An Interview with Vine Deloria, Jr.
I had to chuckle when I heard a “survivalist” say that he’d like to see the collapse of society so that he could start over from scratch. Really? Why would someone sitting behind a computer, driving a truck, and buying what he needs at the local grocery store want things to fall apart? Though such persons are usually clueless as to what it actually takes to start a society “from scratch,” such sentiments do reveal a deep discontent with our current state of affairs.
History is full of folks who attempted to create a breakaway society, usually in search of a better, more idealistic, maybe even utopian, way of life. That’s how our American experiment began, at the expense of the Native Americans. This is how and why the Amish live they way they do, and persevere despite the ridicule of their neighbors.
Hippies of the 1960s and ‘70s also tried to create separate communities, “communes,” where they could farm, dance and sing, and attempt to put into practice whatever religion and politics they developed. Let’s examine the hippies.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Vine Deloria, Jr. for Wilderness Way magazine. Deloria was named by Time magazine as one of the greatest religious thinkers of the 20th Century. Among his approximately two dozen books, he wrote “God is Red,” which Wilma Mankiller (former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation) called “the flagship book of Native American spirituality.” (Deloria passed away at age 72 in November of 2005).
Among other things, I spoke with Deloria about how hippies presumed to imitate Native Americans in both look and practices.
The reason that the hippie movement failed, Deloria told me, was not just because of drug use, though that was a significant factor. Hippies failed, said Deloria, because they failed to grasp the value of organizing tribally, and they ignored the value of customs. “I think they failed for lack of discipline and lack of commitment,” he said. “People tried to create communities from scratch and it didn’t work. People were sincere, but they often lacked anything in common except a rebellious spirit. And in fact, a lot of Indian communities today have the very same problem. Extreme individualism is chaos and unjust to everyone.”
Deloria also blames television and popular media for presenting a false picture of what traditional Indian culture was and is all about, so those who do sincerely try to pursue that end up pursuing a counterfeit.
“In the world of ideas,” continues Deloria, “Indian culture becomes a kind of deli where people pick and choose what they want to practice. Much of the appropriation is the projection of wishful thinking on different Indian symbols, such as the vision quest, sweat lodge, using the pipe, etc. My fear was that with so many Indians living in the cities with no experience with reservation communities, some of them would begin to think that the frauds actually represented the true tribal cultures. I can remember how popular the Billy Jack movies were and many Indian youths thought the ‘ceremonies’ in that movie were what people actually did. A lot of it sounded good to people who knew nothing about Indian culture. And simply being an Indian in the urban area does not somehow magically mean you know anything of the traditional tribal culture.”
It was an insightful interview with Deloria on a variety of topics where he shared – if you read between the lines – how to succeed at making a meaningful community, based upon following certain patterns from the past.
Unfortunately, the interview was never published in Wilderness Way because the owner/publisher told me that “It might offend Christian readers.”
“How on earth would they be offended?” I challenged.
“Because his book is called ‘God is Red,’” said the publisher.
I was shocked at his narrow-mindedness, and suggested that he read such books as “The Pipe and Christ,” or Joseph Epes Brown’s “The Sacred Pipe” to see that there is less dichotomy between pure tribal religion and pure Christianity than meets the eye. This is not to imply that Deloria did not criticize Christianity. He certainly did, but Deloria was an “equal opportunity” criticizer, criticizing what he saw wrong in both Native American practices, Christianity, and elsewhere.
For example, he harshly criticized televangelists such as Oral Roberts who once told his followers that he needed about $10 million for his new building or “God would take me home.” He analogized televangelists to mainstream Christianity as the travelling pop shaman to traditional tribal religion.
“Except the televangelists are much worse,” he explained. “They thirst for political power whereas the medicine men, even the phoneys, simply want some public recognition and status.”
There is no shortage of guidelines from the past or present for “the right ways to live.” It is silly to think that everything must be destroyed in order to create a higher and better way of life.
Deloria brought up just a few of the principles that anyone can work to put into practice: Discipline, organizing within a community of like-minded people, and valuing your traditions and customs.
Additionally, whenever anyone brings up “The Old Ways,” it usually refers to such things as valuing family, home, respect for elders, respect for your surroundings, cooperation with others, and the ability to adapt.
Anyone wishing to seek the meaning of Real Survival cannot go wrong by beginning to apply these simple principles into your daily life.