Vine Deloria is one of the most important living Native American writers. For more than a quarter century, he has produced an extraordinarily readable critique of Western culture. Central to Deloria’s work is the understanding that, by subduing nature, we have become slaves to technology and its underlying belief system. We’ve given up not only our freedom, but also our relationship with the natural world.
Deloria was born in 1933 on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. For many generations, his family has straddled white and Indian cultures. One of his ancestors, the son of a fur trader and a Yankton Sioux headman’s daughter, had a vision that his descendants would serve as mediators with the dominant society.
Deloria’s father, a Dakota Episcopal priest, took his young son to the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and pointed out to him the survivors who still lived on the reservation. Deloria left home at sixteen to go to a college-preparatory school in Connecticut. After graduation, he turned down an acceptance to the University of Colorado and bought a used car with his tuition money. He went on to study geology for two years at the Colorado School of Mines (my own alma mater) before enlisting in the Marine Corps reserve. In 1956 he enrolled in Iowa State University, where he met his future wife, Barbara Jeanne Nystrom.
They moved to Illinois so that Vine could attend a Lutheran seminary in preparation for becoming a minister, like his father. For four years, he studied philosophy and theology by day and earned money as a welder at night. Although he completed his education, he grew increasingly disappointed with “the glaring lack of solutions” the seminary provided.
In 1964, Deloria went to work as the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and there he began to see the importance of building a national power base for Indians through grassroots organizing. He soon came to appreciate the need for trained Indian lawyers who could defend tribal sovereignty and treaty rights within the legal system, and in 1967 he enrolled in law school at the University of Colorado.
Deloria maintained his ties to Christianity, even being elected to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. In one of his books, however, he posed a challenge to the religion of his childhood: “If, as they claim, Christianity is for all people, why not let Indian people worship God after their own conception of Him?” Deloria no longer identifies himself as a Christian, but, if pressed, offers that he is a “Seven Day Absentist.”
Since receiving his law degree in 1970, Deloria has written many books and lectured at colleges all over the country. In both his writing and his speaking, he has never shied away from direct assaults on injustice. It’s as though he doesn’t have time or patience for the polite indirectness that characterizes so much political dialogue today. His book titles alone testify to this directness: Red Earth, White Lies (Fulcrum Books) won the 1996 Nonfiction Book of the Year Award from the Colorado Center for the Book; Custer Died for Your Sins (University of Oklahoma Press) brought accounts of the trail of broken treaties up to date; and God Is Red (Fulcrum Books) remains one of the best books written on Native American spirituality.
Deloria recently retired from his position as a professor of history, law, religious studies, and political science at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He lives in Golden, Colorado, with his wife, who edits much of his work.
Jensen: What would you say is the fundamental difference between the Western and indigenous ways of life?
Deloria: I think the primary difference is that Indians experience and relate to a living universe, whereas Western people — especially scientists — reduce all things, living or not, to objects. The implications of this are immense. If you see the world around you as a collection of objects for you to manipulate and exploit, you will inevitably destroy the world while attempting to control it. Not only that, but by perceiving the world as lifeless, you rob yourself of the richness, beauty, and wisdom to be found by participating in its larger design.
In order to maintain the fiction that the world is dead — and that those who believe it to be alive have succumbed to primitive superstition — science must reject any interpretation of the natural world that implies sentience or an ability to communicate on the part of nonhumans. Science insists, at a great price in understanding, that the observer be as detached as possible from the event he or she is observing. Contrast that with the attitude of indigenous people, who recognize that humans must participate in events, not isolate themselves.
Ironically, although science prides itself on being a search for knowledge, Indians can obtain knowledge from birds, animals, rivers, and mountains that is inaccessible to modern science. And Indians can use this knowledge to achieve better results. Take meteorology. Scientists know that seeding clouds with certain chemicals will bring rain, but this method of dealing with nature is wholly mechanical and forces nature to do our bidding. Indians achieved the same results more peacefully by conducting ceremonies and asking the spirits for rain. The two methods are diametrically opposed. It’s the difference between commanding a slave to do something and asking a friend for help.
Being attuned to their environment, Indians could find food, locate trails, protect themselves from inclement weather, and anticipate coming events thanks to their understanding of how all things are related. This knowledge isn’t unique to American Indians. It’s available to anyone who lives primarily in the natural world, is reasonably intelligent, and respects other life-forms for their intelligence. Respect for other life-forms filters into our every action, as does its opposite: perceiving the world as lifeless. If you objectify other living things, then you are committing yourself to a totally materialistic universe — which is not even consistent with the findings of modern physics.
The central idea of science, as it has been developed and applied, is to get machines or nature to do the work human beings don’t want to do. This is immensely practical, but in a shortsighted way.
Jensen: How so?
Deloria: Developing the automobile, for example, allowed people to get quickly from place to place, but at what cost, both in terms of accidents and of damage to the natural world? And what effect have automobiles had on our spiritual life?
In a capitalist system, whoever supplies the money determines the technology. This means that science, as it’s applied, is never really for the good of humankind, but instead for the good of the financial elite or the military. It also means that science will be dominated by the authorities who have found institutional favor, whether they have the best evidence for their beliefs or not.
When beliefs and knowledge harden and become institutionalized, we turn to institutions to solve all our problems: people purchase food grown by others, settle their conflicts in courts and legislatures rather than by informal, mutually agreed-upon solutions, and wage extended and terrible wars over abstract principles instead of minor battles over the right to occupy land for hunting and fishing. Similarly, beliefs about the world are processed into philosophical and rational principles rather than anecdotal experiences, and religion is reduced to creeds, dogmas, and doctrines.
Now, every society needs educated people, but the primary responsibility of educated people must be to bring wisdom back into the community and make it available to others. Because of hierarchies, European thinkers have not performed their proper social function. Instead, science and philosophy have taken the path already taken by Western religion and mystified themselves. The people who occupy the top positions in science, religion, and politics have one thing in common: they are responsible for creating a technical language incomprehensible to the rest of us, so that we will cede to them our right and responsibility to think. They, in turn, formulate a set of beautiful lies that lull us to sleep and distract us from our troubles, eventually depriving us of all rights — including, increasingly, the right to a livable world.
Rather than trusting our own experiences and senses, we often look to scientists for explanations of the world. In giving explanations, these scientists defer to the dogma and doctrine they learned in universities and colleges. It’s gotten to the point where almost anything anyone with a Ph.D. says is taken as gospel, rather than as someone’s opinion.
One example of this credulity is the widespread acceptance of the notion that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait. Newspapers and textbooks say that archaeologists have proven there were waves of people moving to and fro across the Bering Strait, but they haven’t proven anything of the kind. Assuming that carbon dating is anywhere near accurate, and that the researchers didn’t throw out as “noise” any results they didn’t agree with, all they can prove is that a group of people lived in such-and-such a place, however many years ago. Everything else is just theory and speculation.
Respect for other life-forms filters into our every action, as does its opposite: perceiving the world as lifeless. If you objectify other living things, then you are committing yourself to a totally materialistic universe — which is not even consistent with the findings of modern physics.
Jensen: So you view the theory that human beings came to North and South America across the Bering Strait as an article of faith, rather than as fact?
Deloria: I’ve yet to see any remotely convincing evidence to support it. It’s a doctrinal belief that institutional science has imposed on us.
The effort to deny that Indians are native to this land really started with the old Spanish clerics, who tried to identify Indians as either survivors of Noah’s flood or members of the lost tribes of Israel. So modern scientific theories are part of an entrenched line of thought: a Judeo-Christian insistence on seeing the world through Eurocentric eyes. Indians cannot simply be Indians. They have to have come from somewhere in or around Europe.
Jensen: Why is this issue of deep origins important?
Deloria: People want to believe that the Western Hemisphere, and North America in particular, was vacant, unexploited, fertile land waiting to be cultivated according to God’s holy dictates. The hemisphere thus belonged to whomever was able to “rescue” it from its wilderness state. We see the same rationalization at work today in the Amazon and elsewhere. If the Indians were not the original inhabitants of this continent but relative latecomers who had barely unpacked when Columbus came knocking on the door, then they had no real claim to the land and could be swept away with impunity. Thus, science justifies history and eases the guilt over five centuries of violence. Even today, I hear some non-Indians say, “Well, aren’t we all immigrants from somewhere?” The short answer is no. By making Indians immigrants to North America, Westerners are able to deny the fact that this is our continent.
Another way science has assuaged Western guilt is by claiming to prove that Indians are just as destructive as Westerners. You’ve probably heard of the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis, which states, without any real evidence, that as soon as Indians “arrived” here, they started killing everything in sight. When the hypothesis was first proposed some fifty years ago by Carl Sauer, it was shot down almost immediately by Loren C. Eiseley, who raised numerous concerns that have never been refuted. One is the fact that not only large mammals disappeared during the Pleistocene Epoch, but also birds, mollusks, and frogs, which could not have been hunted to extinction. Also, there is no evidence that tribal hunting groups using ancient techniques could exterminate — or even significantly alter — an animal population, unless the hunters and prey were restricted to a very small area. The example of modern tribes who still use Stone Age methods supports this.
So the overkill theory remained dead in the water until the 1960s, when it was revived by a book called Pleistocene Extinctions. Since then, as the destruction of the natural world has become ever more difficult to ignore, Westerners have needed ever stronger salves for their consciences, so the theory has risen up again in full force. Although there is still little real evidence to support it, its ideological function — to prove that destructiveness is part of human nature, and not just the result of a destructive way of living in and perceiving the world — is important enough to justify its admission into the scientific canon.
There’s even a new theory that Indians were responsible for the near extinction of the buffalo. According to this argument, Indian winter encampments deprived the buffalo of feed, and so the population plummeted.
Jensen: How could anyone make that claim?
Deloria: Simple: by ignoring all evidence that contradicts the thesis, such as 1870s newspaper reports of white hunters shipping out trainloads of buffalo hides. In the Dodge City area alone, hunters killed 3 million buffalo in three years.
Jensen: If Indians didn’t cross the Bering Strait, how did they come to inhabit this continent? What do the Indians themselves say?
Deloria: That last question isn’t asked often enough, and points out another problem with the scientific tradition. Somehow it is presumed that scientists, and thus Europeans, know better than the Indians themselves how Indians got here and how they lived prior to Columbus. That attitude is patronizing at best. Instead of digging and analyzing, why don’t researchers just ask the Indians? And then, having asked, why don’t they take the answers seriously?
Indians’ beliefs about their origins vary considerably from tribe to tribe. Many tribes simply begin their story at a certain location and describe their migrations. Others will say they came from another continent by boat. (Of course, archaeologists generally refuse to believe them, because they think Indians couldn’t have built boats, which is absurd.) A number of tribes say that they were created here. A few say they came here through a portal from another world. They walked into a cave or tunnel, for example, until it was completely dark, and they continued walking until a tiny light appeared ahead of them. As they kept moving toward it, it grew bigger, gradually revealing itself to be an entrance to a new world.
Personally, I like the Pacific Northwest tribes’ idea that, in the distant past, the physical world was not dominant, and you could change your shape and experience life as an animal, plant, or bird. Then the world changed, and some people were caught in different shapes and became animals, plants, and so on.
Much of the Indian knowledge of origins is revealed in ceremonial settings and involves views of time, space, matter, and cosmic purpose that the scientific perspective considers heretical. Because of this, such accounts are generally dismissed out of hand as superstition: nice campfire stories that have no connection to reality.
Jensen: Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend has said that “whatever fails to fit into the established category system or is said to be incompatible with this system is either viewed as something quite horrifying, or, more frequently, it is simply declared to be nonexistent.”
Deloria: That’s standard scientific procedure. You throw out the results you don’t agree with, turn to the results that “make sense,” and say, “See, this is proven.” It’s nonsense.
Scientists gather data from what appear to them to be similar sources and circumstances and, after much meditation, announce the discovery of “laws” that govern the universe — with some notable exceptions we rarely hear about. Sometimes these “anomalies” are acknowledged and become the basis for fruitful discussion, but more often they’re simply swept under the rug. The increasing sophistication of scientific measuring instruments continues to reveal flaws in the previously agreed-upon canon, yet this seems not to bother a great majority of scientists, nor the rest of us, who should care far more than we do.
Scientists impose highly restrictive laws upon the natural world, thereby limiting its potential for response. They are asking incomplete questions of nature and, in many cases, irrelevant ones. In my opinion, fields purporting to be scientific should devote considerable time to reexamining what they can really prove and what is speculation, and then restate their principles. Standards of evidence need to be erected. There’s got to be some discipline and courage. Scientists should be willing to speak out when authoritative-sounding pronouncements are being made on the basis of questionable — or nonexistent — evidence.
I like the Pacific Northwest tribes’ idea that, in the distant past, the physical world was not dominant, and you could change your shape and experience life as an animal, plant, or bird. Then the world changed, and some people were caught in different shapes and became animals, plants, and so on.
Jensen: A friend of mine says that science is an even better means of social control than Christianity, because if you don’t believe in Christianity, you’re simply doomed to burn in a hell you don’t think exists, whereas if you don’t believe in science, you’re presumed to be stupid.
Deloria: I think science has replaced Christianity as the dominant religion in our society. You see evidence of this whenever someone goes to court to try to establish or protect religious rights. If science and religion come into conflict, religion always loses. That’s true for everyone from Christian fundamentalists to Indians to Orthodox Jews: anybody who has a religious view that’s unacceptable to scientists.
Jensen: What are some better ways of perceiving and living in the world?
Deloria: I would say one alternative to forcing nature to tell us its secrets is to observe nature and adjust to its larger rhythms. This alternative is practiced by many other cultures, but it scares a lot of people in the West because it derives information from sources that may be tinged with mysticism. For example, many centuries ago, three sisters appeared to the Senecas and said they wished to establish a relationship with “the two-legged people.” In return for the performance of certain ceremonies that would help them to thrive, the sisters would become plants and feed the people. The three sisters became beans, corn, and squash. And the soil of the Seneca farmlands was never exhausted, because these three plants, in addition to sharing a spiritual relationship with one another, also formed a sophisticated natural nitrogen cycle that kept the land fertile and productive.
The white man came later, planted only corn and wheat, and soon exhausted the soil. Then, after conducting many experiments, scientists “discovered” the nitrogen cycle and produced chemical fertilizers to replace the natural nitrogen. But now we know that these chemicals have unpleasant side effects that may be even worse for us than they are for the soil.
The point is that, for every scientific “discovery,” there may exist one or more alternative ways of understanding natural processes. But we can’t know what these alternatives are until we absolutely reject the idea of forcing nature to reveal its secrets and instead begin to observe nature and listen to its rhythms.
Jensen: I’ve heard about South American tribes who can take a poisonous plant and, by some complex process; boiling it three times, skimming off the froth, and so on — turn it into medicine. Usually, the tribes are assumed to have arrived at these processes through trial and error, but this seems ludicrous to me, because the original plant is a deadly poison. By contrast, you’ve written that “getting information from birds and animals regarding plants is an absurdly self-evident proposition for American Indians.”
Deloria: There are plenty of Indian stories where a plant will appear in a dream and speak to someone, or a person is walking through the forest, and suddenly a plant will say, “I’m edible, but you’ve got to do these various things in order to eat me.”
When I was much younger, I would bring Indian plant knowledge to scientists for them to investigate. But they always wanted to take the plant apart, break it down to see what its constituents were. Their efforts were pointless, because that’s not the way the medicine men use it. They use it whole, and then they get the natural product out of it by making a tea, or a poultice. You can’t chemically disassemble it, because it’s the whole of the plant that cures, not any one ingredient.
Jensen: This seems to get at the heart of the fundamental difference between Western and indigenous cultures: seeing the plant as a whole and letting it literally speak to you, versus putting nature, as Francis Bacon said, “on the rack and extracting her secrets from her.”
Deloria: That’s true, although most of the greatest scientists dabbled considerably in spiritual matters and believed that mystical and intuitive experiences provided them with knowledge. This is true even of Descartes, the first materialist, who is famous for articulating the mind/ body, human/nature split. He said an angel came and explained things to him. Heisenberg, Einstein, and Bohr all had sudden insights. What’s the difference between that and the Indian performing a ceremony and hearing the plant say, “Do this”?
Jensen: I’ve heard of ceremonies in which Indians would sing to the corn. How does that help? What does singing do for the plant?
Deloria: We’re giving energy and respect to the plant. It’s kind of like when you’re trying to teach your kid how to play basketball, and even though he can’t hit the hoop, you say, “Hey, that was really a good one.” You’re not only telling the plant, “We respect and appreciate you”; you’re also making a fuss over the fact that it’s growing. It’s a straight transfer of energy.
Any fool can treat a living thing as if it were a machine and compel it to perform certain functions. All that’s required is sufficient force. But the result of force is slavery, both for the victim and for the wielder.
Jensen: In one of your books, you cite the Osage chief Big Soldier on this: “I see and admire your manner of living. . . . You can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Everything about you is in chains, and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I, too, should become a slave.”
Deloria: That’s the best thing any Indian ever said. I teach at the University of Colorado, and so many of my students are convinced that they are free, yet they act just like everyone else. They all do the same things. They all think alike. They’re almost like a herd, or clones. They’re enslaved to a certain way of life. The thing is, once you’ve traded away spiritual insight for material comfort, it is extremely difficult ever to get it back. I see these kids hiking in the mountains, trying to commune with nature, but you can’t commune with nature just by taking a walk. You have to actually live in it. And these young people have no way of critiquing the society that is enslaving them, because they get outside of it only for the occasional weekend. They may see beautiful vistas and develop an aesthetic appreciation of this other world, but they’re not going to get to a metaphysical understanding of who they really are.
In this sense, poor Appalachian whites and rural blacks are much closer to the natural world than my students, because they live in it twenty-four hours a day. These groups also have in common their oppression by industrialization and the destruction of the land on which their lives depend. Their connection to the natural world teaches them who they are. And it’s not just an abstract connection, but a relationship with a particular tree or a particular mountain.
Jensen: How does being in one place for a long time teach you who you are?
Deloria: If you live in one place long enough, you begin to lose the defenses you’ve erected in order to survive in industrial civilization, and you fall into the rhythm of the land. You develop a different sense of the natural world and no longer have to think of things in the abstract. You think, instead, of how the land looks and what it’s telling you. I would think many Appalachian people have this sense, especially the ones who’ve lived back in the hills for five or six generations. They have begun to adjust to the land, as opposed to forcing the land to adjust to them. If you talk to them, you’ll find they don’t have many of the abstract concerns that so-called civilized people have.
Jensen: What sort of abstract concerns?
Deloria: Always wondering who you are. Always trying to prove yourself, to prove that you are good enough, strong enough, rich enough, good-looking enough. Always trying to define yourself in terms of what you do for a living or what your hobbies are or what you can buy. I can see how that would be an effective survival technique in New York City, but if you live in a place where you’re not always having your identity called into question, you don’t need to worry about those things. You can simply be yourself.
Because of the industrial machine, no one really has an identity anymore. So you have to keep giving people numbers and meaningless ways to define themselves. If you look at the bestseller list, you see all these books offering to tell you how to be yourself. Well, when the land gives you a foundation, you don’t have to struggle with that question. If you live a long time in one place, you have an ongoing experiential context. If you don’t, your life is limited to little disconnected experiences. To really feel alive, you’ve got to grab as many of these experiences as you can. Thus, you’ve got MTV and malls and discos.
Why do Western people — and the Near Eastern peoples from whom their religions are derived — need a messiah? Why is their appraisal of the physical world a negative one? . . . Why do they insist on believing that ultimate reality is contained in another, unimaginable realm?
Jensen: How have modern Indians been separated from the land?
Deloria: Obviously, there are some whose tribes came from the swamps of south Georgia, but who live on a reservation in Oklahoma, or on the south side of LA. People my age mostly grew up on reservations or in towns near reservations, but now a substantial number of young Indians grow up in the suburbs. When these kids come back to Indian culture, they are grasping the images rather than the substance. That’s why it’s important to live in one place, or at least to visit your place and your people often: to stay in touch with who you are, you need to know not just your peer group, but your family and your ancestors and the tribe you were born into. Young suburban Indians often can’t distinguish between the Indians of their tribe and all the information put out about Indians in general. Black Elk Speaks has become a kind of bible for a whole generation of Indians, but it’s really only about one Sioux medicine man.
Loss of ethnic identity, of course, is not just an Indian problem. It’s happening in the big cities. Take Roman Catholic churches. It used to be that you would have an Irish Catholic church, and two blocks over an Italian church, and then six blocks down a Lithuanian church. Now, for financial reasons, the three churches have to consolidate into one, and people lose that sense of community based on ethnicity. They become homogenized into one great big church that stands for nothing, because they’ve had to make so many compromises.
We all need to relearn our own cultural traditions. About six years ago, I brought together traditional people of different tribes for several conferences on Indian knowledge. The whole thing was very emotional, almost traumatic. Few of the Indians in the audience had heard real Indian storytellers tell about their own traditions. A storyteller would get up and speak for forty minutes, and the entire audience would be in tears. People would come to me and say, “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.” I’d respond, “Well, this is what our ancestors did. They didn’t spend twenty-four hours a day hunting buffalo. They’d kill a buffalo, have a feast, and then take a few days off to sit around the campfire and tell stories.” Those traditions built incredibly strong characters and happy people.
Jensen: How can we revive that sort of community?
Deloria: Well, in my own case, I would start by pulling together what’s been written down and getting to know it reasonably well, but then I would go out and ask some of the elders how accurate it is. Most books tell only part of the story, and some actually get things wrong. The authors just happen to find some Indians who want to talk and write down what they say. Once it’s in print, it becomes absolute: “This is what Sioux Indians believe,” or “This is what Shoshones believe.” But medicine men and elders often know better.
Many of these elders probably reached adulthood in the 1930s. This means their grandfathers did not grow up on reservations, but were the last generation brought up in freedom. Now we’re losing the last people who ever spoke to the last people who were free. We’re at a very dangerous time. When my generation goes, people are not even going to remember rural communities with no paved roads. In the small towns near reservations, there are no longer any benches where people can sit and talk. Where can we find the coming together, the old visiting? Not at the tribal councils, which are just about policy decisions. Not at the powwow, where everyone is trying to win the dance competition. The old kinship responsibilities are all fading away. How many people today, Indian or otherwise, know where their grandparents are buried? There are no family cemeteries anymore. There is no returning to a place where you feel at home.
Jensen: Why do you think the West destroys every traditional culture it can reach?
Deloria: I don’t think those in power want it known that there are other ways of living, because for the industrial state to succeed, all the citizens have to be part of the economic machine. If you have people living out in a rural area pretty much self-sufficiently who spend their time singing and writing poetry, it tempts those who are still part of the machine to try to seek better lives themselves. If you saw the lack of stress in indigenous people, and then looked at the stress created by the industrial machine, you’d realize that the whole system has gone crazy. We don’t control machines; they control us. So the system has got to crush any alternatives.
This is the legacy of Christianity. The stated Christian ethic is to “love thy neighbor,” but, historically, Christians have been afraid and suspicious of any neighbor unlike themselves. And if those neighbors won’t change, they’ve simply killed them. Certainly, millions of Indians were given the choice of Christianity — and enslavement — or death. The same thing happens today, but it’s generally couched in economic terms, rather than religious ones.
Jensen: How are Indian religions different from Western religions?
Deloria: Most Indian cultures never had a religion in the sense of having dogmas and creeds, nor did they have the sort of all-powerful deity that Christians speak of — a specific higher personality who demands worship and adoration. Rather, they experienced personality in every aspect of the universe and called it Woniya (“spirit”) and looked to it for guidance.
Jensen: So Indians believe everything has spirit?
Deloria: Not exactly. It’s not something they believe. What happens in the different Indian religions is that people become so intimate with their particular environment that they enter into a relationship with the spirits that live there. Rather than an article of faith, it’s part of their experience. I think non-Indians sometimes experience this, too, when they spend a long time in one place.
Indians believe that everything in the universe has value and instructs us in some aspect of life. Everything is alive and is making choices that determine the future, so the world is constantly creating itself. Because every moment brings something new, we need to strive not to classify things too quickly. We must see how the ordinary and the extraordinary come together into one coherent, mysterious story line. With the wisdom and time for reflection that old age provides, we may discover unsuspected relationships.
In this universe, all activities, events, and entities are related. Thus, it doesn’t matter what kind of existence an entity enjoys; whether it is human or otter or rock or star, it participates in the ongoing creation of reality. To Indians, life is not a predatory jungle, “red in tooth and claw,” as Western ideology likes to pretend, but a symphony of mutual respect in which each player has a specific part to play. We must be in our proper place and play our role at the proper moment. Because we humans arrived last in this world, we are the “younger brothers” of the other creatures and therefore have to learn everything from them. Our real interest shouldn’t be to discover the abstract structure of physical reality, but rather to find the proper road down which to walk.
I would also say that another major difference between Western and indigenous religions is that aboriginal groups have never had any need for a messiah. In fact, there really is no place for one in their cosmos.
Jensen: Why is that?
Deloria: If the world is not “a vale of tears,” then there’s no need for salvation. Indians know nothing of a wholly different world — a heaven — compared to which this world has no value. Indian religion is instead concerned, as sociologist Robert Bellah has noted, with “the maintenance of personal, social, and cosmic harmony, and with attaining specific goods — rain, harvest, children, health — as men have always been.” The North American Indians don’t desire transcendence. They simply want to learn more about the reality that confronts them.
Why do Western people — and the Near Eastern peoples from whom their religions are derived — need a messiah? Why is their appraisal of the physical world a negative one? Why do their societies suffer such crises? Why do they insist on believing that ultimate reality is contained in another, unimaginable realm beyond the senses and the span of human life? I don’t understand it. Religion, as I have experienced it, isn’t the recitation of beliefs, but a way of helping us understand our lives. It must, I think, have an intimate connection with the world in which we live, and any religion that favors other places — heaven and the like — over the physical world is a delusion, a mere control device to manipulate us.
Jensen: What, then, to an Indian, is the ultimate goal of life?
Deloria: Maturity: the ability to reflect on the ordinary aspects of life and discover their real meaning.
Now, I know this sounds as abstract as anything ever said by a Western scientist or philosopher, but within the context of Indian experience, it isn’t abstract at all. Maturity is a matter of reflection on a lifetime of experience, as a person first gathers information, then knowledge, then wisdom. Information accumulates until it achieves a sort of critical mass, and patterns and explanations begin to appear. This is where Western science derives its “laws,” but scientists abort the process there, assuming that the products of their own minds are inherent to the structure of the universe. Indians, on the other hand, allow the process to continue, because premature analysis leads to incomplete understanding. When we reach a very old age, or otherwise attain the capacity to reflect on our experiences — most often through visions —we begin to understand how experience, individuality, and the cycles of nature all relate to each other. That state seems to produce wisdom.
Because Western society concentrates so heavily on information, its product is youth, not maturity. The existence of thousands of plastic surgeons in America attests to the fact that we haven’t crossed the emotional barriers that keep us from experiencing maturity.
Jensen: I’m friends with an Okanagan Indian, from British Columbia. I once asked her where dreams come from, and she said, “Everybody knows the animals give them to us.” How would you answer the same question?
Deloria: You have to remember that the Indian relationship to the land is not abstract, but very particular, tied to one piece of ground. My people come from the plains, so we say dreams come from the spirits, not from animals. This is because, if you look around the Great Plains, you see only three large wild creatures: the buffalo, the bear, and the wolf. And you don’t run into them all the time. On the other hand, in the Pacific Northwest, where your friend’s from, there are so many living things that a person is in danger of disappearing into the crowd. So if she says that dreams come from animals, she’s absolutely correct — for her area. If I say dreams come from spirits, I’m correct, but only for the plains.
Jensen: It seems pretty clear to me that if the dominant culture has its way, it will destroy the planet.
Deloria: No question about it.
Jensen: What can we do, then?
Deloria: So long as we perceive science to be a cure-all for everything and a means to overcome nature, there’s nothing we can do. Our answer to increasingly violent weather, for example, is to build cement bunkers to protect us from tornadoes. We’re adjusting to the destructive system rather than abandoning it.
Jensen: You’ve suggested the beautiful possibility that extinction might not be forever, but that, instead, the endangered creatures go away and come back when their habitat is once again being treated properly.
Deloria: About ten years ago, I spoke to members of the Society for Ecological Restoration. I told them that traditional Indian knowledge says that beings never become extinct. They go away, but they have the power to come back. I predicted that, in their restorations, if they were preparing the area right, plants they thought were extinct would begin coming back unaided after four or five years. Plants would come back first, and then animals, and then birds.
Of course, my audience thought I was crazy. But later, when I went to get a cup of coffee, several people followed me. They said, “You’re right. We’re seven years into a swamp restoration in Wisconsin, and all the original plants are back.”
This is not as extraordinary as it might sound. The elders tell us that the buffalo used to go back and forth between two worlds. In the summertime, people would find themselves in the middle of a big herd for weeks. But in the wintertime, there would be only a few buffalo down in the river bottoms, or up in the grasslands. Where were the huge herds? According to the Sioux, they were underground. There were about ten places where they went in or came back out.
When I first heard that, I didn’t believe it. Then I talked to some of the elders, who said, “Of course,” and showed me the buttes where the buffalo used to come out in the springtime. I thought, This is insane, so I scoured the literature, but I couldn’t find any accounts of big buffalo herds in the wintertime. Then, come June, the damn plains were covered with buffalo. In the fall, they started disappearing again.
I’m still working on this one. But that’s what life is all about. You take disparate facts, bring them together, and say, “Now, what’s the real question?” And so often you’re amazed to find that the matter is much deeper than you ever imagined. But the point is to ask the questions, and keep asking them.