I recently read Custer Died for Your Sins, a fascinating book about the Native Americans that push away my understanding of the Indians. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto is a collection of eleven essays on various topics related to American Indian legal, social, and political issues of the 1960s. It is a fascinating book, or better said, an outstanding manifesto of the Native Americans’ voices, demands, and aspiration. In each essay, Custer got its change to speak of many issues affecting American Indians.
The author’s direct, provocative and inside voice makes the work live, pushing away our stereotype understanding of the Indians. “The American public feels most comfortable with the mythical Indians of stereotype-land who were always there. These Indians are fierce, they wear feathers and grunt. Most of us don’t fit this idealized figure since we grunt only when overeating, which is seldom.” (Deloria, Jr. p. 2)
When I think of the all Indian stories I read and all the Indian movies I watched, all these stories about American Indian appear to be an abstract, covering some obscure topics of the past. Custer Died for Your Sins is a manifesto about an injustice, misinformation, and human rights and after all, is about what the Indians really are and want “What we need is a cultural leave-us alone agreement, in spirit and in fact.” (Deloria, Jr. p, 42)
I may say, many of the presented legal, political, and social issues between the Native Americans and the federal government in this book sound shocking, and somehow it is hard to believe that history we learned at school is quite different. “Indians are probably invisible because of the tremendous amount of misinformation about them.” (Deloria, Jr.)
Some of us may are familiar with Johnson v. McIntosh, a landmark case from 1843 and its rule that the federal government would not recognize private purchases of Indian lands. Despite Justice Marshall well written and legally supported decision referring to the “discovery doctrine” that European power gains sovereignly title to the land it discovers, it was not justified by Custer. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision was viewed by the American Indians as a violation of their basic human rights. “…it took no time at all to discover that Indians were really people and should have the right to sell their lands. Land was the means of recognizing the Indian as a human being. It was the method whereby land could be stolen legally and not blatantly.” (Deloria, Jr.)
I believe, the legal result of the rule, that the only Native American conveyance of land are sales of land to the federal government only was one of the major legal, political and social injustice the American Indians encountered since the “discovery” of America. “To justify such law, many land promoters pictured the tribes as “wasteful” people, who did not know how and refused to develop their natural resources. “Because the Indians did not “use” their lands, argued many land promoters, the lands should be taken away and given to people who knew what to do with them” (Deloria Jr.)
In her opening essay, “Indians Today: The Real and the Unreal”, the author discusses so many true social facts that many of us are not even familiar with. It is difficult to comprehend and believe that back in time Indian children were kidnapped and forced to study into boarding schools thousands of miles away from home to learn the white man’s ways. Did the society know that the Indian reservations were turned over to different Christian denominations for governing? “Reservations were for a long-time church operated. Everything possible was done to ensure that Indians were forced into American life. The wild animal was made into a household pet whether or not he wanted to be one.” (Deloria, Jr.) Indeed, the American Indians suffered the reverse treatment.
I think that the central message of the book is that Indians are alive, that they are people as everyone else with their own dreams and hopes, and that they have been mistreated by the ignorance of those who have pretended to be helping them.
A book like this one surely is keeping American Indians before the American public and the American domestic agenda. After all, Custer is still alive.