Fifty years ago an unknown writer published an “Indian manifesto.” The book was “Custer Died For Your Sins” by Vine Deloria Jr.
This is Trahant Reports.
Custer Died For Your Sins was a manifesto, a best-seller, and a banned book (a trifecta).
So much literature back then went something like this: Once there was a great chief — say, Chief Joseph — who led his people past danger and outmaneuvered a powerful U.S. Army. But instead of a climactic victory, Chief Joseph almost reached Canada. Almost.
The Nez Perce people almost won. And the American Indian leader was almost great.
Boil it down, story after story, and the condensed version of Native history was reduced to an “almost” narrative.
American Indians were included in America’s master narrative only in the context of failure.
But Custer Died for Your Sins took that old, flat American Indian history and crumpled it until the dimensions were recognizable and honest.
“Most books about Indians cover some abstract and esoteric topic of the last century,” Deloria wrote. “Contemporary books are predominately by whites trying to solve the ‘Indian problem.’ Between the two extremes lives a dynamic people in a social structure of their own to be freed from cultural expression.”
And he freed a lot of cultural expression.
That included the radical idea that “one of the best ways to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh. Laughter encompasses the limits of the soul. In humor, life is redefined and accepted.”
Here was a book about American thought, policy, and history that devoted an entire chapter to humor, words that should have destroyed the stereotype of the wooden Indian.
Custer Died For Your Sins was a manifesto — it demanded the right of American Indians to control their image in rich detail. And “manifesto” was precisely the right word — a declaration of principles, policies, and intentions in a political context.
But the book had a dual manifesto: To American Indian readers it was a call to arms, a plea to recognize the essence of tribal philosophy, political systems, and religion.
As Deloria wrote, “There is more to the story than that. Indian people today have a chance to re-create a type of society for themselves, which can defy, mystify, and educate the rest of American society. Yet they mill around like so many cattle, not bringing to the surface the greatness that is in them.”
Looking back over 50 years it’s clear that the most significant contribution of the book was that idea American Indians controlling our narrative, owning our story.
Then it’s not just our story. At a conference last week Haskell Indian Nations University professor Daniel Wildcat said the day will come when Vine Deloria Jr is remembered as one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers.
I am Mark Trahant.