Each November, National Native American Heritage Month honors the United States’ original inhabitants, celebrating the accomplishments of American Indians and shedding light on figures sometimes left out of national conversations.
The designation was federally established in 1994, but the Native American fight for recognition began decades before. In a new book released this year, Arizona State University scholar David Martínez explores the Red Power movement of the late 1960s, a youth-led effort focused on self-determination and tribal sovereignty that set the stage for contemporary actions like the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Martínez’s book examines the breadth of that movement through the eyes of one of its founding architects: Standing Rock Sioux lawyer, author and professor Vine Deloria Jr.
Published this August by University of Nebraska Press, Martínez’s “Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Birth of the Red Power Movement” examines how Deloria’s writings spoke to Native American communities and sparked a movement that spread across the country.
Deloria’s 1969 book, “Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto,” laid the foundation for the Red Power movement’s self-determination ideals. He went on to become a prominent tribal scholar and wrote more than 20 books on the subject. Though he died in 2005, Martínez said his legacy lives on in today’s Native American sovereignty movements and the classrooms focused on them.
“Deloria was probably the most important intellectual of the late 20th century,” said Martinez, a member of the Gila River Indian Community and an associate professor in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ American Indian Studies program. “Many would argue his writing single-handedly invented the modern curriculum of American Indian studies, particularly in regard to tribal self-determination in all of its political, legal, cultural and social manifestations."
Martinez answered a few questions about the book and what Deloria means to American Indian scholars today.
Question: How has Deloria’s writing helped shape contemporary American Indian studies programs in the U.S. today?
Answer: The objective of American Indian studies today is about acknowledging the historic policies that have been dogging us for generations, and to understand what our nationhood means in terms of our identity as indigenous peoples and our relationship with the federal system. Deloria helped initiate that discussion within academia.
Federal Indian law and policy has defined Indian affairs from the beginning of colonization to today. That includes treaties, U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the reservation system. When Deloria came along in the mid-1960s, the federal government wanted to get rid of its trust responsibilities to tribes, essentially eliminating the promises made to us over the years in terms of compensation for the land taken.
That created a huge uproar among tribes from coast to coast and stimulated a youth movement that became the Red Power movement. It was comprehensive resistance from Indians who were sick of being treated as second-class citizens. Deloria’s priority and that of the movement was about getting America to recognize that Indian tribes were, in fact, sovereign nations protected by federal Indian law.
Q: How do you think he provided a foundation for Native American activists and academics active today?
A: Actually, Deloria didn't really identify himself as an activist, but as an Indian nationalist. Nationalism can sometimes go a militaristic route or include things like acts of public disobedience. But it can also involve the intellectual work of writing about history, theories and analyses, and working within the system to bring change. An example was the creation of the National Congress of American Indians, which tried to influence Congress and get legislative fixes for various problems on reservations. Deloria became the group’s executive director and went to Congress a number of times for hearings on bills that stood to impact tribes. He also had a law degree, so it was not uncommon for him to be called as an expert witness during those hearings as well.
That said, I think a better term for Deloria would be an engaged intellectual. He is part of a lengthy tradition in the American Indian community of people who use their education and experience to advocate on behalf of tribes. He used writing and speaking to engage people and take on issues from an intellectual sphere.
Q: Are there any modern-day examples of the kind of work Deloria was doing back in the 1960s?
A: There’s good work produced today, but I don’t think any of us would be so brazen as to compare ourselves to Deloria. He emerged during a period when indigenous nations generally felt under threat by the federal government’s trust termination proposal. And there really weren’t a lot of Native writers getting published at the time.
Most of the books coming out on Indians back then were history books about famous chiefs of the 19th century, or anthologies of their famous speeches. People were talking about contemporary Indian affairs, but hardly anyone was writing about them. Then Deloria released “Custer Died for Your Sins.” Nowadays there's a community of scholars in this discipline. Deloria was mostly working on his own.
Q: What do you think students can take away from Deloria’s work?
A: For my Native students in particular, the thing that’s most impressive is Deloria’s sense of humor. There is a tradition among American Indians of handling oppression through humor, belittling your oppressor and satirizing your oppressors. And it’s that humorous vein that makes issues accessible.
Deloria would do that in his books. And students, especially those who grew up on the reservation, pick up on it right away. They regard Deloria as the real deal because a lot of his anecdotes come straight out of his own experience, either as an Indian leader or having grown up on the reservation himself. Native students connect to his stories because they’re familiar. He sounds like their uncle or their grandfather. They trust him as a result, and they're more willing to take his ideas seriously.
Q: What was it like for you to learn about Deloria as a college student yourself?
A: I was in community college in Southern California when I first started reading Deloria, but it wasn’t in a classroom. That school was good, but not the kind of place focusing on American Indian history or writers. I was connected to the Indian community in Los Angeles County and here in Arizona, so Deloria’s name came up for me that way. I remember buying my copy of “Custer Died for Your Sins” at a bookstore in Claremont, California, and immediately becoming enthralled. Reading his work motivated and inspired me for the same reasons it does for my students now. I picked up on his humor and he validated my experiences as a Native person. That encouraged me to continue my education in the hopes I could create things like he did, some day.
Q: What do you hope your book adds to the conversation about Deloria and Native American issues at large?
A: I think it's time we remind ourselves of Deloria’s work and legacy because revisiting that era is a way to understand the journey we've traveled over the last 50 years as a community, movement and discipline.
I think it’s also important to build upon his work and recognize what’s missing. Deloria was good at articulating the inherent rights of tribes as sovereign nations, for example, but he didn't take that notion into areas like gender relations. The Second Wave Feminist movement was going on during the same time he first appeared, but you don't see any of that in his writing. As scholars today, we can expand by looking at Native women leaders of the time, and we can ask ourselves how gender relations play into the larger conversation about tribal self-determination.
Deloria was also very aware of growing environmental crises of his time. There are a lot of environmental justice issues that are still impacting tribes today, the Dakota Access Pipeline being the most well-known example of that. We can capitalize on his work and use it to rethink environmental justice so that it is more amenable to tribal sovereignty and tribal rights.
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