An educator’s tribute to Vine Deloria Jr.


Vine will not like all this talk about his intellect and vision, but - as
anyone who knows Vine Deloria Jr. will acknowledge - his keen sense of
humor and generosity will serve him well as I say what I must.

Vine is a visionary - one who sees further, deeper and more widely across
the spectrum of human experience than most of us. Few fit this description
as well as Vine. He has been seeking and examining the "big picture" of
life on this planet for at least seven decades and for five of those he has
shared with humankind what he has found. It is impossible to say here
everything that ought to be said about the recipient of the 2005 American
Indian Visionary Award, Vine Deloria Jr. However, let me share a small part
of what Vine's vision has meant to me and I dare say many indigenous people
of America.

When most American Indians hear someone described as an intellectual or
philosopher, they grow immediately suspicious. Intellectuals and
intellectualism within the institutions and culture of American society
inevitably produce people and practices where communication takes the form
of arcane technical jargon, often about obscure idiosyncratic topics, that
literally makes much academic and intellectual work irrelevant or, equally
bad, incomprehensible to people struggling with the everyday problems of

Precisely because of this situation, I must honor and thank Vine Deloria
Jr. for demonstrating throughout his five decades of writing, public
speaking and teaching that American Indian or indigenous intellectualism
need not, and in fact, cannot fall into the trap of irrelevancy so long as,
like Deloria, one takes our indigenous philosophies seriously.

Throughout the 25 books he has penned, co-authored and edited, Deloria has
now shown three generations of American Indians and Alaska Natives that
indigenous intellectualism and activism must be connected through a deep
experiential awareness of the world in which we live. In Stan Steiner's
"The New Indians" (1968), we find Deloria, the "young and brilliant
director" of the National Congress of American Indians, explaining the
superiority of Indian ideas to a prominent Black civil rights leader. After
being told by the civil rights leader that Indians should abandon the idea
of Red Power and simply "fight for equality, for their civil rights,"
Deloria responded:

"We do, but that isn't the question. The question is, what is the nature of
life? It isn't what you eat, or whether you eat, or who you vote for, or
whether you vote, or not. What is the value of a man's life? That is the

These two interrelated questions might have entailed preoccupation with
fanciful dreams and abstractions, but for Deloria the big picture has
always required practical considerations and hard work.

In "Custer Died For Your Sins" (1969) Deloria shocked the American public
with his candor, wit and keen vision, and affirmed the Indian character of
his vision. Read the closing chapters of "Custer: Indians and Modern
Society and A Redefinition of Indian Affairs", if you lack inspiration and
want to gain insight regarding some of the most challenging issues facing
Indian country in 2005. Imagine a young Standing Rock Sioux Indian telling
non-Native America that the most promising feature of its future resided in
the tribalism emerging within mainstream American institutions. Tribalism?
Yes, but not the kind Hollywood portrayed or anthropologists imagined,
rather the kind that allowed Native peoples to survive a 500-year onslaught
on their existence. Read Deloria's declaration that the law and
corporations might very well be the instruments for tribal revitalization.
Read Deloria's encouragement to young American Indians to not fall into
assimilationist thinking, but rather seek advanced educations guided by the
recognition that their Indianness was their greatest strength, not a
deficit to be overcome.

Vine's vision has had a positive influence on nearly all American Indian
policymaking since the mid-60s (even when the outcomes were less than what
he and many desired). Examples include: The American Indian Policy Review
Commission (1975 - 77), the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978),
the Indian Self-Governance Act (1988) and the Native American Graves
Protection and Repatriation Act (1990).

Deloria often describes what we might do within tribal institutions by
using our unique tribal ideas, places and personalities. He has stayed true
to a vision - not one with final fixed answers, but one guided by the right
questions and a respect for a beautifully complex living universe. His
books invite all of humanity to an honest, although not necessarily easy,
dialogue. Vine's life's work demonstrates he has valuable insights for all
humankind regarding what it means to live attentively and well on this
planet. Could it be otherwise in the big picture? By challenging the
dualisms of the dominant Western worldview - humankind vs. nature and
reason vs. spirit - and apparent schizophrenic attitudes and behaviors
found in mainstream American society, he has encouraged us to take
seriously American Indian ways of knowing and understanding.

I am encouraged by the fact that many people around the world are now
reading Deloria's words and finding their own inspiration for solutions to
very real problems. I hope more people read him. They will be challenged
and surprised by what they find.

Many in the world receive gifts but fail to fully use and respect them.
Vine Deloria Jr. is not one of these people. A gift, like Vine's, requires
attentiveness and entails responsibilities. We might say the possession of
such a gift - its existence - entails a "use it or lose it" situation. I am
thankful that Vine received such a gift - a visionary intellect which never
separated spirit and reason: An indigenous mind, a Standing Rock Sioux
mind, which he has used throughout his life to affirm the strength and
dignity of all First Nations peoples, the tribes of this land known as

Now here is the best news: Vine is still writing and speaking out,
intelligently, honestly and with spirit.

Daniel Wildcat is a Euchee member of the Muscogee Nation and chair of the
American Indian Studies Program, Haskell Indian Nations University.