Custer’s Sins: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Settler-Colonial Politics of Civic Inclusion

Published date01 June 2018
Date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2018, Vol. 46(3) 357 –379
© The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591717712151
Custer’s Sins: Vine
Deloria Jr. and the
Settler-Colonial Politics
of Civic Inclusion
David Myer Temin1
While “inclusion” has been seen as a central mode of redressing ongoing
injustices against communities of color in the US, Indigenous political
experiences feature more complex legacies of contesting US citizenship.
Turning to an important episode of contestation, this essay examines the
relation between inclusion and the politics of eliminating Indigenous nations
that was part of a shared policy shift toward “Termination” in the Anglo-
settler world of the 1950s and 1960s. Through a reading of Indigenous activist-
intellectual Vine Deloria Jr.’s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto
(1969), it demonstrates how the construction of what I call the “civic inclusion
narrative” in post–World War II American political discourse disavowed
practices of empire-formation. Widely considered a foundational text of
the Indigenous Sovereignty Movement, the work repositioned Indigenous
peoples not as passive recipients of civil rights and incorporation into the
nation-state but as colonized peoples actively demanding decolonization.
Deloria’s work provides an exemplary counterpoint to the enduring thread
of civic inclusion in American political thought and an alternative tradition
of decolonization—an imperative that continues to resonate in today’s
North American and global Indigenous struggles over land, jurisdiction, and
1University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Myer Temin, University of Minnesota, 1414 Social Sciences Building, 297 19th Ave S.,
Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA.
712151PTXXXX10.1177/0090591717712151Political TheoryTemin
358 Political Theory 46(3)
Vine Deloria Jr., settler colonialism, decolonization, American political
thought, Indigenous, inclusion
In 1910, the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner—reflecting on the
United States’ annexation of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii in the
wake of the Spanish–American War—remarked that the United States was
finally “beginning to consider the relations between democracy and empire.”1
From the US post-frontier perspective, the earlier (and ongoing) conquest
and colonization of the lands of Indigenous peoples on the territory the United
States now claimed did not count as empire-formation because such practices
had culminated in the creation of an internally democratic nation-state.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such a vantage point
erased the political practices settlers enacted to replace Indigenous peoples.
Once more insular narratives of state- and nation-formation gained traction in
the settler colonies that made up the first British Empire (the United States,
Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Australia), the currency of “colonial-
ism” as a language of critique became subject to a more complex devaluing
embedded in varied narratives of national political culture. As an instance of
the latter, consider the familiar periodization of American political thought—
from colony to nation-state to empire—as suggestive of the need for more
sustained attention to the organizing spatial categories at work in obscuring
these original and ongoing imperial practices vis-à-vis Indigenous peoples.2
After World War II, this essay argues, a new way of narrating the politics
of inclusion in American political thought reshaped the historiographic and
analytic terms of this disavowal of empire in ways that continue to influence
contemporary democratic theory. While Indigenous peoples have long con-
tested settler-colonial empire—from Pequot minister William Apess to
Cayuga leader Levi General (Deskaheh)—I turn to an important post–World
War II Indigenous critic of colonial rule to highlight the intertwined registers
of interpretive and political erasure that have reconfigured this disavowal of
settler state-formation as a mode of empire-formation. To this end, I recon-
struct Standing Rock Sioux theorist Vine Deloria Jr.’s Custer Died for Your
Sins: An Indian Manifesto, which he wrote in 1969, to explore the problem-
atic of settler-colonial state-formation as it unfolds in the political practices
of the United States.3
The problem I address through Deloria’s writings has two components:
First, if settler colonialism has been relatively occluded in political theory,
then turning to Deloria, a prominent Indigenous theorist and activist,
can contribute to uncovering the links between political practices and

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