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Excerpt | GOD IS RED



(Lumbee), E. Claiborne Robins Distinguished Professor in Leadership Studies, University of Richmond, and author of

Red Prophet: The Punishing Intellectualism of Vine Deloria, Jr.

A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, AS I WAS MULLING OVER how to approach this afterword, it was weighing on my mind: how to say in a few paragraphs what Vine’s work has meant to me—to all of us—since God Is Red was published half a century ago. Vine was first my mentor, then my colleague, and, finally, my friend. When I met him in 1975, I had no way of knowing there would be few others—neither friends nor family— who would have such a profound impact on my life’s path. I still hear his voice, teasing and encouraging, as I write today. He took particular delight in mocking my struggle with apostrophes.

During the week I intended to write this afterword (July 2022), I sat down to watch the final episode of the second season of Rutherford Falls, the pathbreaking new Native-centered comedy series. Many of those who have produced, written, acted in, and directed the series are Indigenous, and some of them are comedians well-known in Indian Country, including Jana Schmieding, Adrianne Chalepah, and alums from the Native sketch comedy group, the 1491s. For the last twenty years or so, Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota/Diné), Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee), Migizi Pensoneau (Ponca/Ojibwe), Ryan RedCorn (Osage Nation), and Bobby Wilson (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) have entertained mostly Native audiences, describing themselves as “a gaggle of Indians chock-full of cynicism and splashed with a good dose of indigenous satire.”

I have always wished Vine could have witnessed the work of all these talented individuals. He would have been delighted by their creativity and humor that is all at once hilarious, self-deprecating, and hopeful. He would also have recognized that they are grounded in community and use traditional tools of humor—absurdity, teasing, and optimism—to keep all our relations level and honest.

So, imagine my surprise when the episode opened with Goldtooth’s character, Nelson, reading God Is Red before engaging in conversation with his girlfriend, Reagan, played by the hilarious Schmieding. It was a fleeting visual reference—the characters did not refer to the book at all—but its timely appearance left me feeling excited to know that those involved knew about Vine Deloria, Jr. and perhaps were even aware that God Is Red was approaching its fiftieth anniversary. This makes sense, because even though Rutherford Falls is a comedy, in the two seasons it has aired, the writers have done an excellent job of incorporating significant cultural and religious topics that matter to Indigenous peoples—land claims, cultural retention and cultural appropriation, tensions between high-stakes casinos and how such operations can pose a threat to core Native values, stereotypes of Natives, and even how so-called white pretendians (pretend Indians) seek to take advantage of Indigenous identity for economic, educational, and cultural purposes.

I interpreted this strategic display of one of Deloria’s most powerful and canonical books as a sign that I needed to immediately reread it in preparation to write this afterword, which I did—with zeal—over the next two days. I had first read it in 1973—it had just come out. I was a college sophomore at Pembroke State University taking a class called “Native Religions” taught by a non-Native. It was the second of Deloria’s works that I read—the first was his best-selling Custer Died for Your Sins that I had devoured during my first year.

Custer had slapped me awake, made me proud to be Lumbee, and provided me with intellectual and Indigenous concepts that helped me navigate local Tribal politics and academic classes that had previously seemed daunting. It also inspired me to travel—usually by hitchhiking- ing—to visit other Native communities up and down the East Coast and eventually out to the Dakotas.

As I read it in 1973, God Is Red struck me on a much deeper, more intimate, more philosophical level than Custer. I had joined the Methodist Church my senior year in high school, and while I had slowly been withdrawing from regular church attendance and active Bible study, I still considered myself a Christian. Custer, especially the chapter on missionaries, had exposed me to the reality that Church officials and church doctrines had frequently abused Native peoples. Upon reading God is Red, I felt a tremendous surge of curiosity about other Native peoples and their religious traditions. Understanding, connection, and clarity were generated in my very being, and I was better able to comprehend what was happening to Indigenous peoples at the time; especially concerning Christianity and white society in general, in so far as the political, social, moral, cultural, and spiritual foundation of our societies were concerned.

By the time I completed the book, I no longer considered myself a Christian and set about learning as much as possible about my people’s sense of sacred space. I was equally keen to experience how other Native peoples understood and practiced their spiritual traditions in an increasingly post-industrial world. Deloria agreed, at the urging of Sam Scinta and Fulcrum Publishing, to revise and update the book in 1994—something he had not done with any of his previous works. See- ing how much had changed in Indian Country and across the United States during the past two decades, he dove even deeper into a more searching explanation not only of the contemporary Native social, political, and religious movement that his writings had helped inspire and guide, but also white attitudes about Indigenous activism, identity, and religious traditions.

But while the 1994 revision was certainly timely, given the enormous political and religious changes that had taken place since its publication—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—the book’s basic structure remained intact, albeit with an important new Introduction and several new chapters. A simple republication of the original 1973 book would have been a welcome gesture. But, the way Vine had so astutely critiqued Christianity, both as initially founded and as it was understood and practiced at the time, as well as the way he shone an intense light on the identity crises confronting many Native communities, the 1994 revision allowed Deloria to incorporate more recent sociocultural, ecological, and political material. He was able to show that the profound differences between Indigenous religious traditions and Christian traditions he had identified in 1973 remained equally as disparate in 1994.

As he noted in the 1994 Introduction:

From the invasion and occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 to the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973, I felt that the various Indian protests had a much deeper meaning than simply securing additional lands for reservations. At the bottom of everything, I believed then and continue to believe, is a religious view of the world that seeks to locate our species within the fabric of life that constitutes the natural world, the land and all its various forms of life. As long as Indi- ans exist there will be conflict between tribes and any group that carelessly despoils the land and the life it supports. At the deepest philosophical level our universe must have as a structure a set of relationships in which all entities participate. Within the physical world this universal structure can best be understood as a recognition of the sacredness of places. (pp. 1–2)

Deloria’s concept of environmental sacredness is even more critical to understand, even if it might be too late to fully embrace, given the devastating ecological calamities happening worldwide due to human-caused climate change. He also juxtaposed Native understandings of other concepts, such as time, space, land, history, creation, death, human personality, and others, with those of Judeo-Christian influenced peoples and asserted, with a profound degree of veracity, that Indigenous understandings of these central concepts were generally more sound, logical, and evidence-based than those of Western Chris- tian and other non-Indigenous peoples.

Finally, the rerelease of God Is Red half a century after its initial publication could not be more well-timed for two major reasons—one ecological, the other religious-political. First, the grave ecological crises the Earth and her many species now face because of human-driven climate change, and the vital knowledge and values that Native peoples still possess that might yet serve as more sensible environmental and philosophical frameworks on how to live in balance with the Natural World, must be more formally acknowledged and implemented by all citizens, corporations, and policymakers. This will not be easily accomplished in the United States or other so-called advanced societies, even though an increasing number of Americans and a growing percentage of the world’s population now understand at some fundamental level a desperate need to protect the environment. Many of these individuals simply will not let go of their arrogance—the idea that they are the center, the drivers, the reason for the Earth’s existence.

The problem, as Deloria pointed out, was that for most non-Native Americans their allegiance is to democracy, a powerful idea, but it has no relationship to the earth upon which we walk and the plants and animals that give us sustenance. Developing a sense of ourselves that would properly balance history and nature and space and time is a more difficult task than we would suspect and involves a radical reevaluation of the way we look at the world around us. Do we continue to exploit the earth or do we preserve it and preserve life?” (p. 60).

Second, since the 1980s, fundamentalist Christian religious hierarchies have become inextricably linked to conservative politics—a form of Christian Nationalism peculiar to the United States, also coined as “Christofascism.” That situation has ratcheted up dramatically, as a majority of the personnel placed on the US Supreme Court are rabidly right wing. The move toward overt fascism intensified during Donald Trump’s chaotic, norm-busting, and humanity-de- stroying presidency. For a right-wing Supreme Court, largely vetted and funded by the Federalist Society, Trump supporters, Republican members of Congress, and many state governors and legislators, White Christian Nationalism is the best generic term to describe their political and religious ideology. This ideology threatens human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights, the environment, and Indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights. As Deloria pithily observed: “Conservative Christianity today resembles nothing less than a religious auxiliary of the Republican Party” (p. 208).

Vine prophetically anticipated this trajectory when he said that an increasing number of Americans have become members of the religious right, the fundamentalists. As mainline churches lose members rapidly through their constant efforts to pander to the unchurched and make themselves relevant, mindless fundamentalism makes amazing strides, even among the educated people in society. When the fundamentalists seized on abortion as an issue, they found the key to political power. Thus was created the irony of modern American life . . . [and] through nearly two decades while American Indians were rediscovering the integrity of their traditional religions, the rest of American society has torn itself and its religious traditions apart, substituting patriotism and hedonism for old values and behaviors. (p. 57) (emphasis mine)

So, as the situation now stands, we as a global society are headed for disaster—the privileged few unwilling and the majority unable to under-take the reforms necessary for long-term survival. That said, we know this is not inevitable. Vine and others have not only warned us, but they also shared the knowledge and the means used by Indigenous peoples to live and to thrive.

God Is Red had a profound impact on me and countless others and resonates, arguably, even better today with Indigenous peoples and like-minded allies across racial, social, economic, political, gender, and religious spectrums who desire to forge a more sensible and necessary relationship with one another and with the multitude of other species and entities that share and comprise the planet. Vine also was aware that while traditional Indigenous religious traditions and ceremonies had proved to be remarkably resilient in adapting to an ever-evolving society and state that had for generations sought to obliterate Native spiritual differences, he nevertheless worried that technological changes were occurring at such a robust pace that the complexity of modern life might render it impossible to retain and still exercise those values and spiritual principles that distinguished Native peoples from other groups. Still, he did not despair and expressed confidence that new “social, political, and religious forms” would be devised “to enable the tribal religions to exist in a religious sense in spite of the inroads being made by the conditions of modern life” (p. 215).

Ultimately, at the core of all this is the laughter, the optimism, and the kinship that unite us even in the face of such great evil, greed, and desecration. This generation understands that humor fuels the actions necessary for life. And they seem to be taking Vine’s lessons to heart. It will be interesting to return to this book in another generation to see how Deloria’s prognostications, descriptions, and cultural comparisons fare. I am confident that many of his trenchant observations will have retained their form and explanatory power. Knowledge, laughter, kinship, and action. I think Vine would say those are the elements needed to carry our ideas and lives forward for another fifty years.

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