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Introduction to Deloria's "We Talk, You Listen"

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DELORIA, Vine, Jr. We Talk, You Listen

 

Introduction

Every now and then I am impressed with the thinking of the non-Indian. I was in Cleveland last year and got to talking with a non-Indian about American history. He said that he was really sorry about what had happened to Indians, but that there was good reasons for it. The continent had to be developed and he felt that Indians had stood in the way and thus had had to be removed. "After all," he remarked, "what did you do with the land when you had it?" I didn’t understand him until later when I discovered that the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland is inflammable. So many combustible pollutants are dumped into the river that the inhabitants have to take special precautions during the summer to avoid accidentally setting it on fire. After reviewing the argument of my non-Indian friend I decided that he was probably correct. Whites had made better use of the land. How many Indians could have thought of creating an inflammable river?

 

A century ago whites broke the Fort Laramie Treaty with the Sioux so they could march into the Black Hills and dig gold out of the ground. Then they took the gold out of the Black Hills, carried to Fort Knox, and buried it in the ground. Throughout the Midwest, Indians were forced off their lands because whites felt that the Indians didn’t put the lands to good use. Today most of this land lies idle every year while the owners collect a government check for not planting anything. Wilderness was taken because "no one" lived there and cities were built in which no one could live.

 

These little insights into the workings of non-Indian society give me pause on my daily journeys. Whenever I become depressed I always turn to the younger generation and New Left groups for solace. Instinctively, they seem to understand Indians, and one can find cheer in their wisdom. In describing his beloved Woodstock Nation at the Chicago Conspiracy trail, Abbie Hoffman, the Diogenes of our times, said that it was located in the state of mind. "It’s a nation of alienated young people which we carry around in our minds just as the Sioux Indians carried around the Sioux Nation in their minds," Hoffman said.

 

Abbie’s chances of relating to the Sioux are comparable to Custer’s. Although we did not torture prisoners as a rule, traditions have been waived for special occasion and Hoffman’s visit to a Sioux reservation would certainly be considered an important occasion. Abbie should have been at a certain civil rights hearing a few years back. One of the whites asked J. Dan Howard, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal councilman, if the Sioux still considered themselves a nation. "You bet," was Dan’s reply, "we could still declare war on you. You might beat us but we’d take a lot of you with us."

 

Again, last summer, a noted female anthropologist presented a scholarly paper to the effect that Indians drink to gain an identity. Anyone who has ever seen Indians would laugh at the absurdity of this idea. It is unquestionably the other way. Indians first ask what your name is, then what your tribe is. After these preliminaries you are sometimes asked to have a drink. Drinking is only the confirmation of a friendship already established by the fact that you belong to a specific tribe. If we acted the way anthropologists describe us, we would get lousy stinking drunk, THEN DECIDE WHAT TRIBE WE WANTED TO BELONG TO, and finally choose a surname for ourselves.

 

All of these things have set me wondering if there isn’t a better way to distinguish between the Indian mood, life-style, and philosophy, and that of the non-Indian. It is very difficult to do. Non-Indians are descended from a peculiar group of people. The first group thought they were sailing off the edge of the world and probably would have had we not pulled them ashore. Their successors spent years traveling all over the continent in search of the Fountain of Youth and the Seven Cities of Gold. They didn’t even know how to plant an ear of corn when they arrived on these shores. So the non-Indian is pretty set in his ideas and hard to change.

 

There are a great many things happening today that can be related to ideas, movements, and events in Indian country—so many that it is staggering to contemplate them. American society is unconsciously going Indian. Moods, attitudes, and values are changing. People are becoming more aware of their isolation even while they continue to worship the rugged individualist who needs no one. The self-sufficient man is casting about for a community to call his own. The glittering generalities and mythologies of American society no longer satisfy the need and desire to belong.

 

Trying to communicate is an insurmountable task, however, since one cannot skip readily from a tribal way of life to the conceptual world of the non-tribal person. The non-tribal person thinks in a linear sequence, in which A is the foundation of B, and C always follows. The view and meaning of the total event is rarely understood by the non-tribal person, although he may receive more objective information concerning any specific element of the situation. Non-tribals can measure the distance to the moon with unerring accuracy, but the moon remains an impersonal object to them without personal relationship that would support or illuminate their innermost feelings.

 

Tribal society is of such a nature that one must experience it from the inside. It is holistic, and logical analysis will only return you to your starting premise none the wiser for the trip. Being inside a tribal universe is so comfortable and reasonable that it acts like a narcotic. When you are forced outside the tribal context you become alienated, irritable, and lonely. In desperation you long to return to the tribe if only to preserve your sanity. While a majority of Indian people today live in cities, a substantial number make long weekend trips back to their reservations to spend precious hours in their own land with their people.

 

The best method of communicating Indian values is to find points at which issues appear to be related. Because tribal society is integrated toward a center and non-Indian society is oriented toward linear development, the process might be compared to describing a circle surrounded with tangent lines. The points at which the lines touch the circumference of the circle are the issues and ideas that can be shared by Indians and other groups. There are a great many points at which tangents occur, and they may be considered as windows through which Indians and non-Indians can glimpse each other. Once this structural device is used and understood, non-Indians, using a tribal point of view, can better understand themselves and their relationship to Indian people.

 

The problem is complicated by the speed of modern communications media. It floods us with news that is news because it is reported as news. Thus, if we take a linear viewpoint of the world, the sequence of spectacular events creates the impression that the world is going either up- or downhill. Events become noted more for their supportive or threatening aspects than for their reality, since they fall into line and do not themselves contain any means of interpretation. When we are unable to absorb the events reported to us by the media, we begin to force interpretations of what the world really means on the basis of what we have been taught rather than what we have experienced.

 

Indian people are just as subject to the deluge of information as are other people. In the last decade most reservations have come within the reach of television and computers. In many ways Indian people are just as directed by the electronic nature of our universe as any other group. But the tribal viewpoint simply absorbs what is reported to it and immediately integrates it into the experience of the group. In many areas whites are regarded as a temporary aspect of tribal life and there is unshakable belief that the tribe will survive the domination of the white man and once again rule the continent. Indians soak up the world like a blotter and continue almost untouched by events. The more that happens, the better the tribe seems to function and the stronger it appears to get. Of all the groups in the modern world Indians are best able to cope with modern situation. To the non-Indian world, it does not appear that Indians are capable of anything. The flexibility of the tribal viewpoint enables Indians to meet devastating situations and survive. But this flexibility is seen by non-Indians as incompetence, so that as the non-Indian struggles in solitude and despair he curses the Indian for not coveting the same disaster.

 

In 1969, non-Indians began to rediscover Indians. Everyone hailed us as their natural allies in the ancient struggle they were waging with the "bad guys." Conservatives embraced us because we didn’t act uppity, refused to move into their neighborhoods, and didn’t march in their streets. Liberals loved us because we were the most oppressed of all peoples who had been oppressed, and besides we generally voted Democratic.

 

Blacks loved us because we objected to the policies of the Department of the Interior (we would probably object if we had set the damn thing up ourselves) which indicated to them that we were another group to count on for the coming revolution. I attended one conference last fall at which a number of raging militants held forth, giving their views on the upcoming revolt of the masses. In a fever pitch they described the battle of Armageddon in which the "pigs" would be vanquished and the meek would inherit the earth (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). When asked if he supported the overthrow of the establishment, an old Sioux replied, "not until we get paid for the Black Hills." Needless to say, revolutionaries have not been impressed with the Indian fervor for radical change.

 

Hippies proudly showed us their beads and, with a knowing smile, bid us hello in the Navajo they had learned while passing through Arizona the previous summer. We watched and wondered as they paraded by in buckskin and feathers, anxiously playing a role they could not comprehend. When the Indians of the Bay area occupied Alcatraz, the hippies descended on the island in droves, nervously scanning the horizon for a vision of man in his pristine natural state. When they found that the tribesmen had the same organizational problems as any other group might have, they left in disappointment, disillusioned with "Indianism" that had existed only in their imaginations.

 

For nearly a year, the various minority and power groups have tried to get Indians to relate to the social crisis that plagues the land. Churches have expended enormous sums creating "task forces" of hand-picked Indians to inform them on the national scope of Indian problems. They have been disappointed when Indians didn’t immediately embrace violence as a technique for progress. Government agencies have tried to understand Indians in an urban context that no longer has validity for even the most stalwart urbanite. Conservationists have sought out Indians for their mystical knowledge of the use of land. It has been an exciting year.

 

There is no doubt in my mind that a major crisis exists. I believe, however, that it is deeper and more profound than racism, violence, and economic deprivation. American society is undergoing a total replacement of its philosophical concepts. Words are being emptied of old meanings and new values are coming in to fill the vacuum. Racial antagonism, inflation, ecological destruction, and power groups are all symptoms of the emergence of a new world view of man and his society. Today thought patterns are shifting from the traditional emphasis on the solitary individual to as yet unrelated definitions of man as a member of a specific group.

 

This is an extremely difficult transition for any society to make. Rather than face the situation head-on, people have preferred to consider social problems as manifestations of a gap between certain elements of the national community. The most blatant example of this attitude is to speak of the "generation gap." Other times it is categorized as a racial problem—the white racist power structure against the pure and peace-loving minority groups. We know that this is false. In those programs where blacks have dominated they have been as racist against Indians as they claim whites have been against them. Behind every movement is the undeniable emergence of the group as a group. Until conceptions of the nature of mass society are enlarged and accepted by the majority of people there will be little peace in this society.

 

But one cannot go skipping from a group to group checking out movements and ideas to see if everything will come out all right. A better way of understanding events would be to find the similarities of structure that exist. Generalizations on this basis, if the necessary philosophical distinctions are maintained, would be most helpful. It would appear to me that modern society has two alternatives at this point. American people are being pushed into new social forms because of the complex nature of modern communications and transportation, and the competing forms are neo-tribalism and neo-feudalism. The contest of the future is between a return to the castle or the tipi.

 

The difference between the castle and the tipi is immense, yet there are such great similarities that it is difficult to distinguish between them. Each offers social identity and economic security within a definite communal system. But the leveling process of the tribal form prevents the hereditary control over a social pyramid, and the feudalistic form has the efficiency to create and control technology. Both are needed if we are to rule machines instead of submit to them.

 

Many people can and will support the return of the castle. We have already experienced Camelot and the universal longing for its return. The massive corporate organizations have driven us well into the era of neo-feudalism. But the continual failure of the total economic system to support the population and the corporation speaks of the necessity to reorient social goals more in line with a tribal-communal life style. Tribalism can only be presented in mosaic form. And there is a certain novelty in this approach. No single idea inevitably leads to another. The total impact of tribalism is thus no dependent upon acceptance of a single thesis. If events and ideas do not strike one immediately, time does not rode them but serves to shed further light on the problem.

 

After viewing social problems from a number of angles, I can see but one conclusion: America needs a new religion. Nearly every event and movement today shows signs of fulfilling this role, but none has the centered approach that would permit it to dig its roots in and survive. I am not advocating a return to Christianity. That "religion" had had two thousand years of bloodshed and hypocrisy and has failed to do anything more than help turn men into machines. We are probably entering an era in which religious sensitivity is expressed in rigorous adherence to the values of racial and ethnic groups—secularization of religious feeling in political action.

 

If my conclusion is correct, then it is necessary to outline the Indian point of view as a contribution to the discussion of the problem. Further generalization about how we are all alike—all people—are useless today. Definite points of view, new logic, and different goals define us. All we can do is try to communicate what we feel our group means to itself and how we relate to other groups. Understanding each other as distinct peoples is the most important thing.

 

As to the point of view, there really is a difference. A man was explaining his war experiences to his son one day. "There we were, surrounded by thousands of the enemy. Bullets were whizzing around our heads. Our water was gone. We had no food and our ammunition was running out. Suddenly, in the distance, we heard the welcome sound—of war whoops."

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