Vine Deloria Jr. has added more to the public understanding of Native
people than any other leader of his time.
He has done this by word and deed as an activist, scholar, religious
philosopher and organizational leader. He has written a dozen books and
countless essays and articles, given hundreds of lectures, inspired new
organizations and led existing ones, and never sacrificed his own authentic
voice or his commitment to a communal truth.
I can testify as his contemporary that reading his books encouraged me to
be a more critical thinker and affirmed my own beliefs about Native people.
His provocative and revolutionary ideas have also had a monumental impact
on Indian policy and public perceptions toward Native people. He has won
more awards than I could list in this space, yet his true importance can
only be measured in the enormous distance his influence covers, from young
Native people whose spirits and lives he has literally saved with his
words, to TIME Magazine whose editors have recognized him as one of the
greatest religious thinkers of our time.
For those of us inside the Native community, he is a champion. His stature
and moral integrity, knowledge of tribal law and history, and ability to
debate misinformed journalists, politicians and academics have earned him
our admiration and respect. He has been able to articulate things that an
entire generation felt but could not name. By affirming for us the
importance of our governments, our culture, our families and our land, he
has strengthened our ability to fight against threats. By action and word,
he has provided a model of consistency, whether he is appearing in court as
an expert witness or refusing an honorary doctorate from a university that
refuses to take violence against women seriously.
There is a profound spiritual dimension to all of the work that Vine
Deloria Jr.'s does. It can be attributed in part to his father's influence,
and even more so to his great grandfather, Saswe, a legendary Yanktonai
medicine man whose early 19th century vision quest on a hill in what is now
called Blunt, S.D., foretold many of the events that have unfolded in the
life of Vine and his family. I know that Saswe is never far from Vine,
whether he is writing about science, politics, law, indigenous culture and
government, or speaking out against injustice against oppressed people
His organizational and practical abilities would be rare in anyone, but
especially in a visionary. They allow him to make those visions real. For
example: In 1964, 20 years after the National Congress of Amencan Indians
was formed to promote Indian self-determination and fight efforts to
terminate federal recognition of tribal governments, the NCAI faced many
critical challenges. Though termination remained a threat, and the United
States continued to assert considerable control over the assets, resources
and daily lives of Indian people, NCAI was losing membership, and its
prominence was being challenged by such newly emerging and seemingly more
activist organizations as the National Indian Youth Council. Helen
Peterson, Alvin Josephy Sr., Hank Adams and other Indian leaders were
strongly advocating for federal policies that would provide more
self-determination, and the NCAI was the logical home for such a
coordinated national strategy.
Vine Deloria Jr., who had served in the United States Marine Corps and
earned a master's degree in Theology, successfully ran for the executive
directorship of NCAI. He wanted to shake things up a bit and ensure that
NCAI would have the strongest possible presence in Washington. In his first
newsletter, a message to dues-paying members who were a dwindling number in
1965, Vine wrote an editorial "Now is the Time." He encouraged members to
help rebuild NCAI into a significant national voice for Indian people - and
it was indeed the time. During his tenure Vine revitalized NCAI and used
his formidable intellectual skills to set the standard for how the federal
government should view treaty and tribal rights.
But in his family's tradition of spirituality, intellectual pursuits and
sense of history - and wanting to become a writer like his aunt, the
anthropologist Ella Deloria - Vine revitalized the NCAI, then left to
produce his first book "Custer Died for Your Sins." It was a fitting title
for a book written by a descendant of Sitting Bull, one of the leaders
whose brilliant strategic thinking helped defeat the 7th Calvary at Little
That book challenged the conventional wisdom about federal Indian policy,
not by presenting page after page of mind-numbing facts, but by describing
the inherent rights of tribal people. It drew attention to the tenacity,
strengths and cultural assets that were reflected in their ability to
survive unspeakable hardship, yet maintain tribal cultures, traditional
values and lifeways.
For many readers, this was the first view that went beyond economic poverty
and described the unique base of knowledge that might be said to make
Native people the wealthiest in America. For Native readers "Custer Died
for Your Sins" was a call to arms because Vine was able to articulate a
hopeful vision for the future.
Over the next three decades Vine became the most prolific Indian writer and
scholar of our time. His dozens of books include such ground-breaking texts
as "God is Red", still the seminal work on Indian religion, and "Red Earth,
White Lies", an expose of the shifting sands and shaky foundation of
conventional scientific thought. "Scholars should not worry that pristine
historical study is undermined by new ideas or efforts to correct ancient
wrongs," as Vine wrote. "That is the nature of continuing scholarship." He
not only challenged the academy and critiqued Western ideology; he
challenged tribal leaders, pseudo-Indians and Native American Studies'
scholars. That last group he once described as people who have definitely
arrived in the academy since they can now speak in terms only
comprehensible to other Native American Studies scholars.
Always humorous and often self-deprecating, he does not suffer fools
gladly, and relishes countering any orthodoxy. In an academic environment
where vegetarianism is common, he eats red meat. While fellow academics sip
herbal tea, he drinks strong coffee, and occasionally lights up an
unfiltered cigarette, preferably near an anti-smoking sign. If his legions
of readers and admirers flock to his lectures hoping to hear someone with a
Dalai Lama-like presence, he soon dispels that notion by opening his
lectures with a joke, or a statement like: "Okay, let's get this out of the
way. I know I don't look like your impression of an Indian, especially a
Lakota. Now, we can move forward?"
Indian rights attorney Charles Wilkinson once described Vine Deloria as
"our Martin Luther King," an apt description given the almost universal
respect that Native people have for Vine. One of his roles as a great
leader is to help the people see a way forward, particularly during times
of crisis. No matter what challenges the Creator sent us during the past
four decades, Vine has always been at the forefront, urging us on, helping
us face current crises and see a clear path for the future.
It is my prayer that the Creator will allow Vine Deloria Jr. to continue to
do this for many years to come.
Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, is active
in community development and American Indian philanthropy.