I live in the Northwoods where my mailing address is a tiny Native American town dominated by a large casino. In my desire to better understand my Ojibwe neighbors, I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and a book of local history. Friends recommended several other titles, one being the autobiographical novel April Raintree (reviewed here) and another the shockingly titled Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria, an Oglala Sioux and executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), 1964-67.
Like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (reviewed here), this book must be read for the emotions and how it feels to be Native American (or in Coates’s case, African American). Much of it is rant, and the facts lack documentation, but the emotions are very real.
The title comes from a 1960s bumper sticker meant to be a jab at the National Council of Churches. It referred to the 1868 treaty that gave Red Cloud’s Sioux “free and undisturbed use of lands in exchange for peace.” Of course, that treaty, like virtually every other treaty the United States signed with indigenous peoples, was soon broken. As in the Old Testament, the breaking of a covenant requires blood sacrifice. “Custer was the blood sacrifice for the United States breaking the Sioux treaty” (p 148).
Deloria mocks anthropologists, although his sister was one, and opposes Christianity although his grandfather was an Episcopal priest and his father an archdeacon and missionary on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. As a committed Christian and retired missionary, I was especially interested in his chapter concerning “Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum.” Using typical Indian humor (another interesting chapter), he says, “When the missionaries arrived, they fell on their knees and prayed. Then they got up, fell on the Indians, and preyed” (p.101). He links mission work with the white land grab. “While the thrust of Christian missions was to save the individual Indian, its result was to shatter Indian societies and destroy the cohesiveness of the Indian communities. Tribes that resisted the overtures of the missionaries survived. Tribes that converted were never heard from again” (p. 102). ) It would be interesting to see some documentation of this.
Deloria justly criticizes the church for its role in economic exploitation, something it was able to do by segmenting life into sacred and secular domains, so that the morality preached from the pulpit had nothing to do with day-to-day behavior. He maintains there was never any direct confrontation between the white religion and native religion. The conflict was between rites and practices, and the Christianity presented by the missionaries, reduced to creedal affirmations, was much less demanding than traditional religion. The white man’s rites obviously had power. “Blessed with the gun, the printing press, the iron kettle, and whiskey, it was obvious to many Indians that the white man’s god took pretty good care of his people. Since there were no distinctions made between religion and life’s other activities by the Indian people, the natural tendency was to adopt the white religion of recitation and forego the rigors of fasting, sacrifice and prayer” (p. 105).
Indian religious expression was denounced by whites as subversion or reinterpreted. Deloria objects to the way in which the best young men (like his father and grandfather?) were recruited to become missionaries to their own people, while always kept down and never allowed to take leadership of their own churches. “The determination of white churches to keep Indian congregations in a mission status is their greatest sin” (p. 112).
This “Indian Manifesto” was originally published in 1968. The edition I read was republished in 1988. Much has changed in the past thirty years, including Native-owned casinos. I know that the sort of Christian faith that is integral to all of life as Deloria would like has struggled in Indian communities, both urban and reservation. Are Native churches still led by outsiders? I find that hard to imagine when African, Asian, and Latin American churches have such highly qualified and gifted leaders from within their cultures. Deloria links religion to land and culture as if they can’t be separated. If he were alive today, I wonder what he would say to the southward movement of the church of Jesus Christ—the only religion in the world that embraces all cultures and thrives in so many distinct cultural forms still committed to the Bible as their standard of truth and a first century Jew as the only means of salvation.
Another chapter of great interest to me was “The Red and the Black,” which explains why Indians were not drawn into the Civil Rights movement. Blacks sought equality—to be the same as whites. Indians maintain their separateness and beg to be left alone to solve their problems in their own way. I would find this a more powerful argument if fifty years later the problems of drugs, alcohol and domestic violence were not so common in our Native community and considered normal in the books I have read by Native authors. “An Indian version of Christianity could do much for our society” (p. 124) Deloria writes. I long to see that prophecy fulfilled here in the Northwoods.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will permeate lives.
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