Words And Places native literature from the american southwest
 

A Conversation With Vine Deloria, Jr.

Transcript

with

Vine Deloria, Jr., Geri Keams, Steve Crum, and Steve Nelson

GK Who do you write for? Do you feel you write for Indian people or do you feel you write for non-Indian people? When I was reading God is Red, I'd have to go, "what was that again?" and I'd have to go back over. The grass roots Indians, they're the ones that personally I don't think they would understand a lot of that. Could you comment on that?

VD That's the difficulty you have. And you face it all the way through. In order to get a book contract the publisher has to be convinced that it is a commercial book. What that means in the minds of most editors is that it will sell in New York City. And New York City sells one quarter of the books that are sold in this country every year. Maybe a best-selling book will never reach the West—very few copies will reach the West—but if it sells in the bookstores in New York then it's a best-seller. So, you have a problem of being out West whether you're an Indian or any other kind of writer if you're out of the New York area. New Yorkers are basically stupid. They really don't believe that there is anything west of the Hudson. There may be a few trees and rocks, but outside of that there's nothing, see? So, you can start from a Western perspective and assume that your readers know certain things. When that manuscript gets to New York and those editors look at it, then they change the whole thing around. So that you're communicating with the people who live in that string from Boston to Washington. I've done a couple of articles for the New York Times where I tried to do them from an Indian perspective, and the New York Times bought the articles, but they eliminated most of the stuff I wanted to communicate. They made me put in the front of it all the statistics and orientation—there really are Indians, they have a drop-out rate, they have so many tribes—so you end up not knowing who you are writing for. Because it has to be commercial for it to be published and in order to do that you have to keep altering it so that you're basically appealing to a nebulous audience that lives on the East Coast and has certain beliefs about the world. And you can't ever crack that. One of the best articles that I think that I ever did was for American Airlines Magazine. And I did twelve pages that more or less summarized in fairly precise manner what the ideological conflict was in Indian law, why non-Indians couldn't understand the Indian position in Indian law. And what happened when that article reached the editors? They dropped the middle six pages out where I did a lot of history which would explain it. Then they asked me to write a little bit about law before the coming of the white man. The article ended up with stuff that I hadn't wanted to put in in the first place that was just orientation for white readers. The gist of the article was eliminated and, in my conclusion, my original conclusions came in. In terms of someone who was knowledgeable about Indian legal problems the article didn't make sense at all when it was finally published. But in terms of white audience that is going to be on the airplane just wanting a little legal titillation, you know that's what they wanted. So you have a choice of trying to pick your audience and saying the things you would like to communicate to them or being published. And so it always ends up not anything you wanted to do, but changed enough so that the publisher will publish it.

GK So how do you feel personally about the impact of your writing?

VD Well, if I had it to do over again, I'd take an entirely different approach to a great many things. See, I didn't realize until a couple of years ago, the degree to which non-Indians are bound into their own cultural world view. I thought that there were a lot of avenues leading in and leading out and you could kind of draw them through that. But I say there is really no way to do that. What you really have to plan to do is attack the fundamental premises, the way they look at the world in order to even begin to communicate. If you look at what's going on right now, say three or four years ago, Scott Momaday or myself would have ten offers to write articles. The focus was on what Indians have to say. Today almost all the writing on Indians is done by non-Indians who live in the East. The recent one on Maine Indians in Atlantic Monthly is a non-Indian. The article in the Christian Century this current week by a non-Indian. If you look back over the period of this century, you find a sporadic interest in Indians about every 20 years, where one or two Indian writers come forward. They get to publish a few books or write a few articles, and then the thing closes off, and you get this non-Indian expert coming in and writing. And what I think causes that is that when you present the Indian viewpoint it's a viewpoint that stands outside the white culture and white history. So you only present that every so often, and then the whites reading that say, "Oh, this person's biased, and they're attacking the fundamental premises of our culture," which is true; there is absolute conflict there. So they turn to the non-Indian experts to tell their version of Indians. So you end up with maybe 18 years of white fantasies about Indians and two years when Indian writers can write. If you look back twenty years, D’arcy McNickle was the Indian writing. You look in Reader's Guide for Periodical Literature for those years, there's a three year period where D’arcy McNickle is publishing articles, and then it abruptly halts. And then you look, and maybe D’arcy has one or two articles over a ten year period. See, because the demand of Indians for recognition of values is so traumatic to white culture, they can’t bear to have a continuous exposition of the Indian viewpoint. So, if I'd recognized that at the beginning, then I'd certainly do some of the things I try to do now, which is to attack the fundamental beliefs of the white world view, more or less throw in with the heretical thinkers who are themselves attacking that point of view and bring Indians in in a whole different way. But, see, you don't realize that, and the problem is, I think, that each generation produces someone in their late twenties or early thirties who hits in the writing world. And those people are always too young to recognize the patterns that have gone before. See, because they were maybe three or four years old when it happened last time. But go to your library and check out the books written by Indians, you'll see that it's a twenty year cycle. Before D’arcy, in the thirties, you had Luther Standing Bear, Henry Standing Bear, some of these people. Then you jump twenty years before that, you had Charles Eastman. What would be a real good course in Indian studies would be to take that whole development—not Indian literature—but books written by Indians, and then say, "Well, what was the public climate? Why did one or two, why were they allowed to write books at that period and what happened to them after that?"

SN Do you think that this problem with the editor as far as him cutting out the guts of your article, do you think that that discourages other Indian writers?

VD Well, I'll tell you what discourages Indian writers is the general attitude in publishing that only one or two of each minority group is allowed to make it at any one time. You look at the Black community; there's a lot of capable writers. How many are really recognized, how many come to the public view? I think Cleaver's Soul on Ice was a fluke, that everybody wanted one final book that would cause them to feel guilty. See, minority groups stand outside white culture, and every now and then the whites feel they ought to be guilty about something. So they pick a minority group, and they let them talk. Minority groups have been waiting twenty years to say, "Hey, this is what you did to us, and we'd like the damage repaired." The attitude of white society is, "all we have to do is say we did it and were sorry and then go on." Minority groups never catch on that that's all that's going to happen. So you get a Dennis Banks standing up there saying, "we demand reparations," and all that, and the point he doesn't realize is this is a ritual drama that white society goes through every twenty years. It has nothing to do with reality. They're never going to change anything. Five years later there's an FBI manhunt on for Dennis Banks all over the country. South Dakota is ready to kill him. Somehow you've got to bring a realization to the Indian community, particularly the intellectuals in the Indian community, the realization that, "hey, these are people who destroyed two or three continents. They say they're sorry and they think that's all there is to it." And if you still say, "O.K., we should have reparations," they're gonna turn around and kill you. I mean you've got to recognize that to begin with.

SC It was a build-up during the sixties and came to a climax around '69, '70, '71 and has slowly diminished since then.

VD See, there is always five or ten percent of the public that knows about Indians, is sympathetic. They're hobbyists or they've met one or something. You can always get that residium. But say people who've lived out near the reservation for twenty or thirty years and have Indian friends, you look at that residium there. Every twenty years the thing goes up to maybe twenty-five percent of the public likes Indians and that fifteen percent makes all kinds of noise and makes it seem like everything's really happening, and then it goes back down. You're never going to get below a certain percent that are always going to be favorable to Indians and always support Indian causes, but you are never going to get above twenty-five percent either.

SC This next Indian intensity that takes place, will the issues be the same as they have been?

VD Fundamentally, but it will be expressed in a whole new way. The last time was the first time that the visual medium, television, participated in the movement. It made it seem much bigger than it was. The presence of television may collapse that twenty years to ten, because the tube just goes through all kinds of materials and symbols very quickly. But I really think in the interim years what we've got to do is develop a generation of very well-trained, well-educated Indians who can tear social science to pieces, really introduce all kinds of new questions and break up that mind-set as much as possible.

SC Could you suggest certain academic areas that the children who are growing up now might be able to go into during this interim period?

VD I think that history is the most important. I think you've got to get new interpretations of oral history. See, Indians are really exotic quantities set off there. You've got world history that starts in Sumeria or Egypt or wherever, and it's got kind of an arrow direction, see, and it's heading a certain way. All of a sudden in 1492, zap, here are the Indians. And whites can't understand what this group is, and so what I think you've got to do is really throw in with extremely heretical thinkers and break up the evolutionary interpretation of human experience. One of the ideas I'm currently working on is the whole intellectual climate of Western culture over the last hundred years, which is the acceptance of the theory of evolution and its implications in social science. You can go through a lot of Supreme Court cases and discover that they justify the confiscation of Indian lands on the basis that Indians are hunters and you want to give their land to white farmers. This is the order of nature, and, therefore, you don't have to argue legal rights. You just say, "Well, the farmer is destined to take over from the hunter, and since he is going to do it anyway, we'd just as well give it to him now." As long as people are trained in evolutionary thinking they are going to look at Indians as a previous state of existence, and they're going to look at their own culture as if it were superior. See, you're always going to get the BIA educational mentality, that we've got to teach these people to speak English, because if they speak English then they are partially civilized. So what you've got to do is use the ecological movement and new theories of history to break that mind set. It's going to require very creative thinking. My big disappointment at the present time is that so many Indians wanting to write start out with poetry. It's a good Indian expression, but it communicates very little to white society because those people haven't understood poetry for six or seven hundred years. Since the bards of the Middle Ages, when they kicked those guys out and made them work in factories—that was the end of understanding human beings for the white culture. Since then it's been catechisms and rules and regulations. I'd really like to see a lot of Indians go into non-fiction writing essays, scholarly books and all that.

SC Talking about that, one of the books that you've praised was Seven Arrows, whereas some of the Cheyenne tribal people have held or hold the opposite view. For your tribe would you write a similar book?

VD No, I don't think that I'd be able to do that kind of writing. I tell you that one of the reasons that some of the Cheyennes opposed that book was that they were agitated by outside people to attack it. I've had a lot of people who've written articles on the Cheyenne jump all over me for supporting Seven Arrows. When you start talking with them, they think that the only book that can be done on an Indian tribe or its culture is a book that starts with an idea of pure culture, and then traces the decline. I point out that that culture existed before the first anthropologist came out to record it. George Bird Grinnell goes out, and he writes a two volume thing on the Crow, that doesn't mean that the Crow always acted the way that Grinnell observed. It means that he came in in the 1890's and observed these things and wrote them down. So, what I like about Seven Arrows is that the guy says basically, "You can take a whole new format and express the essence of what those people are, using different language, using psychedelic shields, Jungian mandals, everything. It is the emotional essence of a people that has to be captured, not a strict adherence to what Robert Lowie and George Bird Grinnell say is true about Crows or Northern Cheyennes or anybody." I keep trying to point this out to people writing on Indians. What happened when the traditional Cheyennes opposed that book was some people from San Francisco came out and said, "Hey, this book desecrates your religion because it's not the same as what's written down by these other writers." So these people got mad and said, "Oh, these guys are trying to desecrate things." I think that the book is extremely important because an Indian really dared to break out of the genre in which people had put Indian literature, and just say, "I'm going to write a story that destroys chronological time, that uses visual means to center your attention on the page, that intersperses humans and animals, that violates the standards of white society for writing about Indians."

SC The book also expresses itself in a new art form. Many times the white populace identifies with a certain kind of Indian art. It's two-dimensional, flat, solid colors, and, if any painting is different from that, it is not Indian art. I like the idea of Indians taking on a new expression but still maintaining a cultural framework.

VD Sure, if you look very closely at white expectations, just take the Southwest as an example, they want all Indians trained in Western education capable of working for Merrill Lynch and doing everything that whites do, at the same time they want them down at the Santa Fe station selling pottery and painting. And you try to point out that schizophrenia and they can't recognize it. They can't see that at all. The minute you try to go do one thing, they say you're losing your culture, the minute you try to build up the culture, they say "Well you're superstitious, you're looking at the past, you can't save that, you ought to go get an education." So Indians ought to recognize that the schizophrenia is in the white men and not in themselves. They ought to just feel comfortable being themselves and just do what they want to do. I think the greatest single statement in the last ten years came when somebody asked Buffy St. Marie, "How do you be an Indian?" She said, "Indians do whatever they feel like doing." If you could just get to Indian kids and say, "Don't worry, all these problems that are posed to you are problems in this other guy's mind, they are not problems in your mind. Just do whatever you feel like doing, whatever you're comfortable with."

SN What do you think the relationship is between a community and literature?

VD I think particularly in America today we ought to make a quantum jump, at least in Indian communities, not even bother with the printed word and go to cassettes right away. And just keep the oral tradition alive with tape recordings. That's going to be far and away better than trying to go through the whole process of literacy and writing, newspapers, and all those things. But at the same time, the kids are going to college . . . really ought to master the written word and learn how to deal with it and develop very flexible writing styles and approaches. I think you can see it on the powwow circuit already. You see a lot of tape recorders there. People are doing that, and what you really ought to do is get them to transfer their focus from just getting the songs to start on tape recording story-telling sessions. I think we can make a major jump. One reason I say that is up in Denver I run around with Country Western musicians a lot. They're just getting on a glimmer that they ought to go out and tape-record some of the old cowboys and the miners. You know, start doing oral tradition. So I think that Indians could jump ahead in the area of communications by using cassettes.

GK We did that a few summers ago. We went around to the nursing homes where there were a lot of old Navajo women and men. They just talked about when they were little or just anything they wanted to talk about. And we found a woman who was over a hundred years old. Nobody knew how old she was. She went on the long walk, and she could remember things. All these images just came back to her. She talked for about two hours. And every twenty minutes she'd say, "I don't want to talk about this, it's too ugly, why should I burden you with such an ugly past?" Then she'd start talking again. Another twenty minutes would go by, and soon she was talking for two hours. That was good.

SN Yeah, it seems that written history is always preferred in the white aspect to oral history.

VD Well, you can manipulate it. You never get the essence of human experience. You can debate about the chronology of human events. What you're doing is lining up all kinds of footnotes, and you say, "What did it mean?" not "How did people experience it?" But you are standing back from it.

GK What do you think of Simon Ortiz as a writer?

VD I like a lot of his poetry. I really like that short story on Kaiser. I think that's one of the best things that's ever been done. We really don't have an informal network of Indian writers like dissident groups of whites have. Each Indian writer is writing in isolation. We really need a lot more interchange than that. There's all kinds of things that could be done in the universities if you had program flexibility. You could get a number of Indians interested in history and spend a year just in a general group discussion of all phases of history. I think those types of things should be done. An awful lot could be done in ethnoscience. If you got Indians interested in science, then you'd just spend a year of general research and discussion about what Indians really did know about the world. I don't think Indian literature is going to make any progress until we are able to do that.

SN More or less establish a community of Indian writers.

VD Not just writers. You know if you get any group of people who are in one profession together the whole thing gets esoteric. Everybody starts talking technique and nobody talks substance. You've got to have a very informal setting where people come and go and drop in, where they talk about their own ideas and experiences. A kind of works-in-progress thing rather than saying, "OK, we've got all the Indian poets together. We've got to talk about poetry." It's nothing that you can structure. Just certain times and places things grow. If you see something growing, then people on the fringes ought to accept some responsi­ bility to build emotional and financial support in the situation.

SC Wouldn't you say that the Indian's sense of community has become more cohesive in recent years. I'm thinking of the development of twenty Indian-controlled and directed community colleges. You've got to just get rid of curriculum. Instead of saying, "OK, we're gonna do the history of Indians from so and so to so and so," you've got to say, "OK, we're gonna talk about a particular thing that we used to do, and we talk about things and bring in all aspects of culture that deal with that thing." The big thing I've noticed (and I'm a consultant on one board on the National Science Foundation) is that the white knowledge structure is split. They don't know how to do interdisciplinary stuff. They think that interdisciplinary is to have an attorney look at sociology and make some comments. What I see as a possibility in Indian culture is to just present globs of experience that have Implications for all kinds of things. I think that’s what the oral tradition always was, but if you catch kids at the beginning of college when they've been trained to think in certain patterns, it’s going to take a long time to get them back in Indian patterns.

Transcript Notes —This article was reissued with others from The American Way,
inflight magazine published monthly by American Airlines, as Look to the Mountain Top (San Jose, California: Times Mirror Company, 1972). Deloria's article "The Basis of Indian Law" appears on pp. 75-82.

—D'Arcy McNicklc's books include Runner in the Sun (1954), They Came Here First: The Epic of the American Indian (1949), und Indians and Othor Americans (1959).

—Luther Standing Bear wrote My People, the Sioux (1928), My Indian Boyhood (1930), and Land of the Spotted Eagle (1933).

—Charles Alexander Eastman wrote Indian Boyhood (1902), Soul of an Indian (1911), From Deep Woods to Civilization (1916), and Omdoam Jerpes and Great Chieftains (1918).

—Deloria here, of course, uses "Indian literature" to designate those books written about Indians.

—Dennis Banks' political actions as a leader of the American Indian Movement may be followed in back issues of the two leading Indian newspapers Akwesasne Notes (c/o Mohawk Nation, Rooseveltown, NY 13683) and Wassaja (c/o American Indian Historical Society 1451 Masonic Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94117).

—Among the many books and articles Robert Lowie wrote on the northern plains tribes is Indians of the Plains (1954; rpt. NY; American Museum of Natural History, 1963). George Bird Grinnell's collection of Cheyenne stories By Cheyenne Camp Fires (1926; rpt. Lincoln, Nebraska: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1971), furnishes interesting comparisons to Storm's Seven Arrows.

—Simon Ortiz's short story "Kaiser and the War" was published in Kenneth Rosen, ed., The Man to Send Rain Clouds (NY: Viking, 1974).

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