Some Mistakes of Vine Deloria

AnyaRupert at AnyaRupert at
Mon Jul 29 02:12:32 MDT 2002

Some Mistakes of Vine Deloria

Those of you familiar with the classics of freethought literature
will recognise the inspiration for the title of this  post. It is, of
course modelled on Robert Ingersoll's classic "Some Mistakes of

Vine Deloria was trained as a Lutheran theologian and the training
shows. His classic "Red Earth, White Lies" bears the clear imprint of
classic liberal Christian metaphysics of the late 20c., which in turn
are the direct inheritors of the European Romantics and the American
Transcendentalists of the 19th. Although his reconstitution of native
spirituality incorporates much half-baked native theology into his
comments, his metaphysics differ little from the ultra modern
offerings of mainstream Christian churches in North America,
repeating many of the flowered formulations of nature worship that
have been popularized in these traditions.

We learn precious little about the philosopy of native beliefs and I
suspect Deloria knows less than I do about them. He repeats, for
instance, the by now discredited idea that aboriginals in northern
Canada had 20 different words for snow. He also states that, "amongst
the  Plains Indians, and I suspect with the vast majority of the
Indian groups, the most revered person was the scout." He is wrong:
amongst the Eurasian nomads, the most revered person was the shaman,
the priestess of the hearth. In caste societies, the most revered
person is a chief, allied with a shaman, as in the Pacific Northwest.
His disclaimer, "I suspect" betrays the fact that he doesn't really
know what he's talking about; and is strewn liberally throughout the

His book is lttle more than a vehicle for all the anti-science
sentiment that has become fashionable in North America with the
growing popularity of the alternativism that was the lasting legacy
of the sixtys counter cultures. When we strip away the dross of
scientific illiteracy, we discover that all Deloria has going for his
"thesis" is moral condemnation for the science worship that permeates
popular culture. He clearly has no clue as to what science really is.

" Within the scientific establishment, on the other hand, immense
rewards are  made availabe to the individual who stands out among his
or her colleagues.  Consequently, in today's academic setting, with
the impact of the television personality cult, advocating popular
theories or making a theory poular is a rrequirement of accademic
success, regardless of the truth of the situation. In some instances,
the more bizarre and outlandish the theory, the more usefull it is in
bringing economic rewards to its creator. Sensationalism often
substitues for truth, and that is one reason why we have so many
popular psychologists and sociologists." Someone should inform
Deloria that Dr. Laura is not a scientist. She doesn't have a degree
in any of the social science implied by her use of the title "Dr."

This little scenario holds true of the proponents of creationism, a
truely bizarre and outlandish theory whose proponents are amply
rewarded by the various fundamentalist and right-wing sponsored think
tanks. The propagnda of these know-nothings has resulted in the
serious undermining of scientific literacy throughout North America.

   "In a survey of undergraduates in three states (excerpted in the
   Chronicle of Higher Education, November 19, 1986, p. 37), more
   than half said they were creationists and one-third or moe
   believed in ghosts, communication with the dead,
   extraterrestrials, aliens, Big Foot, etc. The prevalence of such
   pseudo-scientific beliefs is an indictment of current science
   education practices, which seem less effective than education via
   supermarket tabloids. The survey also revealed that those who
   accepted creationism were less likely to read books and had lower
   grade-point averages than the noncreationists.  What that may mean
   is unclear, but at the least it suggests an anti-intellectual
   suspicion of knowledge on the part of those sympathetic to
   creationism.... Another survey showed that only 12 percent of
   Ohio's high school biology teachers could select from five choices
   the phrase that best described the modern theory of evolution!"
   Evolution and the Myth of Creationsism, Tim M. Berra, 1990.

But creatinism is not a scientific theory, this is religious
propoganda, which is probably why it gets Deloria's vote in several
chapters.  In the real world, science is often dull, boring
compilation of data taking years to bear fruit. People who do stand
out in the crowd had better know their onions:

   "Science is highly competitive; and because its theories are by
   definition open to challenge, science is also self-correcting. Any
   biologist who could disprove the theory of evolution would
   instantly become famous, possibly a Nobel laureate, and probably
   very wealthy.  The fact that biology has been so spectacularly
   successful in describing and explaining the structure, processes,
   and diversity of the living world points to the validity of its
   theories. For example, such new techniques as tissue typing for
   organ transplants, the cloning of commercially valuable
   organisms, and genetic engineering whereby a gene for a human
   product such as insulin is inserted into bacteria are direct
   descendants of evolutionary theory.... " Berra, 1990.

One recent example that illustrates how spectacularly wrong Deloria
is on this point would be the Pons and Fleischman debacle. They
obtained results in clinical trial that seemed to indicate that they
had managed to achieve cood fusion through simple chemistry, a feat
long believed to be as impossible as the building of a successful
perpetual motion machine - and one that would solve the world's
energy crisis overnight if achieved. The operative word in the above
sentence is the word "seemed". They definitely had results, but
results of what? Rather than wait for the self-correcting mechanism
of peer review to work its "magic", the president of the University
opersuaded Ponds and Fleischman to hold a sensationalist press
conference. They refused to publish their findings, quite rightfully
stating that the findings were far too premature; but, eventually
their experiments were duplicated and the true significance of their
findings were known: the bubbles in the water were not the res ult of
heating bringing the water to a near boil, but were gas bubbles
created by electrolysis, that bane of ocean-going vessels. Us
coasties had predicted this outcome, based on our experience with

Pons and Flieschman lost their jobs, even though the decision to
flaut the peer review process had not originated with them.

Using time-tested theologians' logic, Deloria contradicts himself on
the same page in which he denounces the celebrity-scientist of
modernity. After describing storytelling as a means of gaining
authority in a tribe, Deloria goies on: "The possessor of the oral
traditions had nothing that would encourage him or her to change the
meaning or emphasis of the information except, as already noted to
entertain." So, pandering to popular culture is bad when done by
television celebrities, but not when done by tribal storytellers.
Conformity to tribal consensus is ok when done by storytellers, but
submission to peer review is a bad thing when done by scientists.
Further, Deloria's description of storytelling supports my thesis in
my January posts of status being a function of an individual's
ability to personify established convention; and that the wisdom of
the ancients is nothing more than the sanctification of conformity.

   "Tribal elders did not worry if their version of creation was
   entirely different from the scenario held by a neighbouring
   tribe.  People believed that each tribe had its own special
   relationship with the superior spiritual forces that governed the
   universe. The tasks of each tribe was to remain true to its
   special calling without worrying about what others were doing.
   Tribal knowledge was not fragmented data arranged acccording to
   rational speculation. It was simply the distilled memory of the
   People describing the events they had experienced and the lands
   they had lived in. Black Elk, talking to John Neihardt, explained
   the methodology well: "This they tell, and whether it happened so
   or not, I do not know; but if you think about it, you can see that
   it is true."

The biggest problem with Revealed Wisdom is that it is untestable -
you CAN't know whether it is true, you must simply accept it. And if
you don't bow to tribal consensus, you run the risk of being killed
as a witch, something advocated by marxmail's John Salter, aka
Hunterbear. Black Elk is at least honest is saying that there is no
way to know whether the history related in oral tradition is
accurate. Supposedly, we must look for some deeper meaning. But this
meaning is explicitely NOT available to everyone.

   "Special knowledge regarding other forms of life, if revealed in
   visions or dreams, was made available to the larger community on a
   "need-to-know" basis, since it was generally regarded as personal
   knowledge. The difference between non-Western and Western
   knowledge is that the knowledge is personal for non-Western
   peoples and impersonal for the Western scientist. Americans
   believe that anyone can use knowledge; for American Indians, only
   those people given the knowledge by other entities can use it

Deloria just can't help contradicting himself. He doesn't seem to
realise that he has delineated a number of conditions that disqualify
oral tradition from being, in his words, the distilled memory of the
People. First of all, it is not accurate information and is therefore
not a  distillation of anything: generalizations are not a
distillation, they are a difusion and attentuation. Second, much of
it is not the memory of the people, but the memory of the alleged
entity from which it was revealed. Third, if the knowledge is
personal, it should be personal to the entity of origin, not to the
recipient. Forth, dispite his agreement with Black Elk's
declaration that the stories are not accureate, Deloria insists that
the stories contain precise information about birds, plants, etc,
citing the Old Testament as an example of the accuracy of oral

Here, Deloria displays the true duplicity of a seminar-trained
theologian: he feels no qualms whatsoever in shooting his mouth off
on matters about which he clearly knows nothing. First, much of the
information presented in the Old Testament is demonstrably false. The
precise information about plants and animals which Deloria alleges
for the Old Testament is few and far between. The inaccuracies are
legion and legendary. For instance, after seven years during
which the Israeli army occupied the Sinai, they were unable to
show ANY evidence that the Exodus and Conquest had occurred.
This, despite the fact that archeologists who participated in
the research were able to show what people had had for supper
around a campsite 6,000 years ago. The fact is that the
out-from-Egypt story was a common story element in the mythic
history of all the nations of the Levant, as is attested to by
such historians as Herodotus and Seconius. We have a fragment
extant of the Phoenician version. The Exodus is not history, but
mythology - and borrowed mythology at that.

Second, most of this compendium is not at all oral tradition. There
may well be a residue of oral tradition behind the earliest texts;
but, the date of composition of most of these books can be pinpointed
with some fair degree of accuracy and their composition bears all the
earmarks of scribal origin. The collections known as the J and E
manuscripts were written some time in the 8c BCE, the redaction of
these two into one occurred in the 7c BCE, and most of the
Pentateuch and Court History were composed in the 6th. Deloria shows
no understanding whatsoever of the basics of textual criticism; and
certainly couldn't tell an oral tradition from a scribal one if his
life depended on it. There is simply no excuse for a modern
theologian to be unaware of the vast amount of scholarship available
in what's known amongst biblical scholars as the school of higher
criticism. Deloria here is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Anyone with the least familiarity with the mythology of the Ancient
Near East can see that much of the "knowlege" of the Old Testament
stories is reworked from cycles of myths common to the entire
Mediterranean Basin. Moses parting the waters is prefigured by a
story, a thousand years earlier, of Egyptian magicians parting the
waters of a pool on which the Pharoah's concubines were out rowing.
They had lost some jewelry, and the magician obligingly parted the
waters. The Old Testament story is simply a reworking of a now lost
Canaanite version. The figure of JWHW, the god of covenants, is
prefigured by  Mithra/Mitras, the covenant god of the Iran/India

"The tasks of each tribe was to remain true to its special calling
and not worrying about what others were doing."

This is not the picture of the Iroquois Confederacy painted by
Anthony Wallace in his Death and Rebirth of the Seneca. Wallace is a
Louis Approved Anthro(Tm), and also gets the nod from John Salter.
aka Hunterbear.

   "The native philosophers who rationalized the League in later
   years conceived also a maximum purpose: the conversion of all
   mankind, so that peace and happiness should be the lot of the
   peoples of the whole earth, and  all nations should abide by the
   same law and be members of the same confederacy. ... Thus the
   chiefs, tranquilly sitting about the fire at Onondaga, puffing on
   their long cane pipes, were easy in their minds about the forest
   wars.  They could say that despite all the  quarrels over beaver
   and boundaries, they themselves had always had in mind the
   extension of the Great Peace.  (Sounds tome like Nixon's call for
   "Peace With Honour" in Vietnam -Joan)... the effectiveness of the
   League in partially blocking the free exercise of the revenge
   process among the five participating tribes may therefore have
   been partly responsible forthe implacability and ferociousness of
   the Iroquois in pursuing external enemies, with the intrusion of
   the political influence into the revenge motif locally, it became
   even more essential for warriors to validate their moral stature
   in the eyes of kinsmen and community by allowing no slackness in
   the settling of scores. If this iinterpretation is sound, then the
   Iroquois reputation for pertinacity and ruthlessness in fighting
   with their exteernal enemies may be regarded as an indirect
   consequence of the blocking of the blood feud among the
   participating members of the League. The pax Iroquois resulted in
   the displacement of revenge motivation outward, onto surrounding
   peoples, Indian and European alike."

Despite his intense hatred of science, Deloria can't resist the urge
to paint Indian lore as a kind of science. It would help if Deloria
knew what science is; but alas, he doesn't. He gives us a quaint
little comparison between the seeding of clouds for rain, and the
Indian rainmaker's ceremony. First of all, the seeding of clouds is
not science but at best applied technology, probably done by a crop
duster hired for the occasion. The investigation of the principles
involved in the development of the technology proceeded along lines
of enquiry unimaginable to the primitive mind. It involved pen,
paper, and ink, or perhaps in this day and age computerized storage
of hard copy. It is simply not ppossible for the human mind to store
the vast amounts of knowledge required for modern scientific
endeavour. Scientific enquiry requires rigourous checking of data,
something that both Deloria and Black Elk deem unneccessary.  (See my
post "On the Reliability of Oral History", in the archives. -Joan)
Second, the rainmaking stories show no understanding  of the processe
s by which rain is made: they simply call for assistance upon
imagined elemental friends. Third, the rainmaking ceremonies were
attempts to influence natural events through magic, not through the
manipulation of clearly understood natural law. Forth, the rainmaking
ceremonies were not the product of any attempt to discover those
natural laws.  Such discovery is the very essence of science.
Scientists do not pray for the Bunsen burner to reveal the secrets of
the chemical tanssmutations occuring in the beaker.

This last point bears elaboration. Elsewhere, Deloria insists that a
key difference between Western and non-Western knowledge is that
Indians get involved with the physical world, thereby the knowledge
is personal. But this again stands the situation on its head. The
rainmaker asks for knowledge to be handed to him by the entities; the
Western scientist, on the other hand, doesn't sit idly by hoping that
an unknown entity will find him worthy of enlightenment. The western
scientist takes an active hand in the process, devising experiemnts,
not asking the bunsen burner to reveal its secrets, but testing his
own observations - organized and distilled into a hypothesis - to
judge their accuracy. The Indian ceremonial presupposes the accuracy
of his knowledge because it was given to him by his brother the eagle
or whatever; and, like, my brother wouldn't lie to me, ok Dude? Like,
he wouldn't.

I almost overlooked the most absurd idea in this book:

   "The major difference between American Indian views of the
   physical world and Western science lies in the premise accepted by
   Indians and rejected by scientists: the world in which we live is
   alive. Many scientist believe this idea to be primitive
   superstition and, consequently, scientific explanation rejects any
   nuance of interpretation that would credit the existence of any
   activities of the natural world as having partial intelligence or
   sentience present."

This is so wrong I don't know where to begin. Scientists do not
reject the live earth theory as superstition, they reject it as
abysmally bad science. The earth displays none of the criteria
required to be considered alive: first of all, its parts do not work
in concert as with a live organism. The butterfly in the Carribean
does not cause a monsoon in India. Monsoons are cause by atmospheric
conditions in interaction with the ocean currents caused by the
rotation of the earth. The rotation of the earth is in no way
influenced by a butterfly flapping its wings. The ocean currents are
demonstrably closed systems. They are not set in motion by
earthquakes or by loud music played on a boom box in harlem. They may
occasionally be affected by atmospheric conditions which in turn are
also demonstrably closed systems. These systems are set in motion by
the cooling and heating of the earth as it turns on its axis and
travels in its orbit around the sun.. None of these systems shows any
sign of sentience: they lack a central nervous system. They may
interact with each otherr from time to time, but not in an organized
fashion so as to indicate the presence of intelligence and intent.
Scientists most definitely recognize both sentience and intelligence
in activities of parts of the natural world: all the mammals, for
instance, have a central nervous system.

Curiously enough, the live earth theory is central to Gaia
spirituality, which is something that Proyect rejects out of hand,
yet he holds Deloria up as a model of Indian spirituality that we
should all emulate. Why the double standard? Is it because Gaia
spirituality is an ecofeminist spirituality?

More importantly, the live earth theory is central to the
hegemonizing effects of New Age alternativism. Here is an excerpt
from an article on consilience published in Culture Online:

    Bill Sacks: Review of E. O. Wilson's "Consilience" (p14 of 75)

    24. Opposed to the mechanical view of nature is the dialectical
    view. The dialectical view is much harder to come by--both in its
    origins as well as in the ability of each of us to grasp it
    without a significant amount of struggle. This is because none of
    us has the experience of directly and consciously producing any
    entity that is not manufactured out of parts. A trivial exception
    is a sculpture or a carving, in which we reduce a larger entity
    to a smaller one. So the mechanical view more closely corresponds
    to our direct experience than the dialectical view. But the
    dialectical view allows us to describe nature far more accurately
    and completely, accounting for things that the mechanical view
    simply has to brush aside as unanswerable.

    25. In his book Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, David
    Bohm, a physicist who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and
    went to teach in Britain, has a lucid explanation of the
    dialectical view of physics and subatomic particles. He shows how
    there are new laws at each level of organization of matter that
    cannot be reduced to the laws that apply at the lower levels. For
    example, one cannot explain temperature of a gas in terms of
    individual gas molecules, since it is a property only of a
    collection of gas molecules and has no meaning for a single
    molecule. Yet the temperature of a gas rests on two aspects of
    the individual molecule, ignoring all its other aspects, namely
    its relative independence of the other molecules except when it
    collides with another, and its elasticity when it bounces off

     26. Temperature is nothing more than average of the motion of
     these molecules (combined with their mass), but it is only
     definable under the conditions that the gas has been allowed to
     come to equilibrium with no sources of energy being added or
     taken away from it. Any other molecules or other particles that
     share those characteristics of gas molecules, i.e., relative
     independence and elasticity, can give rise to a temperature, and
     this temperature is completely independent of the detailed
     construction of the molecules.  Thus oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur
     dioxide, etc., all can have the same temperature even though
     they differ in their detailed structure.  Further more this is a
     2-way street. The properties of the lower level also depend to
     some extent on the properties at the higher level. For example,
     at high enough temperatures the molecules will break apart.

     27. Wilson even grants this emergence of new properties at
     higher levels of organization that prevents prediction of them
     from knowledge of properties at the lower level (p. 91), but
     then he drops the idea and glosses over it in favor of defining
     societies in terms of the genetically programmed behaviors of
     the individuals. British ethologist Patrick Bateson points out
     that the nly behavioral property of humans that nature has
     selected is the plasticity of behavior that comes from a brain
     with a large cortex (outer layer of nerve cells). (Bateson) This
     plasticity then allows humans to learn without limit, to
     actively select behaviors from an array of possible ones, and to
     change themselves and their environment in accordance with their
     needs. Plasticity then is an emergent property only on the level
     of the organism as a whole. It is relatively independent of the
     detailed genetic structure of the organism (i.e., as it varies
     from one person to another--except for occasional congenital or
     developmental defects), and the directions it takes are not
     directed by the genes.

     28. Societies (higher level) have properties that are relatively
     independent of, and only depend on a few aspects of, individuals
     (lower level), but many properties of individuals depend on
     aspects of the social organization in which we are born and
     develop. This is the dialectical view that explains so much more
     than the mechanical view of people as assembled from their genes
     and other parts.

     Consilience as unification

     29. On the surface Wilson's call for unification of the various
     branches of science is unobjectionable. Indeed Marxists consider
     all branches of science as merely looking at different aspects
     of the same real world. The real world then automatically
     unifies them at their root. However, the unity in Wilson's
     program that of master or mistress and slave, while unity in the
     Marxist view is more like that of partners. The title
     Consilience serves nly to mask that crucial distinction, but
     between the covers the book is quite explicit about the
     underlying goal.

     30. On the surface Wilson's claim that genes influence behavior
     is likewise unobjectionable. The fact that, apart from certain
     occasional birth defects, all humans have arms and legs, and a
     brain with a large outer layer (cortex)--all products of genes
     under certain conditions of development--indeed underlies our
     ability to learn to do such things as drive cars, play
     basketball, and knit.  This is a further example of the way
     properties at higher levels of organization rest on a few
     properties at lower levels.  But that is not all that Wilson
     intends to say. His claim is that genes do not merely enablethe
     development of a wide variety of complex behaviors but rather
     that they compel, or at least push, us to engage in a particular
     selection of them. In other words, he ignores both the emergence
     of new features of human relationships t the social level as
     well as the dependence of individual human behavior on social
     organization. His view is, among other fallacies, one-sided, in
     that to him everything flows in one direction--from genes to
     individuals to society.

Frankly, I don't believe that tribal societies did propose a
universalist theory such as is implied by the live earth theory. Such
an idea is inconsistent with the particularism that typifies
animistic belief. Animism is simply mankind's earliest expression of
his recognition of particularity, and expresses nothing more than his
recognition that a particular instance of a universal has special
significance. What early man actually understood of this significance
cannot now be known, as the details of this understanding have not
been preserved, partly because early man lacked the means to preserve
knowledge in hard copy and partly because knowledge in these systems
was understood to be an experiential phenomenon and therefore
ultimately ineffable. His early attempts at expression of the
inchoate resulted in expressions of magical thinking, by which
relationships are posited by means of an arbitrary juxtaposition of
disparate elements as kind be found, for instance, in compendia of
traditional herbal lore.  (i.e. as when a particular herb is said to
have healing properties based entirely on an imagined associatin with
a particular clan totem.)

We know that aboriginal spirituality in North America underwent at
least two continent wide revisions alongside similar movements in the
dominant culture. Anthony Wallace, a Louis Approved Anthro(Tm) has
extensively studied what historians have come to call The Great
Awakening, a phenomenon that seems to wash over American religious
thinking from time to time, and out of which arose two uniquely
American flavours of supra-denominational Christianity, the
Evangelical and the Charismatic movements, whose modern form is found
in the rank and file of the Religious Right. The history of the
political permutations of these movements is beyond the scope of this
post; suffice it to say that it was not necessarily right-wing.

It was during this time that Native Americans incorporated whatever
elements of Christianity they thought usefull into the now familiar
Christian-Aboriginal synthesis. At the same time, the European
invaders have projected their own romantic notions, culled to a large
extent from Rousseau et al, onto the stereotypical primordial man
whom they imagined they had found in tribal society. I have
previously cited Thomas Jefferson's coloration of native american
tribalism with biblical tribalism, and also the right-wing theories
such as that of British Israel theorists, to show that tribalism can
support a wide rang of political interpretations.

There is no doubt that some individual native americans opportunistically
seized on the European fascination for all things primordial and
promoted the new synthesis as the old tradition. Here in Canada, the
mere mention of Pauline Johnson ought to suffice to illustrate my
point. She gained rock star celebrity status promoting her Indian
Princess image all over Europe during the 19c infatuation with
Romanticism. Perhaps it is here that one Mr. Maloney picked up the
romantic notions of life in the woods that propelled him into similar
celebrity status during the Dirty Thirtys. He eventually passed
himself off as an Indian chief named Grey Owl, full of all sorts of
nature worshipping philosophy. There is now a movie out about his
life, starring Pierce Br

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