Vine Deloria Jr.: Writer, scholar and inspired trickster

  • Vine Deloria Jr

    Chris Richards, courtesy Indian Country Today
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...