Thursday, November 24, 2011

Five top books on American Indians and colonizers

Colin Calloway is Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth.

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, he discussed five books on Native Americans and colonizers, including:
Custer Died for Your Sins
by Vine Deloria Jr

Let’s take a detour from straight history to discuss Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto from 1969 by Vine Deloria Jr. What is this book about and why is it so important to demythologising the story of Indians in America?

Custer Died for Your Sins is not primarily about early American history – it’s a groundbreaking collection of essays in which Vine Deloria, a Lakota writer, scholar and activist, takes a series of pot shots at federal Indian policies and Anglo academics who made their careers as so-called “Indian experts”. Vine Deloria, who died in 2005, was in many ways the most influential Native American intellectual for the 20th century.

What this collection did was alter the way we think about and discuss Native American history. His writings in Custer Died for Your Sins put non-Indians on the defensive. He made us think twice about the kind of work that we do and how we should do it. There’s also a powerful articulation of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. He puts Indian concerns, Indian rights, the continuing injustices that native people suffer and the continuing hypocrisies in American society about Indians, in plain view at a time when American society, by and large, still misunderstands Native American experiences, frustrations and aspirations. It’s a reminder that even though we’re working on the 17th or 18th century, what we do has an impact on contemporary native communities. Native people have clear views on their history and we’d better consider those views if we want our work to be relevant.

The word manifesto sounds awfully serious but this book seems quite funny.

There are certain passages that are quite funny. He makes fun of anthropologists who arrive in Indian country and take notes and have an assistant with them and leave to write up their findings and become recognised as experts on the subject, when the people in the community that they’ve visited, if they ever read those things, would often think: “That doesn’t sound like us, this is ludicrous.” A scenario like that continues to be a caution in the back of the minds of people who are trying to work responsibly in Native American history. So it’s not only funny, we can recognise that what he’s talking about is partially true. Non-native people working on Native American history don’t want to be like those people Vine Deloria made fun of. So I think, even though there’s humour in all of Vine Deloria’s writing, some of it quite rapier-like, there are also important points behind it. That’s why I wanted to include Custer Died for Your Sins on this list.
Read about the other books Calloway tagged at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue