► Lessons from Deloria: Tribalism, Philosophical Activism, and Peoplehoods

“As linguistic, economic, religious, social, and cultural drives are integrated into philosophies of action by groups, it will become apparent that the Western world is being submerged into tribalism and ethnic communities.”

From the Book “We Talk, You Listen” by Vine Deloria, Jr.

In Chapter 7 of Vine Deloria’s book, We Talk, You Listen, called, “Power, Sovereignty, and Freedom,” he opened this chapter by addressing a recent rise in  “the realization of power segments of the minority communities” (114).  In 1966, Deloria was part of the Red Power movement, which is an American Indian social-political group and was part of several power group movements (at that time), such as Black Power. 

Deloria didn’t right away define what tribalism was, but he addressed it carefully over a span of chapters that led up to it.  Deloria saw tribalism as new forms of social groups that emerged from race and poverty issues. Deloria explained how minorities were often ignored or invisible because of the dominant social structure (when it comes to race) only looked at black and white relations (87).  And American Indians were often overlooked and put into another category called the “Others” (86).  In this complex social system, Deloria asserted that the old European-American ideologies have created factions that are not that much different as to how the federal government controls American Indian tribal lands and membership.

For example, Deloria described how block organizations and cooperatives have similarities as to how American Indians “hold their lands and assets in common and membership” is just the same as how “people purchase a share of the building,” and that is the same as “holding a property in common,” until memberships can be defined by certain criteria (94-95).  Thus creating a bureaucracy by getting “the minimum impact from maximum effort” (95).

Deloria sees tribalism as a desperate alternative to the struggles that the Red, Black, and Chicano power groups faced.  He saw these power groups as protesters who still did not understand how to use their “sovereignty as a group” (136). “Tribalism can be defined in the sovereignty of their group” (127).

Each ethnic group must, in effect, form its own interpretation of itself from which it can choose those paths of action which can best be achieved within a certain time span.” (57).

During the 1960’s, Ethnic studies as a concentration had one thing going on and that was that it could “provide the historical background of contemporary problems,” but Deloria believed that Ethnic studies needed more than that in order to survive (57), not to mention make a positive difference.  He felt that each ethnic group needed to develop “its own interpretation of itself” and from there move forward and make decisions that will enable them to thrive as a resilient group (57) suggesting that each ethnic group develop its sense of “peoplehood” (106).

In chapter 6, Another Look at Black Power, Deloria stated, “the great melting-pot theory was used to explain the apparent creation of a homogeneous society,” but a great divide in race relations between the white Americans and minorities grew (106).  Deloria believed that if that gap was recognized, then groups could come together and build strong relations with each other (106) as each group develops its sense of peoplehood, then it resists disappearing into the proverbial melting pot.

Deloria pointed out that, “In recognizing the integrity of the group we can understand the necessity for negotiations between groups (106).”  Here, Deloria is simply saying that if groups became strong then they could work with other groups and together they can face the dominant society’s lack of understanding about minority groups, which has been the source of much social and political conflict.  Deloria also asserted that dominant society needed to learn to understand many points of view and how each point of view is related (106).

“Black power was a philosophical activism” (102).

“We live in a time when old nations are breaking up and new nations are being formed.  It thus becomes imperative to destroy anyone who appears to be developing a sense of life values that does not coincide with what we have come to regard as our own” (207).

Black power united black people to acknowledge their heritage and “build a sense of community” (102).  Deloria also stated that Black Power called upon black people to “define their own goals,” and to take charge and support of their own organizations (102) and American Indians were doing the same thing in their own terms. The civil rights movement had two great black religious leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. (a Christian preacher) and Malcolm X (a Muslim preacher), who were both assassinated.  Their murders marked a problem in American society that dominant white society would go to great lengths to keep the status quo and that they knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were creating a new ideology and a new religion and they destroyed it before it could take over and change (for the better) the status for black people and for minorities (207-208).


Deloria, Vine. We Talk, You Listen : New Tribes, New Turf. University Of Nebraska Press ; Chesham, 2007.