"Vine Deloria Jr., once wrote, “The corporation forms the closest attempt of the white man to socialize his individualism and become a tribal man” (“Custer Died for Your Sins,” 1969). He penned these words at an optimistic moment in American history, when, as he further wrote, “modern society and Indian tribes will finally reach a cultural truce” through the development of corporate structures. His remarks echoed sociologist Émil Durkheim, who suggested corporations provided the answer to overcoming modern man’s moral and spiritual malaise, integrating him into society through new communal bonds.
If we read Deloria’s words superficially, we might conclude the cultural truce arrived with the January 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, declaring that “corporate persons” have a constitutional right to spend as much money as they wish in political campaigns, participating just like real people. The court had already decided in 1978, a decade after Deloria’s writing, that corporations have a constitutional right to political “free speech” (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti).
Deloria’s analysis of the similarity of corporate and tribal structures is worth reading. It sheds light on the hopeful side of 1960s American culture, and suggests a number of thought-provoking questions. Nevertheless, we must be careful to see the profound differences between corporations and tribal structures. It would be a mistake to conclude that corporate-based politics is a fulfillment of an Indian way of life.
As a matter of fact, the first major intrusion of corporate power into U.S. constitutional law occurred simultaneously with the destruction of the buffalo, the basis of independent Indian life on the Great Plains."
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Revisiting Deloria’s words on tribes and corporations
(Indian Country Today 3/26)