Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact

Nov 15th, 1995 | By | Category: 7-3: Investing, Media Reviews

by Vine Deloria, Jr.
New York, New York: Scribner, 1995. 286 pages

Review by Gregory Gagnon

Vine Deloria Jr. is the most important American Indian advocate‑scholar of our time. In his many books (such as We Talk, You Listen, Custer Died for Your Sins, God is Red, and The Aggressions of Civilization), he has provided Indians with magnificent arguments based on scholarship to use in validating our existence. He has pricked the non‑Indian consciousness with the same material.

Red Earth, White Lies is the latest taunting title indicative of his approach. It is a mixture of facile polemics, sound scholarship, and deliberately extreme provocation. From one perspective or another, Deloria spreads a consistent pattern. He always asserts that traditional Indian culture is based upon a wisdom derived from the Indian view of government, ecosystem, and spirituality; in contrast, Western Civilization is puerile, detached from harmony, and avaricious.

As I recall a conversation of a few years ago, Deloria feels that his mission as teacher begins with taking extreme positions in the hope that his auditors will respond with skepticism. This means that despite being a professor at a dominant society university, he can say that Indians pushing for education have eroded the “sense of Indian identity” and “have created a generation of technicians and professionals who also happen to have Indian blood.”

Red Earth, White Lies savages Western civilization’s most precious paradigm‑‑science. Deloria ridicules the “evidence” cited by science for the Bering Strait Theory, Pleistocene extinctions, evolution, the archaeologically‑derived chain‑of‑being, and the scientific description of natural phenomena. Deloria concludes that Indian traditions accurately describe what happened and provide antidotes to the rigid orthodoxy based on spurious research of the scientific experts.  All students can enjoy Deloria’s masterful invective and learn from his demand that we all be skeptical.

Deloria suggests catastrophe as the explanation for the phenomena of megafauna extinction and concomitant formation of physical features like the Agate Quarry in Nebraska, South Dakota Badlands, Devil’s Tower, the Columbia River, and Flathead Lake. Sometimes the author makes leaps of faulty correlations similar to those he attributes to Western scientists. Still the reasoning rings plausible, and Indian and non‑Indian scientists need to read this. The author pleads for scientists to learn from Indian elders before it is too late and for Indians to rejuvenate traditions that are grounded in solid, precise, accurate views of the world.

Tribal college students, faculty, and staff need to know Deloria’s work. Red Earth, White Lies is typical. It illustrates well the strengths and weaknesses of most of Deloria’s publications. Be warned that a major goal of Red Earth, White Lies is to stimulate skepticism, so be skeptical.

Gregory Gagnon is the vice president for instruction at Oglala Lakota College. He holds a doctorate in history and is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa.

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