INTERVIEW WITH VINE DELORIA JR.
AUTHOR OF GOD IS RED
Vine Deloria Jr., named by Time magazine one of the greatest religious thinkers of the 20th Century, is a prominent Native American scholar and author of 24 books (such as God is Red, Custer Died for Your Sins, Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths, etc.). A retired Professor or Political Science at the University of Arizona, and Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Colorado, he has been executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of the National Office for Rights of the Indigent.
As the editor of Wilderness Way magazine, I interviewed Vine Deloria Jr. so that the publication of the interview would coincide with the 30th anniversary edition of his God is Red: A Native View of Religion [Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado] I interviewed Deloria in January of 2004; he died in Novemeber 13, 2005 at age 72. In fact, the interview was never published because the publisher/owner of the magazine believed the title of Deloria’s book, “God is Red,” would offend Christian readers, a position that I found absurd.
God is Red is a vast narrative, broad in scope. Deloria begins with the “Indian unrest” of the 1960s,where younger Indians began to assert their land rights, which had long been abused or ignored. He then proceeds to explain the many counterfeits of Native American Religion, as well as explaining some of the core principles of Native American religion. According to Wilma Mankiller, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, “The flagship book on Native American spirituality remains Vine Deloria’s God Is Red. He does an outstanding job of translating complex spiritual issues into very simple truths.”
Here is the text of that interview, minus some sections that I found uninteresting, or where Deloria felt that he had little to say.
WW: Your wealth of knowledge is vast. I was constantly amazed as I read God is Red at the scope of your references in diverse fields. First, I’d like to know if you’ve ever gotten negative feedback from anyone thinking the title was either racist or exclusive?
DELORIA: Oh, I hardly got any kickback about the title at all. In fact, the book escaped with very little criticism. Of course, you should attribute some of the lack of criticism to the fact that it deals with Indians -- an exotic commodity.
WW: When you discussed the aftermath of the 1960s, you mentioned that many non-Indian youth were attracted to Indian-ness but settled for the counterfeits. You referred to the shamans popping up all over the place and charging outrageous prices for “religion.” You mentioned the great popularity of authors such as the non-Indian Lynn Andrews, the probably fictitious works of Carlos Castaneda, and the “new tribe” of Sun Bear’s – among others. Can you comment on the significance of their popularity, and what’s wrong with these examples and others like them?
DELORIA: In the world of ideas, American and appropriators, 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 Vision Quest, Sweat lodge, using the pipe, etc. People take the symbol and endow it with their own personal beliefs about who Indians are. 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 real Indian culture. And simply being an Indian in the urban areas does not somehow magically mean you know anything of the traditional tribal culture.
WW: In Custer Died For Your Sins, you stated that the reason “the hippies” failed was that (though they were interested in things Indian), they failed to grasp the value of organizing tribally, and ignored the value of customs. Since they were also taking drugs, and had little work ethic, would you agree that that “movement” failed due to laziness? That is, was it their very laziness that led to so many in that movement seeking an “easy” religious path?
DELORIA: I think the Hippies failed for lack of discipline and commitment. 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.
WW: Wallace Black Elk died in January of this year. What do you think about his teachings, and his work establishing lodges in diverse parts of the world?
DELORIA: Well, Wallace made some flamboyant claims, more so with a non-Indian audience than with a predominantly Indian audience. I can't find anywhere in the Sioux tradition that says medicine men have to become missionaries and spread the tribal religion . I got along with him personally but was not a follower. It is difficult to criticize the man when he had so many disciples who were ready to fight if you questioned him. Poor things -- many of them had only Wallace as their example of traditional Sioux ways - and he wasn't that traditional.
WW. Would you say that you wrote God is Red to waken up Indian people, or did you write it to all peoples?
DELORIA: I wrote it mostly to try and build a context to explain the religious motivation behind some of the activism. People said they wanted land restored, but deep down they really wanted the Old Ways restored. But the Old Ways were declared superstitions by most scholars, so I tried to demonstrate that the rejected topics of interest in the modern world were in fact pointing at a more spiritual understanding of the world that could be found in the tribal traditions.
WW: You bring up a very thought-provoking point in your book when you mentioned how Oral Roberts told his followers (some years ago) that he needed something like $10 million for a new building or God would “take me home.” As I read it, your analogy is that televangelists and cults, etc. are to mainstream Christianity as the modern traveling shamans are to traditional tribal religion. Would you agree with that assessment?
DELORIA: Yes, except the televangelists are much worse. They thirst for political power whereas the medicine men, even the phoneys, simply want some public recognition and status.
WW: To what have you attributed the non-Indians great interest in things Indian? Do you feel that the Christian and other churches are failing?
DELORIA: Belief in Christianity has been eroding badly all through the 20th century. Much of it now is mindless recitation of the old story and unquestioned belief or a strange amalgam of contemporary culture and the effort to perpetuate institutional loyalties and activities. Aside from self-induced experiences of fundamentalists, people rarely find emotional assurance for themselves. Indian religions are seen by non-Indians as a way to have real religious experiences -- although I doubt that they have any experiences in depth. Beneath everything, however, is the desperate need to feel at home.
WW: Where would you direct someone who wanted to find a way to follow the Red Way, the Native American Religion(s). Are there paths where anyone is welcome?
DELORIA: Well, I don't make recommendations that would encourage people to bother Indians in that regard. A real involvement with traditional religion is quite exhausting and requires immense concentration and almost continuous presence in an Indian community. I doubt that most villages would welcome outsiders for the necessary period of time.
WW: What advice, if any, do you make to Native Americans who seem to have lost their own cultural roots?
DELORIA: A significant number of Indians have lost not only cultural ties but an appreciation for the powers of real medicine people. I sponsored some conferences on traditional knowledge a decade ago and we began to learn the power and reality behind some of the knowledge. It changed the views of almost everyone who attended. Since then, I have been working with younger people who are serious about the recovery of the old knowledge and am quite optimistic that they will radically change the way Indians see themselves.
WW: Are you familiar with the book The Pipe and Christ ? The author -- a priest -- attempted to define many similarities between Christianity and Native American religion(s). Do you feel that Native American religion is essentially in conflict, or complementary, to Christianity (or for that matter, to Buddhism, Judaism, any mainstream religion).
DELORIA: The task of theologians and religious scholars is to draw comparisons between religions. Unfortunately, they treat beliefs and customs as if they were doctrines and dogmas and generally miss the whole point of a religion. He is not the first nor will he be the last to draw these comparisons, thereby distorting both religions for the sake of logic. Joseph Epes Brown already did it in THE SACRED PIPE -- it didn't change a thing.