A scholar’s influence in Indian country


It is difficult to estimate the tremendous influence that Vine Deloria
Jr.'s intellectual leadership has had on Indian country and the dominant
society over a period of nearly 40 years. As a brilliant theologian and
legal scholar, Deloria's books and articles led the way for a generation of
American Indians who wanted to successfully challenge the hegemonic grip
that the dominant society of the United States had over their lives, while
calling into question many erroneous assumptions about Native existence.

How many Native people in the United States, who decided to pursue a career
in law, education, politics, religion or some other field, can honestly say
that they were not to some extent profoundly influenced by Deloria's
intellectual work?

I can attest to the impact that Deloria's books had on my life at a young
age. I must have been 17 years old when, over 30 years ago, I first read
Vine Deloria Jr.'s bestselling book "Custer Died for Your Sins" (1969), a
book with biting humor, and a hard hitting, critical analysis of dominant
society attitudes toward Native peoples and U.S. Indian policies. The
jacket cover quotes Newsweek magazine: "Deloria writes about the red man's
situation in America with ironic, mordant wit, and in the process he
resolutely destroys the stereotypes and myths that white society has build
up about the Indian."

The next book of Deloria's that I read was "God is Red" (1973), which
examines some of the major differences between earth-centered Native
spirituality and Christianity. It was in this book that I first learned
about the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493. This Vatican document, that was
issued by Rodrigo Borgia, otherwise known as Pope Alexander VI, called for
the subjugation of all barbarous nations. Thanks to this clue left by
Deloria, I began to question the connection between the Inter Caetera bull
and federal Indian law - particularly the Johnson v. McIntosh ruling. For
this, I am immensely grateful.

In 1974, Deloria published "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian
Declaration of Independence", in which Deloria made the case that American
Indian nations, like other nations in the world, ought to be accorded
international recognition. It is impossible to overstate the influence that
this book had on a generation of Native women and men, many of whom ended
up in law school and went on to become attorneys and Native leaders.

The preamble to "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties" states in part: "Few
people were able to look backward to the 400-year struggle for freedom that
the Indians had waged and recognize that if the United States and its
inhabitants had regarded the Indians as another domestic minority group,
the Indians did not seem themselves as such ... Many Indians remained fully
intent on raising their claims of national independence on the world
scene." Now, 30 years after "Behind the Trail" was published, we can look
back on all the Indigenous representatives and their allies who have worked
courageously and tirelessly in the international arena to win recognition
of the inherent rights of the indigenous nations and peoples of the planet,
specifically expressed in the United Nations Draft Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Deloria serves as a powerful model for those of us who struggle on a daily
basis to think, speak and write with clarity and precision about Native
nationhood and sovereignty. In "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties",
Deloria provided a powerful comparative analysis of independent countries
in the world with land bases and populations smaller in size than many
American Indian nations. He argued that there was no sensible reason why
our respective Native nations should not be entitled to become full-fledged
members of the community of nations.

When I first came across these arguments, it was like drinking cool, clean,
spring water after being parched with thirst. Deloria's arguments felt
immensely satisfying, and they made me want to do my part to further
develop this line of reasoning about Indian nationhood, while challenging
pernicious ideas such as the doctrine of discovery.

Why, for example, should the United States deprive our respective nations
and peoples of our original free and independent existence, replace that
existence with one of coercive domination, and then claim that it is wrong
and unjustifiable for us as Native peoples to restore ourselves to our
rightful and original free and independent existence? I am certain that I
would never have been able to pose this and many other such questions
without having been influenced early in my life by Vine Deloria Jr.'s

Two things stand out in my mind about Deloria's writing. First, he has
striven to make his writing style clear and accessible to the average
person. Second, he often made it seem that he was merely giving voice to
things that many of us had felt but perhaps lacked the words to clearly
express. These are signs of a gifted artist and first-rate intellectual

A third feature of Deloria's writing is that it seems timeless. Books such
as "God is Red" and "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties" are seminal works
that are still extremely relevant and still assigned in college classes
nearly 40 years later, along with many of his other books.

Those of us who write about Native issues in the beginning years of the
21st century are standing on the shoulders of Native intellectuals such as
Vine Deloria Jr. The occasion of the Indian Country Today American Indian
Visionary Award for 2005 is an opportunity for us to extend a warm "thank
you" to Dr. Deloria for his huge contribution to Indian country, and for
the decades of tremendously hard work that he has devoted to the liberation
of Indian nations and peoples. He taught us to focus on Indian treaties as
tangible evidence that the United States extended diplomatic recognition to
originally free and independent Native nations, and that our respective
nations did not cease to be free, or become unilaterally subject to the
authority of the federal government, when our nations made bi-lateral
treaties with the United States.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at
Kumeyaay Community College on the Sycuan Indian Reservation, co-founder and
co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian
Country Today.