I first became acquainted with Vine Deloria Jr. when I read his interview
in Playboy in 1969. It was shortly after his first book, "Custer Died for
Your Sins" was published. Like so many, I resonated with his view that to
be Indian "... in modern American society is in a very real sense to be
unreal and ahistorical." He not only helped explain me to me, he showed me
how to reconcile the seeming differences, leading me and thousands of
others toward wholeness. He became a colleague, my mentor and my friend.
Vine has always been an uncommon thinker with practical moccasins. He
understands both our traditions and our technology, and sees the pitfalls
and joys of each. Some say he was one of the best Indian minds of the 20th
century; I say he is one of the best minds of our times, period!
It's easy to point to the more than 20 books he's published and the
numerous articles - too many to count really - as evidence of his
intellect. They are, but those publications are only part of the window
into Vine's wonderful mind. He has an intellectual capacity that very few
of us will ever achieve. He is also a commanding speaker, capable of moving
an audience with powerful, coherent eloquence, all without notes.
Somehow he is able to see largely - he not only championed treaty rights,
but understood their implications. In "God is Red: A Native View of
Religion" he outlined the oppression of the Indians by whites over time; he
also showed how and when Indians began claiming their rights and
demonstrated how that movement gradually gained popularity among the
whites. He understands much and he knows that understanding does not mean
agreement. Rather, he uses his understanding to illuminate and inform.
Vine knows that having perspective means moving forward and looking back at
the same time. He understands the need for and exemplifies balance in
behavior, thought and deed. For example, he saw the profit from Indian
bingo games and the growth of white-used Indian symbols as progress, but
not problem free progress. He questioned and still questions everything,
including how the drive for Western-based education erodes "... a sense of
He moves in the world of both Indians and non-Indians with total integrity.
That integrity showed itself clearly when, in May 2004, he refused an
honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Colorado - the
University he had retired from as a professor. Vine, whom TIME Magazine
named as one of the 11 most influential thinkers of the 20th century,
spelled out why he turned down the honorary degree. Referring to the
scandals in CU's athletic department, he said in a letter to the Regents,
"As a scholar, I am dismayed at the use of language to obscure the facts
and the intent to continue practices that reflect badly on the university."
Typical of his standing up for the common person, he added, "Nobody in this
society ever gets punished except the people at the bottom ..." It was one
of his finest moments.
Deloria has challenged Western science, arguing coherently that there is
much more going on than could be measured by Western scientific means. He
speaks out fearlessly, saying, among other things, "Science and religion
are inherited ways of believing certain things about the world. A good many
of our problems today are a result of the perpetuation of dreadfully
outmoded beliefs ... that do not correspond to what our science is
discovering today or to the remembered experience of non-Western people
across the globe."
Vine's genealogy reflects generations of Yankton medicine men, theologians,
scholars and community leaders and the lessons of his predecessors have not
been lost on him. I have seen government officials, college students and
grassroots leaders equally receptive to his thinking, writing and research.
I expect Vine to continue to do his work for all Americans in this country
- whether talking to Jay Leno on the "Tonight Show" or addressing Congress
in Washington. He will afford a new, and more accurate, analysis of
obligations that will connect the dots for generations to come.
In fact, I sometimes think of Vine as a combination of Garrison Keillor,
Will Rodgers and Walter Matthau. He's big - and some are initially
intimidated by his size. It isn't long, however, before people realize he's
as comfortable as an old shoe with a rapier wit that cuts to the core of
The number of people he influences is amazing. Consider, for instance, the
words of Buffy Sainte-Marie:
"Since my own emergence in the 1960s as a graduate of the University of
Massachusetts, my hunger for accuracy about Native American people,
history, culture and contemporary issues has continually been both inspired
and fed by the work of one person above all: Vine. I was a suddenly famous
singer-songwriter reaching audiences who would have been happy with the
same old Disney version of who we are. Vine Deloria's presence in America
at the same time as my own gave me company amid a population who didn't
know or care, and the courage to portray our past, our present and our
future very actively as ALL important. Unafraid to address our strengths as
well as the not so romantic thoughts about our hard realities - which come
from both outside and among ourselves. Vine's influence continues to
provide a shoulder of honesty to scholars, and to impact everyday Indians
of every age."
Or consider my brother, comedian Charlie Hill. In 1969 "The Dick Cavett
Show" gave my brother a focus for his political humor. In the late '70s, at
the University of Colorado, Vine talked about Indian humor. On the same
platform Charlie did Indian humor. They made quite a team.
Some of the credit goes to his wife, Barbara who raised three kids while
Vine was writing, traveling and lecturing. Serving countless meals and cups
of coffee, she has quietly supported him for most of his adult life. She
continues to serve as he continues to write, travel and lecture.
Vine's personal weekly therapy is the Denver Broncos and the University of
Arizona Wildcats basketball team. I suspect that in another life he was a
coach. I know that he has been, and continues to be, a coach to Indian
people this lifetime. Vine makes it possible for the rest of us to do our
work in Indian country. He makes us think about who we are as Indian
people. Like Larry Bird, the legendary basketball player, he makes all the
players around him better. Vine makes the Indians around him better than we
thought we could be.
Although I'm sure he doesn't want to be, Vine is an icon and idol to many
across the country, including me.
Norbert Hill, Oneida, is director of the American Indian Graduate Center
and former director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.