Vine Deloria, Jr.’s God is Red

Vine Deloria, Jr., is a well-known American Indian scholar and activist; having been in the forefront of bringing attention to the injustices suffered by Native Americans, he has been an eloquent spokesman, not only on their behalf, for a widening of our cultural viewpoint. God Is Red remains a crucial volume for anyone interested in the study of religion.

The main thrust of God is Red is stated in Deloria’s introduction: “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.”

Deloria being Deloria, this book is heavily polemical, as is made more than obvious by his recounting of the Indian Movement, his discussions of white stereotypes of Indians, and his somewhat cynical portrayal of the role of Christian churches in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 70s in the first three chapters. The meat of the book begins in Chapter 4, “Thinking in Time and Space,” which begins what is an intelligent and clear discussion of the significant and fundamental differences between the Native religious experience and that of the European settlers.

The thesis of the central portion of the book is that to Christians, and by extension to Jews and Muslims as well, creation is an historical event – it has a beginning, a day of Creation, and looks forward to a definite end, at which specific time the world will either be destroyed or transformed into the Kingdom of Heaven. (It is also crucial to understand that this creation was ex nihilo, “from nothing.”) The great monotheisms, then, are “historical” religions. It is interesting to note that it is perhaps because of this specificity, this insistence on historical context as the measure of reality, that the monotheisms, and modern Christianity in particular, have developed into very concrete, materialistic religions, in the sense that it is control of material reality under a set of received laws that is so critically important to their various theologies. This is something that becomes crucial to understanding some of the later discussions in the book, although Deloria doesn’t seem to state it specifically.

The native religions of America, on the other hand (along with most aboriginal religions that I’ve encountered, including those of Europe), are oriented toward space as defining the sacred. “History” itself is a fuzzy concept, and includes not only events within memory, but legend, teaching stories, and myth. While there are, indeed, creation myths in American Indian mythology,; they speak of creation as a new alignment of what existed before. It is telling that many stories of the origins of humanity describe them coming to this place from another. Deloria also discusses the Christian idea of nature as having fallen from grace along with Adam, but, because redemption is reserved for Man, nature is thereafter corrupt; Man also receives dominion over the rest of creation. Opposed to this is the Native idea that all partakes of the sacred – and that includes places. (As might be expected, Deloria is quite harsh in discussing the responsibility of Christian theology for ongoing environmental destruction.)

He also points out that particular religions and systems of belief have very strong ties to the people among which they originated. Thus, what he calls the “Middle Eastern” religions are authoritarian, hierarchical, and historical, because those were characteristics of the societies in which they arose. Tribal religions tend to be spatial, individual, and rely much more on direct experience than upon received wisdom – for example, the importance of the vision quest in many tribal religions, not only in North America.

There are very interesting discussions on the nature of religious belief among Christians and Indians and how it works itself out in modern life. For example, there are some instances where the Native idea of sacred space has tremendous impact on the basic tenets of American democracy. Perhaps the most widely cited instance of this is the case of Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association: the National Forest Service proposed building six miles of paved roads to open a section of the forest to logging; the section in question happened to be the center of ceremonial and religious life for three tribes in the region. The Court decision strongly implies that to recognize the rights of the Indians under the “Free Exercise” clause would imply that the Indians owned federal lands. If anything points up the basic lack of contact between European/Christian thinking and the thinking of American Indians in this area, it is the equation of “use” with “ownership,” the latter of which had a very different meaning among the American Natives than any that the European settlers were used to.

In his final chapter, “Religion Today,” Deloria notes that what he calls the “explanatory categories” used in describing religious practice and religious phenomena in general derive from a Christian world-view. I might add that this is equally true of the concepts used to define historiography and most of the culturally oriented social sciences. He states that “[o]pposing tribal concepts to Christian concepts does not mean that tribal concepts are correct because Christianity is wrong.” He then proceeds to make the corollary painfully obvious. As a means of further illustrating the differences in approach, he makes reference to Indian healing ceremonies; as he notes, Christian healers rely on intense emotion and extreme willpower on the part of the sufferer as the basis for god’s intervention, while Native healers have a repertoire of specific ceremonies for specific illnesses – in fact, most of them are, to one degree or another, specialists in that they can heal certain diseases, specific gifts that are theirs because of their specific religious experiences.

Deloria’s summation notes that the basic differences between Christianity and tribal religions are that the tribal religions are much more concerned with the basic facts of life – living on the land, participating in the community, and acknowledging the existence of religious people with special powers within that community – as an everyday occurrence, without reference to a philosophical or theoretical justification.

There are places where Deloria goes off the deep end. Toward the end of the chapter titled “The Concept of History,” he seeks to debunk all existing accounts of the building of the pyramids, and takes it as fact that the New World was visited “numerous” times before Columbus, citing the reluctance of scholars to even consider such a possibility. That’s simply not the case: even as early as the 1980s, it was accepted that the Vikings had not only visited North America long before Columbus, but had founded colonies, and many scholars these days assume that the obvious relationships between artistic styles in Asia and the Pacific Northwest and Central and South American cultures of the New World are inexplicable unless one assumes contact, which, given what we now know about the capabilities of “primitive” sailors, was certainly possible..

He really loses it when he starts citing Emmanuel Velikovsky, which rapidly devolves into a “scientific-establishment not allowing dissent/conspiracy theory” rant. My only comment on that section is that there is only one problem with Velikovsky’s theories: there is no evidence to support them.

Deloria makes some good points, and for anyone interested in a clear exposition of some of the basic ideas of American Indian religions, there is a great deal of value in this book, if you can slide past the polemic. He also has a clear grasp of the points where Christian and Native philosophies simply don’t meet, which in itself is something important to know. The section of Velikovsky is good for a chuckle, too.

(Fulcrum Publishing, 2003)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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