- Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Birth of the Red Power Movement by David Martinez
Activist-intellectuals loom large in the history of American social movements. In the 1960s and 1970s, consciousness-raising works like Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s Black Power (1967) were essential reading for [End Page 204] a counterculture whose sights were set on revolution. For the American Indian protest movement that came to be associated with Red Power, Vine Deloria Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) was key. Deloria’s combination of wit and erudition made him a towering figure in the American Indian intellectual tradition. In Life of the Indigenous Mind, David Martinez attempts an ambitious analysis of Deloria’s “Red Power Tetralogy,” which, in addition to Custer, included We Talk, You Listen (1970), God is Red (1973), and Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties (1974).
While Deloria has previously been the subject of some scholarly attention, including, most recently, David E. Wilkins’s 2018 Red Prophet, Martinez is the first to offer such a comprehensive and, importantly, critical engagement with the activist-intellectual’s early work. As Martinez argues, of central concern in the tetralogy was tribal self-determination. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which coincided with John Collier’s tenure as commissioner of Indian Affairs, had been an important (if imperfect) show of federal support for that goal, as had the Indian Claims Commission, established in 1946. But by the 1950s, the federal government had changed course and sought to end the historic trust relationship with Indian peoples. Its termination policy was “an assault on tribal self-governance,” and, more than any other force, it shaped the milieu in which Deloria wrote (112).
Possessed of a thorough understanding of treaties and case law, Deloria chronicled the pattern of bad faith and betrayal that had long characterized the United States government’s relationship with Indians. Termination, he argued, was but the latest chapter in a centuries-long history of American imperial land-grabbing, much of which happened under the pretense of beneficence. (The basic position of the government, after all, was that termination would free Indians from wardship.) But, as Martinez demonstrates, Deloria’s writing was solution-oriented. Chronicling abuses was not an end in itself—rather, it informed his pursuit of tribal self-determination. While Deloria’s vision for the future could never be reduced to bullet points, it included the strengthening of tribal governments; a truly sovereign-to-sovereign relationship with the United States; the affirmation of existing treaties and a return to treaty-making; tribal control of the relocation program; and greater unity between urban and reservation Indians. Taken together, such ideas were, as Martinez suggests, “nothing short of revolutionary” (131).
But Deloria was never wholly consumed with the strictly political [End Page 205] aspects of self-determination. His tetralogy also engaged such subjects as Christianity, anthropology, and civil rights, each of whose relationship to American Indians had been left to non-Indians to define. Martinez writes that, for Deloria (who had once studied to be a priest), “the spread of Christianity across North America went hand in hand with the appropriation of Indian land” (213). Christianity was a settler-colonial tool that Deloria hoped Indians would soon forsake. Similar to Christian missionaries, anthropologists came to Indian Country with distorted ideas of who Indians were and what they represented, and with careerist agendas. At a time when Indians were facing perhaps the greatest assault on their sovereignty since Removal, anthropologists seemed more concerned with their own status as experts than with helping Indians. Martinez notes, however, that Deloria’s wholesale rejection of the institution of anthropology—which generated much debate within the social science community—included ad hominem attacks that, while probably satisfying to some readers, were unwarranted.
Perhaps most impressive is Martinez’s treatment of Deloria’s views on the Black freedom movement in a chapter entitled...