An Interview with Vine Deloria Jr.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – If one were to think just because noted American
Indian social critic Vine Deloria Jr. recently became a septuagenarian his
views might have mellowed. Simply put, that person would be wrong.
The wildfire that is Vine Deloria Jr. continues to rage into his 71st year
and a man that is perhaps the preeminent American Indian thinker shows that
he still has some of that fire in his belly.
Deloria recently made the news with his refusal to accept an honorary
doctorate in Humane Letters from a school in which he taught history for
several years, the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU). His reaction to
anyone familiar with Deloria’s work should have come as no surprise.
In refusing the award, Deloria used his opportunity at the pulpit to rail
against the school, their football coach and program and generally tie it
into the United States’ Middle Eastern policy.
This is vintage Deloria, always ready to rile.
A member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Deloria was born in the midst of
the great depression near his tribal homeland in South Dakota. His father
was a Christian minister and the subject of Christianity was scathingly
addressed in Deloria’s 1973 book “God is Red.”
Though his critical comments on American Christianity are often repeated,
it is far too simplistic and myopic to call Deloria anti-Christian. In
fact, Deloria’s musings on the state of Christianity in America are thought
provoking as well as often humorous. It is the superficial trappings of
American society placed on Christianity that is his real target. It is
because of this that Deloria believes that the religion has lost real
For example, “God is Red” contains a highly humorous passage about a theme
park with a 30-foot statue of Jesus visible from an interstate highway.
Christianity is also just one of many favorite Deloria targets. He has also
taken controversial swipes at people who take American Indian religions too
literally or seriously, as well as anthropologists, archeologists and just
about any school of modern science.
He has assailed the Bering Strait theory and over the years advocated a
broader view of the peopling of the Americas, something he documented in
his book “Red Earth, White Lies.” Only very recently have officials at some
of the nation’s scientific gatekeeper institutions, such as David Hurst
Thomas, the director of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural
History, begun to take him seriously.
At his very heart Deloria is an iconoclast and his recent actions in regard
to his honorary degree are no exception. He ostensibly refused the CU,
Boulder honor because of recent scandals regarding the school’s football
team in which a female place kicker claimed that she was assaulted and
raped by teammates and subsequent unapologetic remarks by the football
coach, Gary Barnett, that degraded the place kicker’s abilities.
This let loose a Pandora’s box of allegations against the football team
that eventually included further charges of rape as well as team sanctioned
prostitute and alcohol misadventures.
Coach Barnett was reinstated shortly before Deloria refused the award
saying that it was no honor to be associated with the school.
In immediate press reports in wake of Deloria’s refusal of the honor,
Regent Susan Kirk dismissed the football scandals as “little things.” Kirk
and the other regents were not available for comment as they were all
attending a several day long conference in the resort town of Aspen.
The reclusive author recently agreed to answer a series of e-mail questions
for Indian Country Today in which he touched on his reasons for refusing
the award as well as several other subjects that he sees as the “errors and
mistakes” of modern society.
Indian Country Today: Given the controversial comments [of CU football
coach Gary Barnett], was it disingenuous [of the school to reinstate him]?
Vine Deloria Jr.: Well, the CU president promised sweeping changes today
and I suppose these changes start with sweeping everything under a rug and
praying that no one notices. What irritated me was the coach gets $1
million a year, the president something like $450,000 and the others far
into the six figures and yet their response to a situation brewing since
1997 was unanimously to say they didn’t know anything. So what are the high
salaries for? Why is it no one, from Bush to CEOs to Catholic Bishops to
university presidents ever knows anything? Yet when they are not in trouble
they act as if we should believe everything they say – that they are
infallible – it’s an irresponsible society and I just didn’t want to be
lumped with them.
ICT: Can you expand a little bit on why you turned down the honors from CU?
Deloria: The cover-up was so transparent that it was an insult to anyone
with a brain – but hardly anyone in Colorado has complained about it so
that says something there. But if wrongdoers can get off because of high
positions and alleged faulty memories, do we have a nation of laws or
ICT: Can you respond to CU’s public relations describing the football
misadventures as a “little thing?”
Deloria: A regent chastised me for declining the award saying the football
mess was a little thing. How the alleged rapes of nine women and access to
drugs, liquor and strippers or hookers is a little thing I do not follow –
But that’s Boulder for you.
ICT: You also mentioned U.S. policy abroad. As perhaps the nation’s
preeminent American Indian intellectual can you also expand on how you see
the tie-in with the happenings at CU? Can you also comment generally on the
state of the situation in Iraq, particularly as it relates to Native people
Deloria: Well Iraq is simply a replay of American foreign policy towards
Indians of the 1780s forward. Invade them and when they resist label them
terrorists – Indians used to be “hostiles.”
Now with Chalabi we find a former close associate of Bush double-dealing –
something like Keokuk back stabbing Black Hawk and then changing to an
anti-American stance later in life. The university begs credibility while
reinforcing its errors and mistakes – kind of like the assurances of peace
ICT: Obviously you don’t support George W. Bush or his policies. Are you a
supporting either of his opponents John Kerry or Ralph Nader?
Deloria: John Kerry for, sure – at least he was in a combat zone – a silver
star, bronze star – these are not given lightly – Bush didn’t even get a
blister opening beer cans.
ICT: You have also been very outspoken in the criticism of some of the
academic research, particularly in the field of anthropology. Was this at
all a consideration of your decision not to accept the CU honor?
Deloria: Fields like anthropology and archaeology are massive bodies of
fiction and they are found everywhere – so there was no consideration in my
refusal – although before I left CU there was a memo sent around
anthropology saying I should never be allowed to speak to an anthropology
class because I didn’t believe in the Bering Straits (theory) – neither
does Claude Levi-Strauss incidentally.
ICT: What are you doing now?
Deloria: Last winter and next winter I’ll be doing a seminar on Treaties at
the University of Arizona law school. They have a good program there and so
I’m pleased to help out with it.