There are a few books that, after devouring their words and digesting their contents, have changed the course of my life. In the fiftieth year since it was published, Standing Rock Sioux author Vine Deloria Jr.'s Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, remains at the top of my life-altering book list. I was a graduate student studying anthropology, questioning my chosen field, when a professor recommended I spend some time at the library mulling over my internal dilemma with a little help from Deloria. In the chapter titled Anthropologists and Other Friends, he writes:
“Into each life, it is said, some rain must fall. Some people have bad horoscopes, others take tips on the stock market. But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists.”
I’m fond of crassness. It wasn’t long before his writing and the works of those he influenced led me in a new trajectory out of academia and, luckily, landing in the place that has always served as my datum point- a library. For this, I am eternally grateful to Vine Deloria Jr.
Not only did his work shape my career path, but his essays on laws and treaties, termination policies, and government agencies provided a broader context for me to better understand the writing of my favorite author, Louise Erdrich.
As a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, a lot of Erdrich's work is centered around a semi-fictitious reservation and the generations of families who live there. In her book The Round House, she tells a bleak story about rape and trauma while delicately unraveling intricacies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal law.
Her work reminds me that the web of connectivity in a community is capable of simultaneously providing comfort and torture. It emphasizes that family, and how we define it within our cultural settings, especially in times of loss and grief, expands and contracts accordingly. At a time when my life has led me away from the place and people that for decades I knew as home, these are important lessons for me to remember.
Beyond the personal connection I have with Erdrich’s lyrical writing, her descriptions of historical events that continue to shape the lives and lands of Indigenous people pushes the reader to dig further to understand the powerful relationship between justice and place.
In Tommy Orange’s There There, this sentiment is echoed: the lives of Indigenous people are often interwoven with relationship to place. Orange describes the lives of “Urban Indians” in Oakland, California. The ecosystems that his characters inhabit are defined by concrete behemoths, public transportation and gentrification. At times, the characters recall memories of the Occupation of Alcatraz- a movement that was influenced by Deloria.
For Orange, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, because humans are essential actors in their environments, cities and their infrastructure are as much a part of the landscape as plants and animals. He also illustrates that cities have been a large part of forced assimilation. These two notions can feel diametrically opposed, but the writing of Orange, Erdrich and Deloria can help readers understand that this is the complicated reality.
Fifty years later, Custer Died For Your Sins is still as necessary and timely as it was in 1969. It taught me that reading books by Indigenous authors is perhaps the simplest and most necessary action I can take to have a better understanding of the world I live in and, often, take for granted. Deloria reminded me that it is entirely possible to change your life by merely expanding your reading horizon.
What more could you ever imagine from a book?
-Kaitlin Stanley is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.