The modern tribal sovereignty movement has had no single great inspirational leader, no Martin Luther King Jr., no César Chávez. After all, Indian country contains more than 500 separate and independent peoples, each with its own history, traditions, and officials. Yet if one person may be singled out, it is Vine Deloria Jr. A Standing Rock Sioux, Deloria died on Nov. 13, at the age of 72.
Deloria wrote what is perhaps the most influential book ever published on Indian affairs: Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, which burst upon the world in 1969. The book embodied the author’s personality: sarcastic, witty, iconoclastic and lightning-quick, always sparring and jabbing. Deloria skewered the usual suspects — the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Christian missionaries and dominant societal values — but he also went after Democrats, liberals and Indian tribes, including his own, when he felt they had fallen short or dissembled.
For whites, Custer Died for Your Sins humanized Indians by explaining the distinctive cultures and needs of Native peoples, and showing Indian humor in its full flower. For Indians, the book inspired a sense of pride and empowerment at a time when hope seemed the province of all in America save tribes. "We will survive because we are a people unified by our humanity; not a pressure group unified for conquest," Deloria wrote. "And from our greater strength we shall wear down the white man and finally outlast him. But above all, and this is our strongest affirmation, we SHALL endure as a people."
Deloria got his start as a scholar and activist in the 1960s, as executive director of the National Conference of American Indians, the nation’s largest intertribal organization. There, he resisted continuing threats of tribal termination and proposed new policy directives based on self-determination. "What you could see," Deloria recalled, "was that the tribes just had to be more aggressive. The government was so terrified by civil rights that if we just threatened to act, we would prevail."
While he was inspired by the civil rights movement, Deloria felt that it was too easily equated with sameness: "In the minds of people in 1963, legal equality and cultural conformity were identical," he said. To appreciate the distinction between civil rights and tribal movements, one need only consider the nature of the wrongs inflicted on each group: Blacks were determined to eliminate segregation and allow integration; Indians sought to reverse forced assimilation.
Deloria went on to pen more than 20 books, including Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence and God is Red: A Native View of Religion. He taught at the University of Arizona from 1978 to 1990, then moved to the University of Colorado, where he taught American studies, law, history and political science. He retired in 2000.
For more than two generations, Deloria was omnipresent for Indian people. Beyond his books, he was strategist and advocate for many causes, including self-determination, religious freedom, sacred sites, graves protection, and repatriation. He lectured — at once grumpy and inspirational, technical and philosophical — in the cities and in Indian country. Now, he has moved on to a new place, but his voice, strong and warm, still sounds in every hollow, across every mesa.
Portions of this piece are reprinted from the writer’s latest book, Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations, © 2005 by Charles Wilkinson, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.