Anthropology, Interrupted: Thank you, Vine Deloria

Anthropology, Interrupted: Thank you, Vine Deloria

I was first introduced to anthropology at community college. It was…eye opening. Anthropology challenged the insufficient, limited political and historical education I’d received up through high school. It mattered, and it changed how I looked at the world around me.

But there were problems. Blind spots. I learned a certain version of anthropological history and theory. My introduction to the field was what I would call “Boasian Triumphalism,” which effectively depicted anthropology as a heroic discipline that corrected the wrongs of 19th century bigotry, ethnocentrism, and racism (which is a pretty tall order). The basic story went something like this:

Things were bad in the 19th century. People spent too much time in armchairs and they came up with problematic evolutionary schemes that were racist, factually incorrect, and downright dangerous. But then came Franz Boas, empirical fieldwork, and 20th century anthropology to the rescue. It was all about Boasian relativism and looking at different cultural groups on their own terms. Understanding. Empathy. Etc. Somewhere in the mix I learned a little about Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard, for good measure, and it all seemed to make sense. It all sounded so good, and right, and enlightened. I was converted.

And I lived happily ever after in my own liberal space of enlightenment for the rest of my days. Except that part didn’t happen.

What happened? Well, I’m not sure who it was, but somebody (one of my classmates, I think) introduced me to this book written in 1969 by someone named Vine Deloria: Custer Died for your sins. I owe that person a huge debt of gratitude. I remember sitting in a classroom reading that book, with its bright red cover. Mind. Blown. Deloria was clearly not having it with this whole anthropology thing.

Something was clearly amiss.

Of course I started with the chapter called “Anthropologists and Other Friends.” How could I not start there? The chapter starts off with that line about the rain that must fall into everyone’s lives. McNamara had the TFX and the Edsel, churches had the “real world” gumming things up for them. And Indians were stuck with anthropologists. It went downhill from there.

Reading what Deloria had to say was a bit shocking for a recent convert to anthropology. I thought anthropology had it all figured out (and, by proxy, me). I had learned such a clean, heroic narrative about the discipline…and here was this sharp, sarcastic, brutal (and funny) critique coming from Vine Deloria. So I realized that all was not well, that anthropology was full of a long list of problems and issues. Reading Vine Deloria was a vital intervention that redirected my relationship with anthropology.

All of this makes me think back to that ‘triumphalist’ version of anthropology that I first learned in college. Is that really necessary? I often wonder if I would have been drawn to the field without that oversimplified, heroically problematic introduction. I like to think that a more complex, nuanced introduction to anthropology–flaws and all–would have grabbed my attention. But I have my doubts. Such questions are important, because they also tell us about some of the problematic expectations that our educational and political system tends to inculcate in youth. What does say about us, our students, and our educational system when we feel the need to teach these triumphalist narratives in order corner our stake in the university market?

Vine Deloria’s intervention matters because, at heart, he’s talking about challenging the power relationships between anthropologists and the people they study. He argued forcefully that Native people should not simply be treated as objects of study. As I see it, these are the kinds of conversations–and lessons–that should provide the foundations of our field as we make our way through this fraught 21st century. I understand the concern about drawing students in and making anthropology appealing, but to me it’s far more important to build critical foundations, right from day one. Besides, I see no reason why we can’t frame anthropology as something that is both inspirational and critically aware of its past. So, in closing, here’s to skipping the triumphalism and getting right to building the kind of anthropology that has “the theoretical perspectives and methodological tools to analyze the complex challenges of a rapidly changing world” (Mullings 2015:12). Onward.


Deloria, Vine. 1969. Custer died for your sins: An Indian Manifesto. University of Oklahoma Press.

Mullings, Leith. 2015. Anthropology Matters. American Anthropologist Vol. 117(1):4-16.

7 Replies to “Anthropology, Interrupted: Thank you, Vine Deloria”

  1. Nice piece. Let’s start where it ends, with that call for theoretical perspectives and methodological tools to analyze complex challenges. What’s the next step?

  2. i remember a similar experience of reading deloria–his little 1969 book remains good medicine. interestingly, deloria did have at least one anthropologist he considered a friend, sol tax. with that in mind, i think it might also be possible to talk about a kind of counter-tradition that we who teach the discipline could develop. who are the people you (here broadly to those of us “in the dendum”) might include in such a history?

  3. Zora Neale Hurston and Keith Hart’s favorite C. L. James come to mind. Outside of North America but Native Anthropology: The Japanese Challenge to Western Academic Hegemony , by Takami Kuwayama. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2004, 184 pp. is very good.

  4. Sorry folks, for some reason I’m not getting notifications about comments. Just saw these. What’s next? Maybe this:
    …as one possible path.
    But then Adia Benton and Yarimar Bonilla have some good arguments in their contributions to the whole “reading the classics” issue of the journal-that-shall-not-be-named. I’ll save that for another post.

  5. Ryan, thanks for the link to and decanonizing anthropology. The list of new sources is terrific. I do, however, feel a measure or concern about the use of “Replacing” and “Instead of.” Replacing one canon with another hardly seems inclusive, and woe betide the student who finds him or herself at a place that expects familiarity with the old canon. Could, perhaps, thought be given to comparative analysis. Malinowski and Fei Hsiao-Tong are a terrific example. Malinowski, a complete foreigner, is interned and stuck in the Trobiands for four years and tries to write a comprehensive ethnography. Fei Hsiao-Tong does three months of fieldwork in his native region of China, in a place where his sister runs the local silk factory and his work is sharply focused on the economic condition of the peasantry in a densely populated region where land is in such short supply that infanticide is common as a way to maintain balance between family size and available resources. But Fei himself is not a peasant. And the village where he does his study will be obliterated a few months later during the Japanese invasion of China. Lots of stuff to think about here.

    1. @John McCreery feel free to correct me, but the notion of “replacing” here is also odd; zora neale hurston, who i assign to my students when i teach intro anth, was a student of boas; likewise, fei studied with malinowski at the LSE. while i agree that the two of them offer perspectives that are unique, to consider them “outside” of the tradition of either boasian or british structural-functionalist anthropology, respectively, erases their particular histories. to me, such a move commits another kind of violence on both of them. on the whole, i find such a move a form of tokenism. so the question would be how do we think of alternate traditions of a kind of engaged or decolonial anthropology (and truth be told, i would locate hurston here, but not fei) as having complex entanglements with the “canonical” tradition? this is why i pointed to the figure of sol tax. tax shows, i think, that the question concerns ethical and political commitment, which emerges in dialogue with the centers of power within the discipline, not one’s national or ethnic origin

  6. Deej, perhaps I was not clear enough. If you click through to the link that Ryan provides, you will see that the authors of the piece cited talk openly and directly about replacing the current canon with the authors they recommend. I agree, by the way, with your comment about ethical and political commitment and would only like to add scholarly commitment to the list. As an independent scholar whose own research involves studying up, my primary concern with today’s anthropology is the striking absence of new ideas in forums like this one.