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Continuing Vine Deloria Jr.’s legacy through education

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Although it’s been one year since Indian country said goodbye to scholar, activist and author Vine Deloria Jr., his work is still alive and thriving in colleges, universities and American Indian communities across the country.

Students, faculty and staff gathered Nov. 2 to kick off American Indian Heritage Month at Syracuse University with a tribute to Deloria and his work.

“Vine passed away one year ago on Nov. 13, 2005,” said Regina Jones, assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Native Student Program at SU. “News of his passing spread quickly through out Indian country. Years ago we used to send runners out to the tribes to spread news; today we have e-mail. The news of Deloria’s passing spread quickly through our e-mail listservs.”

Jones, a member of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, said the university wanted to honor Deloria last year, but was unable to bring together the appropriate people during the time of Deloria’s sudden death.

“In Haudenosaunee culture and other indigenous cultures, the one-year anniversary is another time when we honor a family member who had passed away,” Jones said. “That is what we will do here today.”

Deloria, Standing Rock Sioux, was born in Martin, S.D., in 1933. He was a renowned author, historian, scholar, political scientist and activist. Today his work is studied, analyzed, and quoted through out academia. He was best known for his first of more than 20 books, “Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto,” which became Deloria’s best-seller.

The recipient of many awards in his lifetime, including Indian Country Today’s American Indian Visionary Award, Deloria traveled to universities, colleges and tribal colleges across the country, giving lectures on tribal sovereignty and self-determination. He promoted the view of Native science and worked on initiatives to protect sacred sites and the federal/tribal relationship.

In September of 2003, Deloria visited SU for the last time. His lecture was titled “Journey to Sovereignty,” and it was the first time Jones and several other members of the Syracuse community were able to meet the former National Congress of American Indians executive director.

SU’s tribute to Deloria began with two students, Joie Hill, Onondaga, and Julius Snell, Navajo, reading selected passages from Deloria’s works.

Hill read from a collection of Deloria’s papers. She said she uses Deloria’s work as an educational tool to understanding Native history.

“Vine Deloria, to me, was someone you could look up to,” said Hill, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. “I feel bad that he passed on before I got to meet him. He was so wise. This is a big loss to Indian country.”

The speakers of the evening were Oren Lyons, Faith Keeper of the Turtle Clan for the Onondaga Nation and director of the Native American Studies Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Lyons and Deloria shared a close friendship and a mutual respect.

“I think we need to take direction from his life,” Oren Lyons said. “We are fortunate to have the kind of leadership that Vine has given us.”

Scott Lyons, Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation, also spoke about his relationship with the late author. He is the director for the Center for Indigenous Studies at St. John Fisher College in Rochester and a columnist for Indian Country Today.

“In 2003, it was the first time that I met Vine; of course, I read all of his books in graduate school,” Scott Lyons said. “I really admired him and I was very honored to spend time with him.”

Scott Lyons said he learned so much just from listening to Deloria.

“I realized that Vine Deloria took the time to show me that he cared about me as a human being,” Scott Lyons said. He and Deloria shared an e-mail correspondence up until his death.

“His writings set both benchmarks and standards for us,” Scott Lyons said. “Students, scholars, politicians and other readers will be working through and with his prestigious literary corpus for many decades to come.”