Vine Deloria Jr., God is Red – Excerpts

Citation: Deloria Jr., Vine. 1972. God is Red. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994.

Chapter 4 – “Thinking in Time and Space” (62-77) 15 pg
Chapter 6 – “The Concept of History” (98-113) 15 pg
Chapter 7 – “The Spatial Problem of History” (114-134) 20 pg

Chapter 4 – “Thinking in Time and Space.”The temporal ideologies eschewed by Western thought propose universalized concepts of religion and worldview, whereas Indigenous, space-based thinking allows for concepts of religion that are local and particular to a certain time. Deloria proposes that adherence to temporal thinking (with the concomitant certainty that history is ‘destined’ to follow a certain path), in addition to encapsulating irreconcilable contradictions, also prevents fully existing within the particularities of the now. Space-based thinking seems better suited for cross-cultural understanding and more nourishing relationships between individuals and communities. There is a need to find common ground, though, between the two perspectives, as we now have two distinct philosophical traditions inhabiting the same land.

Chapter 6 – “The Concept of History”Christian philosophy encapsulates a concept of history that ties the present to the past in a linear fashion. Western thought has incorporated a securalized version of Christian theology that nonetheless excludes and marginalizes both other societies, and other modes of being that diverge from the present.

Chapter 5 – “The Spatial Problem of History”Deloria argues that theology, in practice, employs a troubling split between history as “actual” and history as symbolic, even to the point that scholars who have made connections between written accounts of geological events have been mocked, even after their theories have been proven. The point here is that making space for global accounts of historical events can support a more complete account of the world that also gives credence to particular and situated perspectives.

Scope/Organization/Main Points: 

Chapter 4
Writing from and about the post-war period, Deloria ascertains that both conservative and liberal ideology now refer to “the idea of history” in order to “validate their ideas” (62). In fact, all “Western European identity involves the assumption that time proceeds in a linear fashion,” which Deloria relates to Europeans presuming that they are “the guardians of the world” – an ideology that fostered the Crusades, etc., to the present day (63).
The breakdown of traditional colonial revenue streams is requiring institutions to adapt to “novel situations for which they were not created” (64). In fact, the speeding up on communications, the sharing of information and of good, proclaims “the disappearance of time itself as a limiting factor of our experience. In a world in which communications are nearly instantaneous and simultaneous experiences are possible, it must be spaces and places that distinguish us from one another, not time nor history” (65).
Deloria gives Southern California as an example of different religious groups existing in the same place but appearing to be somehow out of time: “movements are disconnected from a universal passage of time and are a product of the concentration of beliefs as modified by their human and natural environments” (65).
World religions face the problem of their own universality: can they be useful as abstract and mobile principles? These religions, Deloria suggests – the three major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – are enacted not via their content; rather, “cultural context, time, and place are the major elements of revelation” (66). So even religions that privilege time and a single, linear teleology of revelation are ignorant of how they emerge in situ.  For American Indians, context is “all-important for both practice and the understanding of reality. The places where revelations were experienced were remembered and set aside as locations where, through rituals and ceremonials, the people could once again communicate with the spirits.” The three main religions have holy places, but they are valued based on “their historical significance and do not provide the sense of permanency and rootedness that the Indian sacred places represent” (67).
Here is a lengthy quotation about how communal values reflect the particularity of place and context, and how these values run counter to ideologies of progress and linear time: “Rearrangement of individual behavioral patterns is incidental to the communal involvement in ceremonies and the continual renewal of community relationships with the holy places of revelation. Ethics flow from the ongoing life of the community and are virtually indistinguishable from the tribal or communal customs. There is little dependence on the concept of progress either on an individual or community basis as a means of evaluating the impact of the religious practices. Value judgements involve present community realities and not a reliance on part of future golden ages toward which the community is moving or from which the community has veered” (68).
Deloria references Hopi (Arizona) and Lummis (Pacific Northwest) tribal groups, both which have rain dance ceremonies, but for different reasons: the former due to desert conditions of their lands, and the latter to call rains in the event of snowfall that might prevent them from leaving their longhouses (70). I like this as an example of how finding similarities across difference has a spatial element. Deloria notes that American Indians project a sense of “authenticity” (76) that he seems to attribute to the localized and specific character of Indigenous worldviews that he is espousing.  

Chapter 6

As a way of recentreing tribal thinking, Deloria notes that the “western preoccupation with history and a chronological description of reality was not a dominant factor in any tribal conception of either time or history”; instead, Indigenous forms of storytelling suggest that “the story itself is important, not its precise chronological location” (98).  Of course stories do function as time-keeping devices – he gives the example of Plains Indians’ “winter counts” – but these do not provide a ‘comprehensive’ chronology; instead, they are accepted as telling a version of history that reflects the reality of those who tell it (99).

Recent events and practices are incorporated into tribal practices, “[b]ut the ceremonies, beliefs, and great religious events of the tribes were distinct from history; they did not depend on history for their verification. If they worked for the community in the present, that was sufficient evidence of their validity. […] Time is regarded as all-important by Christians, and it has a casual importance, if any, among the tribal peoples” (103).

Deloria has an interesting assessment of Christianity that is valid for understanding how risk society works today: “The Christian religion looks toward a spectacular end of the world as a time of judgment and thus an end of history. It is thus theologically an open-ended proposition because it can at anytime promote the idea that the world is ending; when such an event fails to occur, the contentions can easily be retracted by resorting to philosophical warnings about the nature of time” (106).

The supposed linearity of a single timeline naturalizes the evolution of cultures; Christian theology would have it that “the history of humankind appears as a rather tedious story of the rise and fall of nation after nation, and the sequence in which world history has been written shows amazing parallels to the expansion of the Christian religion. […] Indeed, world history as presently conceived in the Christian nations is the story of the West’s conquest of the remainder of the world and the subsequent rise to technological sophistication” (108).

Thinking through linearity limits intellectual capacity. Deloria gives the example of debates around how Egyptian pyramids were built. Scholars seem interested in applying thinking of today to the past, which includes denying that the projects used slave labour. Deloria shows that without an unthinkably enormous work force, one pyramid would have taken over 300 years to be constructed, given that it is made of 2 ½ million blocks of stone, weighing between 2 and 70 tonnes each (110-11).

Chapter 7

Recently, stories from the Old Testament, have been reinterpreted as “representative of the spiritual quality of the Hebrew people,” rather than as historical fact (115). One of the side-effects of this type of reinterpretation is that modern events of great significance do not have a theological effect (ie. no new religious philosophies develop to accommodate new events). So events like America’s “numerous economic depressions” and the Civil War, as well as Russia’s victories over Napoleon and Hitler are interpreted as political and social events with no religious import (115). “Christian theologians tell us that their God works in and dominates history while maintaining in their footnotes that they are not prepared to affirm that anything really happened” (120). Consequently, theologians “insist that a whole chronology of nonexistence events constitutes an important historical time line that is superior to any other explanation of human experiences.”

Deloria claims that such “dilemma[s] over the nature of history occurs and will occur whenever a religion is divorced from space and made an exclusive agent of time” (121). By contrast, “Indian tribes combine history and geography so that they have a ‘sacred geography,’ that is to say, every location within their original homeland has a multitude of stories that recount the migrations, revelations, and particular historical incidents that cumulatively produced the tribe in its current condition,” such as Bear Butte in South Dakota and the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (122).

Deloria celebrates the work of Immanuel Velikovsky, who in 1950 published Worlds in Collision. Velikovsky’s book is a collection of evidence from various peoples of the world, arguing that sometime after 1500 BC, Jupiter “ejected a comet of planetary size” (124), which we now know as Venus. Venus then began to terrorize Earth, frequently entering its orbit, and creating the catastrophic events recorded in Jewish tradition as the Exodus, and in causing the great flood that cultures from around the world have in their collective memories. His account was roundly mocked, even after his claims were proved by others (124-127).

Deloria’s concern is that there is a rift between religious and secular versions of history that prevents us not only from seeing the world, but from recognizing how other perspectives are necessary for a good view of things. He is pragmatic: “if the planet is likely to be subjected to immense displacements of its land and waters, it would be better to know than to be caught thinking that a catastrophe of this magnitude (Venus assaulting Earth) was impossible” (132).

Points of Importance/Interest:

  • How thinking about the old and new together, even rethinking the relationship between them, recurs in so many of my readings. Is this an implicit privileging of space / place?
  • Could the sacredness of space relate to the “intelligible essences” of Battiste and Henderson?
  • The interplay between place, community and individual is of interest, and reflected in other readings, like The Winter we Danced and Dancing on our Turtle’s Back
  • Hopi and Lummis as analogy for a spatialized and contextual understanding of solidarity across difference
  • In Chapter 6, his critique of linearity is important for understanding the effects of a universalizing timeline, whereby it seeks to institute an Occident-centric world reality. I’m curious how current-day globalization (the collapse of time and space, and the flexibility of post-Fordist neoliberal capital) interacts with Deloria’s thinking about universal linearity.
  • For my field paper, his emphasis on locality and specificity is crucial; community value judgements on pg 68; the incorporation of valid memories into tribal practices on pg 103.
  • Sort of like Jodi Byrd’s use of parallax, he shows that multiple perspectives of historic events simultaneously gives a more truthful assessment of the world while also making space for an assortment of situated accounts. How does multiculturalism work with this idea of truth through multiple perspectives, if we can think of it as seeming to value all perspectives while actually asserting a singular truth, in the case of Canadian multiculturalism, a truth about national identity?

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