A boy was walking down the road one day and he sees an old American Indian with his ear to the ground. He runs over to the old man and asks him what he”s doing. The man answers, “1994 Pontiac station wagon, old woman, two kids and a dog.” This really impressed the boy, who then asked the man if he could really tell all that from listening to the ground. The man answered, “No, I just got run over.”
That is how American Indian advocate Vine Deloria Jr., author of “Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto,” began the third annual Distinguished Lecture on Public Health and Human Rights, held yesterday at the Rackham School of Graduate Studies.
The University invited Deloria to talk about life on American Indian reservations has changed since the 1930s, when he was born on a Sioux reservation in Yates, N.D.
“In those days it was a very small town. There was one telephone and if someone got a long distance call, everybody in town would know about it,” he said. “In those days, a telephone call really meant bad news.”
Mentioning times when American Indians would meet at trading posts to talk, Deloria said the sense of community once found on reservations no longer exists.
“You could sit there and listen to those people offer comments on anybody who was coming by,” he said. “You had this incredible flowing description of who people were. If you sat there long enough, you had a really good insight into people in the town.”
He described his reservation as being very isolated.
“People were not quite aware of how bad tetanus was,” Deloria said. “The other was polio. We had polio epidemics all the time. We maybe lost three or four classmates from polio each summer. You learned what death was very early.”
Deloria said the World War II draft and the addition of cars were the beginning of health problems because many reservation members left, ceremonies depending on members of families couldn”t be performed and tribes started to mobilize and grow apart.
“All of these little communities started to shrink,” he said, adding that the loss of community caused family ties to be broken and a lack of responsibility among older generations towards younger generations. Since adults felt less responsible, they offered less health advice.
Deloria said the 1960s, when American Indians became eligible for poverty grants, caused them to lose their identities and be less dependent on ancestors for identification. “People were adopting nicknames based on the programs they were employed by,” he said.
He attributed many problems to the relocation of American Indians to cities and said poor teachers and loss of American Indian traditions led to drug abuse and poor education.
“I think you”ve got drugs in primary and secondary schools because you are driving kids crazy,” Deloria told an audience member after his speech.
He proposed a new system in which American Indians in seventh and eighth grade would be sent to reservations to “learn to survive” and then go back to the school system.
“If you keep them in the classroom and don”t let them do the physical things and don”t give them freedom, you are going to have some problems,” he said.
Deloria said it is important that American Indians rebuild their communities.
“You”ve got to create common Indian experiences. See what is left of the community and become an active member as a person, not as a professional,” he added.
Students leaving the lecture said Deloria”s account of life on Indian reservations was insightful.
“I thought it was really educational as far as the affairs influencing Indian reservations,” said Art and Design senior Jessica Zapotechne. “He seemed really down to earth.”
Sherman James, director of the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health, said the lecture was “an incredible walk through the 20th century.”