Deloria's wit added flavor to chorus of empowerment

November 18, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- At a time when Americans could use a few laughs to help a lot of bad medicine go down, we have lost one of our wisest wits.

Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux who authored more than 20 books about the Native American experience, died Sunday in Golden, Colo. He was 72 and recently was hospitalized with an aortic aneurysm. If his name does not spring quickly out of your memory, maybe you have heard of his most famous book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Oh, yeah. That guy.

Published in 1969, Custer was a milestone, adding a rare and powerful Indian voice to the rising chorus of group empowerment (black, Hispanic, feminist, etc.) at the tail end of a turbulent decade.

Mr. Deloria offered the descendants of the continent's original residents a new way to think of themselves on their own terms, divorced from melting pot mythologies or the "redskin" stereotypes still embodied in the nicknames of certain sports teams.

He also introduced the rest of us to a people we hardly knew, despite years of all-American affection for Tonto, Pocahontas, Sitting Bull and other Indian heroes, real or imagined.

In books and speeches, he grabbed our attention with the same seductive megaphone that other ground-shaking American philosophers as varied as Dick Gregory, Mark Twain and Dorothy Parker have employed: humor.

Mr. Deloria's humor always had an edge, the kind that could make some people's scalps tingle, whether they got the joke or not.

He called the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer's cavalry was defeated by the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne in 1876, "a sensitivity-training session."

He called anthropologists the curse of his people: "When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the white man came, an Indian said simply, `Ours.'"

He ridiculed the notion that Indians had to be "discovered" by Columbus or anybody else: "Scientists, and I use the word as loosely as possible, are committed to the view that Indians migrated to this country over an imaginary Bering Straits bridge, which comes and goes at the convenience of the scholar requiring it to complete his or her theory."

"We have brought the white man a long way in 500 years," he wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 1976. "From a childish search for mythical cities of gold and fountains of youth to the simple recognition that lands are essential for human existence."

We Americans are not a melting pot; we're more of a mulligan stew, all contributing some flavor to the pot - and absorbing new flavors from the mix!

In this vein, he ridiculed the odd situation of having the blood that white Americans, among others, most wanted to have in their own family background, as if having "some Indian blood in the family" actually makes you a "little more American" than those who don't have it.

The most popular tribe seemed to be Cherokee, he noted curiously.

Years later, I was recalling those lines with Native American author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie, author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, among other works, as we prepared to appear in a public television panel with President Bill Clinton.

Later during the show, as if he had been listening to us, Mr. Clinton revealed to the world that his own family had "some Indian blood" on his mother's side. "Cherokee," he announced, looking somewhat bemused. Mr. Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene from Washington state, and I cast here-we-go-again glances at each other.

Native American voices like Mr. Deloria's and Mr. Alexie's help us to understand how big a mistake we make when we rob people of what makes them complicated. We insult people when we oversimplify their reality, blurring it behind stereotypes that cast them as more savage, more noble, more separate or more assimilated than they really are.

Deep down, we may all be alike, but it is our differences that make us interesting.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e- mail is

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