Old Ways in a New World

Tribal origin accounts commonly trace ancient migrations across strange lands and through successive worlds, primordial journeys that culminate in the formation of a people. Oral traditions, preserved in the multiform medium of language, speak to the ubiquity of displacement in human history, and to the consolation that comes with finally achieving a homeland. America has seemed a new world to generations of immigrants–some refugees, some captives, a multitude of opportunists–all of whom brought old ways with them as they struggled to survive a severe relocation. Drastic transformations of the Americas, part of a global metamorphosis in recent centuries, have shown this impression of newness to be a self-fulfilling ideology. Yet few of these now-dominant traditions seem capable of ensuring the survival of the human species, much less allowing tribal peoples to continue their pilgrimages through space and time. Preserving the integrity of tribal communities, positioning their accumulated knowledge of this land to help safeguard the fate of the planet, has been a pivotal concern for Deloria throughout his professional life. Applying indigenous wisdom to contemporary problems is a recurring theme in his writings, from Custer Died for Your Sins to Red Earth, White Lies. Tribal traditions are eminently relevant to present and future crises, not quaint artifacts of a bygone era. Old is not necessarily obsolete.

This section begins with Deloria’s introduction to the 1979 reprint edition of Black Elk Speaks, the acclaimed “Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux” as told by poet John Neihardt. Deconstructionist critics have questioned the authenticity of the narrative, emphasizing Neihardt’s editorial presence at the expense of Black Elk’s quintessential role in their “conversations and companionship,” something more than collaboration. Deloria acknowledges these literary debates but proposes a more synthetic reading of the text, one that recognizes its status as a “religious classic” capable of expressing universal dimensions of the human experience. Noting the book’s popularity among the younger generation of tribal people, he perceives “the emergence of a new sacred hoop, a new circle of intense community among Indians far outdistancing the grandeur of former times.” Deloria uses insights from Black Elk’s narrative to frame the next essay, a poetic reflection on the organic relationship between community and homeland. “The Coming of the People” originally appeared in The American Land, an illustrated anthology published by the Smithsonian Institution. Recounting tribal narratives of migration, Deloria suggests why it is “necessary to live as relatives” after settling in “exactly the right place.” Abstract theories of creation and history are no match for experiential knowledge of the world; creation is history, a “continual search for cosmic rhythms which remind us of our true selves.” The American landscape is mapped in the faces of its mature inhabitants.

As he did in these first two pieces, Deloria takes a characteristically optimistic approach to the topic of the third essay in this section. “Out of Chaos” was written for Parabola, a publication of the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition, as part of a thematic issue on exile. Rather than dwell on the obvious injustices surfaced by a political reading of this theme, Deloria explores the religious significance of exilic suffering and alienation. The general pattern of expulsion, transformation, and return he outlines here brings to mind the liminal trauma of the vision quest and other ceremonial rites of passage. Exile should be measured in a people’s ability to fulfill their responsibilities to the land, though even the forcible destruction of ceremonial life is not the final word. Anticipating a prophetic intervention, Deloria concludes that we might “expect American Indians to discern, out of the chaos of their shattered lives, . . . a new interpretation of their religious tradition with a universal application. . . . Perhaps out of the confusion of modern Indian society will come a statement about the world that we have come to expect when the exiles return.” He extends his investigation of the relationship between peoples and lands in “Reflection and Revelation: Knowing Land, Places and Ourselves.” This essay was originally presented at a symposium on “The Spirit of Place” and later published with other symposium papers in The Power of Place: Sacred Ground in Natural and Human Environments. Responding to growing interest in tribal environmental knowledge, Deloria points out that tribal wisdom represents the “distilled experiences” of a community. He analyzes the sacredness of land by distinguishing between reflective and revelatory experiences, which are available to all people, but only after prolonged occupation of a specific place. “Civilized life precludes most of the fundamental experiences that our species once had in relating to lands and the natural order.” Yet he again ends on a hopeful note, encouraged by the efforts of some to reverse the tide of environmental exploitation.

Deloria assesses the downside of religious adaptation in the next essay. “Is Religion Possible? An Evaluation of Present Efforts to Revive Traditional Tribal Religions” appeared in Wicazo Sa Review, a journal of Native American Studies. Pointing to the careless appropriations taking place on the New Age circuit, in the environmental movement, within Christian churches, and even among secular tribal organizations, he concludes that “Indian traditional religious affairs are a complete disaster area.” The quiet efforts of some traditional people indicate it may be possible to revive certain ceremonies, though Deloria cautions against the seduction of religious nostalgia. We are left to assemble the surviving fragments of revelation in the hope that they will lead us into the future, which is “all the old ways ever promised they would do.” The final piece is Deloria’s introduction to Vision Quest: Men, Women and Sacred Sites of the Sioux Nation, a book of contemporary portraits by Don Doll, a professional photographer and Jesuit priest. Black Elk’s dark vision of generations in struggle is a heavy burden for contemporary Sioux people to bear, but “we take fearful steps in order that our nation move through the difficult times and emerge into a better world.” Deloria looks ahead and sees other paths converging with theirs, even as sociopolitical realities work against any static conception of Sioux identity. “But as long as the people live on the land and can point to the places where Sioux history was experienced, there will always be a Sioux people.”