Skip to main content
Updated:
Original:

A personal retrospective of the extraordinary

Author:

The one thing about cliches is that they usually are true and, thus, become
cliches. That is certainly the case when describing the passing of Vine
Deloria Jr. as the silencing of a great voice. After hearing the news, I
still find it hard to believe that someone so vital and irreplaceable is
really gone.

I first met Deloria at his house in Colorado when I was six years old. His
wife, Barbara, was a student of my father's at Denver University, and Vine
and Barbara Deloria invited us to their house for a salmon dinner. This was
the first time that I had ever eaten salmon in my life, and I remember Vine
just laughing in amazement at how much this six-year-old could wolf down.

Children are the first to know what is behind a laugh; and I remember
Vine's being a gentle and hearty laugh, not mocking in tone at all. That
laugh at the absurd is what I heard later, after I grew up and could read
his enormously entertaining and informative books.

Deloria spent the better part of his life finding a way to rage against the
absurd and sweeten his righteous anger with his gentle humor. His
criticisms of modern American religion included anecdotes of 30-foot-tall
Jesus statues on the side of an interstate highway, and he marveled at the
white man's ability to set the Cuyahoga River on fire.

However, Deloria was no simple humorist. He was always an ardent defender
of American Indian rights and perhaps single-handedly saved the National
Congress of the American Indian from oblivion when more radical and
strident organizations threatened to supplant it in the 1960s.

However, as Deloria told me in an interview earlier this year, moderation
was the most effective way of packaging radical thoughts. Make no mistake,
though: his thoughts were radical and challenged the established order.

In the late 1990s, as I was just entering journalism, I ran into Deloria at
a conference in Seattle. He was soaking up the warm summer sun and smoking
a cigarette off by himself outside the conference. I reminded him of going
to his house in Colorado as a kid and we talked for a while.

He handed me a copy of his book "Red Earth, White Lies" and autographed a
copy for me, telling me it was an important read for anyone entering
journalism. That book presents an alternate theory of the peopling of the
Americas. To put it mildly, many scientists were skeptical of his theory
because it flew in the face of established science, took aim at the Bering
Strait theory, and called for a more complex picture of how the ancestors
of American Indians came to be here and how science was making a mistake in
discounting American Indian myths.

However, as I soon found out, this was typical Deloria being ahead of the
curve. I followed up on his theories and eventually wrote a story that
appeared in Indian Country Today that dealt with the Kennewick Man
controversy. By that time, even Deloria's old intellectual sparring
partners, such as David Hurst Thomas, curator in the Division of
Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, were beginning to
come around to Deloria's point of view.

This was the hallmark of his career: the iconoclast who would be proven the
sage.

Deloria was also never afraid to take a moral stand. He made headlines last
year when he refused to accept an honorary degree from the University of
Colorado at Boulder because of a sexual harassment scandal and inflammatory
remarks by the school's football coach. When the school wanted to honor
Deloria with the honorary degree, he said it was "no honor" to be
associated with the school.

Over the years, Deloria has also been sharply critical of U.S. involvement
in Iraq and defended the right of the Native American Church to use peyote.

None of this even begins to sum up the life's work of perhaps the greatest
American Indian thinker since Sequoyah. However, no matter how many
accolades he received or how many honors were bestowed upon him, he was a
remarkably accessible and always affable person.

While at ICT, I would often seek him out for advice on stories. He valued
his privacy and would only reluctantly give out his phone number, which
seemed to change every month or two. However, I would often e-mail him; and
usually within a day or two, a reply (using a pseudonym) would be sitting
in my inbox either full of commentary or quick yet respectful replies
telling me it was not time to tackle a certain issue.

Though I cannot say that I knew him intimately, he was always a source of
intellectual inspiration. His words and our discussions will linger with me
for a long time. He leaves a void in the American Indian intellectual
community.

Finding someone who can straddle the line between being a rebel iconoclast
and common-sense humorist is not as easy as it appears. He was no
self-important academic, and he refused to toe anyone's line, be they
eurocentric scientists or orthodox believers in American Indian religious
practice. Deloria filled the niche between these two kinds of believers, a
place narrow enough that only the extraordinary few can fit.

James May, an award-winning journalist, is a former staff reporter for
Indian Country Today.