There was a knock at Dania’s door.
She pulled an earbud out. “Come in.”
Eleanor leaned into the room, still clutching the doorframe.
“Hey,” Dania replied. “What’s up?”
“Quick question for you,” began Eleanor. Her fingers impatiently drummed against the door. “Have you finished reading Custer yet?”
“Custer Died For Your Sins, you mean?” Dania groaned. She looked dryly at the book, sitting atop a disheveled stack of papers on her desk.
“Yeah, Gwen’s waiting to discuss it, and wanted to know when you think you’ll be done with it.”
“I mean, not today,” Dania said, her head tilting to the side. “If that was the question.”
“No, it’s more of a general question,” said Eleanor. “Like, are we talking days, or…”
“I’m not sure, it’s hard to tell,” Dania said. “I’m in the middle of the third chapter right now, and that took me about a week.”
“A week? For three chapters?” Eleanor let go of the doorframe, to face Dania more directly.
“Yeah, I know, I’m slow,” Dania repeated. “But it’s a slow read. I feel like I’m reading the same thing over and over.”
“I mean, you are,” said Eleanor. “Part of his writing style is that he has these endless anecdotes to support his points. If it had come out today, it probably would have been half the length. Maybe it would have been a listicle.”
“No, it definitely has long-form The Atlantic article energy,” Dania agreed. “I don’t know, I’m having trouble getting into it.”
“You gotta put yourself in the mindset of 1969, though,” explained Eleanor. “Back then, no one had ever written something like this before. Or, if they had, no one was reading it. Deloria’s book was the first one to really break out into the mainstream.”
“He seems to really hate the mainstream, though,” Dania countered, sitting up on the bed. “If there’s any sort of generalized thesis I can get out of the book so far, it’s basically that the Indian community –– is it Native American community? He uses ‘Indian’ constantly.”
“It was 1969.”
“That the Native American Community,” Dania said, “should separate themselves from the rest of America and run themselves independently.”
“That’s essentially it,” said Eleanor. “There’s more nuance later in the book, but that’s the basic premise. It’s an indictment of the idea that Native American communities have some sort of ongoing struggle that needs to be ‘solved’ by activists and anthropologists –– did you get to the anthropologist chapter yet?”
“It’s a good one,” Eleanor smiled. “Really dry humor, almost British. There’s a chapter later about Indian Humor as well, probably the quickest read since it doesn’t have as many statistics…”
“It just feels like a weird message to be communicating,” Dania said. “Like, people shouldn’t be jerks and there’s a whole history about Native American groups being rounded up and forced onto reservations. It’s a very aggressive history, and it obviously needs to be faced and dealt with.”
“He gets into how the U.S. has failed to deal with history later in the book,” Eleanor said. “The final chapter has this incredible paragraph –– incredible in, like, a dark way –– about how the U.S. was built on violence, and continues to act violently, and how non-violent action gets ignored…”
“But to argue that the best situation for Native American communities is to stay on the reservations?” Dania wondered. “Considering the state the reservations are in? His words, not mine.”
“Well, he does address some things the U.S. should be doing to help,” Eleanor said. “He mentions a potential ‘leave-us-alone agreement’ at the end of the first chapter. You remember?”
“Yeah, but U.S. help isn’t the same as being left alone,” Dania added. “I’m not saying he’s wrong. He’s lived the thing that I haven’t, obviously. But his point seems to be this combination where the U.S. keeps supporting Native American communities but somehow continues leaving them alone. Which feels contradictory.”
“It gets clearer later in the book,” Eleanor said. “The prevailing message I took from it, by the end, is that every tool or agency the U.S. has developed with the intention of helping the Native American community has backfired. There’s an absurdity to the very idea of Native American communities ‘needing help’ from the U.S. –– why would they come to the very government that kicked them off their land, and ask them for assistance?”
“Well, they don’t ask, obviously,” Dania said. “The problem, as I see it, is that the U.S. aid is so often unsolicited, or is developed without talking with people on the reservations.”
“There’s this bonkers chapter about the impact of Christian missionaries on the communities,” Eleanor pointed out. “The different denominations were literally creating monopolies between different tribes. Like, this group will be converted by the Protestants, and this tribe will be converted by the Methodists…”
“Unsurprising, honestly,” Dania said.
“The actionable items in the book are in the final chapter,” Eleanor continued. “He includes a literal list of things that the U.S. could do to help Indian communities that would actually help. Most of his suggestions are essentially giving the individual tribes money, or investing in tribes developing their communities, but leaving the specifics of how they do that up to the members, instead of the government.”
“Which is different than leaving them alone, is my point,” Dania said.
“Well, in reference to what you said earlier,” recalled Eleanor, “about the Native American tribes requesting assistance from the government that kicked them down. Deloria seems to be arguing that there is an expectation from the Native American community that the U.S. will invest some amount of money into helping them, now that the policy of genocide ended up not working.”
“Is that the whole chapter about ‘termination?'” Dania asked. “I got confused reading it.”
“No, ‘termination’ was the method by which the government stopped aiding the reservations,” Eleanor explained. “And that needed to stop so they would continue getting aid. The problem was that the government’s criteria, for when a reservation was developed enough to be ‘terminated’ from assistance, was way too low.”
Dania nodded, silently. She was sure that Eleanor was right, and Deloria’s book all made sense when you took the time to dig through his heavy, legalese jargon. Paragraph after paragraph had seemed to beat Dania over the head with the continued injustices perpetuated against Native American communities, from 1492 up to 1969. Still, something about his direct, repetitive delivery made it hard for her to follow his writing, as much as she seemed to agree with his perspective.
“I’ll finish it soon,” Dania said. She glanced out the door, behind Eleanor. “What does Gwen think about the book?”
“She likes it,” Eleanor said. “When we talked about it briefly, it was more about the impact of the messages than the writing craft. Make sure you go back and read Deloria’s preface after you finish it. It puts a lot of the history since 1969 into perspective.”
“Is he still alive?”
“No, he wrote the preface in 1987. He died in the 2000s.”
Dania nodded, and placed an earbud back into her ear.
Eleanor shut the door, and walked to the kitchen.
“She’s not finished with the book yet,” Eleanor began, leaning against the wall.
“I’m aware, I overheard your conversation.” Gwen was busily preparing dinner, chopping vegetables on a cutting board. “She’s not wrong about Deloria’s thesis, I’ll say.”
“Which thesis?” asked Eleanor. “The book is nothing but theses.”
“The division between asking the government for assistance and requesting that the government stay out of the way,” Gwen clarified. “Because of the way the book is ordered, by subject rather than timeline, the history of Native American development under the reservation system feels a little convoluted when you read the book straight through. It could be difficult to recognize Deloria’s baseline argument about how much reservations have allowed a hybridized Native American culture to develop on its own.”
“I suppose so,” Eleanor said. “I know that books like The Round House certainly clued me into the notion that the reservation system, thought it developed out of forced relocation, does provide a certain level of cultural protection for Native American tribes.”
“Exactly,” said Gwen. “Deloria seems to know that. The thrust of the book, however, concerns the efforts by the federal government and well-meaning-but-dumb anthropologists to diagnose the issue with the Native American community. To diagnose and cure their plight, as Deloria puts it.”
“Without realizing that the plight is caused by the very people trying to solve it,” added Eleanor.
“Exactly,” said Gwen. “Which was a pretty gutsy thing to argue in 1969. The occupation of Alcatraz and the true birth of the Red Power Movement started just after the release of this book –– to a certain degree, because of the book. Fifty years on, there’s certainly more open discussion about Native American society and its relationship to the U.S. federal government. The Round House, even if it’s set in 1988, reflects the growth of Native American reservation life all the way up to the book’s publication in 2012.”
“Sure,” Eleanor said. “I suppose, to a certain degree, if Deloria’s book doesn’t surprise or shock as much today, it’s a sign that the book did its job at the time. People understand these issues now. Indigenous Peoples Day is replacing Columbus Day, in some places.”
“Well, that some people understand these issues,” Gwen cautioned. “There’s still a lot of misinformation.”
“It fits nicely into our modern conversation around how every aspect of American life is tainted by gross bureaucratic incompetence and malfeasance. You could imagine most of this book showing up as research for a segment on Last Week Tonight or Patriot Act.”
“It’s a great primary source, though,” Eleanor added. “And an interesting time capsule of 1969 thinking.”
“Oh, certainly,” Gwen said. “Recommended reading for people until the plight of Native Americans gets solved.”
“It’ll be a while before anything can be considered ‘solved,'” Eleanor smirked.
“Well, then,” Gwen replied. “We keep re-reading.”
Image Credit: Macmillan Publishing Company