaning of existence] is virtually impossible.”

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Just why is it so imperative that the old insights and practices that constitute Native American religion be redeemed and inspirited? Deloria, on the last page of his book, explains: “Within the traditions, beliefs, and customs of the American Indian people are the guidelines for society’s future.” Perhaps Robert Fleming, in his piece for the Rocky Mountain Review, has it right: “Salvation for America lies, according to Deloria…in a willingness to learn from Indian religions….”

What are they, these ways and understandings—which Deloria found to be scarce in Christianity—that are so needed nowadays? Here is a sampling from God is Red.

*  “The tribal religions had one great benefit other religions did not have and could not have. …There was never a case…of having to believe in certain things….” “In tribal religions, no effort is made to define religion as a system of doctrinal truths….” “It is virtually impossible to ‘join’ a tribal religion by agreeing to its doctrines. People couldn’t care less whether an outsider believes anything.”

*  Native Americans take their religious notions “from the world around them, from their relationships with other forms of life. …It is not what people believed to be true that was important, but what they experienced as true. Hence, revelation was seen as a continuous process of adjustment to the natural surroundings….” What a shame then that “modern society has foreclosed the possibility of experiencing life in favour of explaining it.”

*  “…the fellowship of life is a strong part of the Indian way.” “The task of the tribal religion…is to determine the proper relationship that the people of the tribe must have with other living things, and to develop the self-discipline within the tribal community so that man acts harmoniously with other creatures.” 

*  On the other hand, “there is no great demand to have a ‘personal relationship’ with the Great Spirit in the same manner as popular Christianity has emphasized personal relationships with God.” To First Peoples, God is conceived of as “an undefinable presence.” “…they tell that beneath the surface of the physical universe is a mysterious spiritual power which cannot be described in human images, that must remain always the ‘Great Mystery’.” “…I suspect that…[efforts to describe] God may preclude the possibility of ever experiencing Him, Her, or Them.”

*  “…history had virtually no place in the religious life of the tribe.” Christianity’s “preoccupation with history and a chronological description of reality was not a dominant factor in any tribal conception of either time or history.” “No Indian tribal religion was dependent on the belief that a certain thing happened in the past that required uncritical belief in the occurrence of the event.” 

*  “The singular aspect of Indian tribal religions was that almost universally they produced people unafraid of death.” “A majority of the tribal religions simply assume some form of personal survival beyond the grave.” “For the tribal people, death in a sense fulfills their destiny, for as their bodies become dust once again they contribute to the ongoing life cycle of creation.” “It is in the face of death that Indian tribal religions have their magnificence.” 

But this, surely, is Deloria’s sine qua non: “The future of humankind,” he writes on the book’s last page, “lies waiting for those who will…take up their responsibilities to all living things.” It is a charge that has been ignored. “In less than two-and-a-half centuries, American whites have virtually destroyed a whole continent, and large areas of the United States are now almost uninhabitable….”

The “Christian doctrine of creation,” by which “man receives dominion over the rest of creation…has been adopted wholeheartedly by Western peoples in their economic exploitation of the earth.” Deloria pictures it as “a major factor in our present ecological crisis.” Oh, how all the lands “call for relief from the constant burden of exploitation.”

The creation “becomes a mere object when this view is carried to its logical conclusion—a directly opposite result from that of the Indian religions.” The “religious view of the world” that First Peoples have embraced “seeks to locate our species within the fabric of life that constitutes the natural world, the land and all its various forms of life.” This he pictures as being “a more mature view of the universe as a comprehensive matrix of life forms. Making this shift in viewpoint is essentially religious, not economic or political.” 

In his introduction to his book, Deloria puts it this way: “It is time for people to…make a final effort to renew the earth and its peoples—hoofed, winged, and others…. It remains for us to learn once again that we are part of nature, not a transcendent species with no responsibilities to the natural world.”  

 

Ken Fredrick

 

Meet author Vine Deloria, jr

“He speaks for a nation of Natives”

“The modern tribal sovereignty movement has had no single great inspirational leader—no Martin Luther King, jr., no César Chávez. After all, Indian country contains more than 500 separate and independent peoples, each with its own history, traditions, and officials. Yet, if one person may be singled out, it is Vine Deloria, jr.” 

Reported in High Country News, that is Charles Wilkinson’s determination, and he should know: a renowned Native American affairs scholar, he is the author of the book, Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations. “Deloria was omnipresent for Indian people,” the University of Colorado law professor remembers. “Beyond his books, he was a strategist and advocate for many causes, including self-determination [and] religious freedom [for First Peoples]….” He’s quoted by indianz.com, at the time of Deloria’s death in 2005, as stating, “I think in the last 100 years, he’s been the most important person in Indian affairs, period.” 

Upon his death, Faith Spotted Eagle wrote this of her uncle, said to be a descendent of Sitting Bull: “In Indian country, the name Vine Deloria, jr., is a household word. His quotes are on walls, and often roll off the tongues of young Natives…. He speaks for a nation of Natives.”

A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, he first made a name for himself when, in 1969, he wrote what Wilkinson pictures as “perhaps the most influential book published on Indian affairs—Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.” His first book, this bestseller, Wikipedia explains, “Focused on the Native American goal of sovereignty without political and social assimilation,” and, as indianz.com has it, “helped change the public’s consciousness toward American Indians.” As Deloria wrote, “What we need is a cultural leave-us-alone agreement, in spirit and in fact.”

In his efforts to effect modern tribal sovereignty, Deloria was inspired by the civil rights movement, but drew a clear distinction between the two. “To appreciate the distinction between civil rights and tribal movements,” Wilkinson has mentioned, “one need only consider the nature of the wrongs inflicted on each group: Blacks were determined to eliminate segregation and allow integration; Indians sought to reverse forced assimilation.”

“We will survive because we are a people united by our humanity,” Deloria wrote in Custer. “And from our greater strength, we shall wear down the white man, and finally outlast him. But above all—and this is our strongest affirmation—we shall endure as a people.”

This leading Native American intellectual was—besides being an author who wrote more than 20 books—an activist, lawyer, historian, educator, and theologian (he, in 1963,  obtained a master’s in theology from the Lutheran School of Theology in Illinois). Once executive director of the National Conference of American Indians, the country’s largest inter-tribal organization, and a board member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, he was one of only a dozen to be inducted initially into the National Native American Hall of Fame.  

One thing more you should know about Deloria: he “stayed openhearted,” the Library of Congress affirmed in a 2016 remembrance, and “maintained his sense of humour in his writings.” Speaking at this library’s National Book Festival in 2002, Deloria recalled how once a U.S. attorney had told him that “he knew Indians were Indians because Columbus was seeking India when he stumbled on America. ‘Yeah,’ Deloria shot back. ‘We’ve always been happy that he wasn’t looking for Turkey.’”

 

KF