Editor’s Note: Fifty years ago Vine Deloria Jr. published Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. It became a must-read for Indian Country and many non-Natives. Indian Country Today marks the anniversary with this occasional series of tributes from individuals sharing how #IndianManifesto impacted their lives running throughout the year.
October 1999, I found by myself looking down the barrel of our history and having to formulate our path progressing forward. It was a warm Southern California morning and the skies were clear thanks to the Santa Ana winds, when I entered into an office that I had very little training for nor knew very little of our issues. The majority of my experiences resided in books, theory, law and court cases. At the age of 29, becoming our tribe’s Chairman was not an endeavor I sought, but nonetheless it was where I landed. There were no books titled “Tribal Chairman for Dummies” or “The Ten Best Practices for Being An Indian Leader” at the bookstore. I reached out to Chairman Richard Milanovich (Agua Caliente), who was a kind gentle soul, and he shared with me the “playing field” of California Indian Country and the pressing issues of that erstwhile moment. He did not tell me how to be a leader but shared the importance of listening to all those around you and leading by doing.
Like the lightening across the dusk desert sky, a flash that shocked my mind and raced to pages forgotten. I recalled Vine Deloria’s pages on The Problem of Indian Leadership and Laws and Treaties. Like a bible, I coveted Custer Died For Your Sins as my resource of being a leader. My doing had a blueprint, one crafted by, in my lifetime, the most prodigious human to engage Indian Country and one we can call ours.
Returning to Laws and Treaties, I reread his words with a renewed ebullience and purpose, searching for more than what was on the pages. One of my first annotations about the chapter reads Western expansions will never stop and is limitless and as he walks through the broken treaties, I noted, Do not – We will not – depend on any other government…EVER. These known revelations were quickly supported by his words that the United States derived “absolute power over” Indian Country, first aggressively, then passively and finally, apathetically. It became apparent to me at page 45, that we can’t trust the trust and reaffirming this axiom in the following pages by illustrating the passing of “fraudulent” laws. The conviction to not use the federal government and lessen the degree of a “legalistic limbo,” and with it, Marshall’s paternalistic classifications, became an absolute endeavor for moving forward; limit exposure and contact with the federal government for the United States has shown “that even the most innocent-looking proposals is fraught with implications the sum total which is loss of land,” but I focused on “loss.” These are all things I knew, as a passive academic reader, but with my new post, a manifestation of an inherent kindle formed regarding how I should preform my doing.
The Problem of Indian Leadership provided the guidance I lacked, and no other passage was more instrumental in my first years in office. The first paragraph set the tone; “public sympathy” equaled public support at multiple levels, recalling Chairman Milanovich’s words. The great Indian leaders of the 1800s that Deloria spotlights were initiative seekers and performers, and they can never be equaled. They were doing and surviving on a level that could not be matched, but their integrity had to be honored and I believed that was the essence of Chairman Milanovich’s message and what I rediscovered in Deloria. Integrity was not simply in the elected leader, but it had to transcend from the community, as well as its collective inherent ancestral voice. If a tribal government was to perform, it was best to practice its actions as Indians and stay connected to its history, customs and traditions for the betterment of the community, avoiding the “Tonto” effect. Community integrity, forged by Deloria, coupled with “social unification” propelled our community to combat “skillful manipulators.” As I noted on the page 208, Be Careful of (being) a King Maker and in California, gaming was exploding at this time and non-Indians were seeking to advance agendas at the expense of many. I must have reread Vine’s words on La Farge during these troubled days a hundred times and the notions of unification. At critical times, multiple communities can summon unification and perform collectively; “experimenting upon” best practices to address the “vital issues” of their tribe and all tribes, striving for “unity as a fellowship of equals.”
I have often been asked: “What kind of a leader were you?” And I always answer: “All kinds.” Because of Deloria, I often sought, with care, to delegate, for fear of “absolute dependence” on anyone or any committee was dangerous and leads to suffocation. The importance of “progressive programs” and the desire to create “discernible goals” were crafted and submitted for council approval. The will to be proactive, perform, and to set in motion, long-term objectives that exceeded beyond my terms as an elected official. The necessity to engage, educate and at times combat, the various levels of governance, especially local governments. These doings were attributed to Deloria’s writings and even to this day, the proactive performance of two decades ago, are alive and well within our tribal community, held intact by our community integrity.
Perhaps, it is fitting to feel more secured and unified today, but tribal leaders need to replenish, rediscover or discover the divination foretold by Vine Deloria, Jr. for if we are to progress, it is incumbent to know his wisdom. In doing so: “We will survive because we are a people unified by our humanity; not a pressure group unified for conquest. And from our greater strength we shall wear down the white man and finally outlast him. But above all, and this is our strongest affirmation, we SHALL ENDURE as a people.”
Deron Marquez, PhD, is the Co-Founder of the Tribal Administration Certificate Program at Claremont Graduate University and former chairman of San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.