WASHINGTON - When you've written great books, been named one of the
century's most influential religious thinkers by a national magazine,
played a major role in the modern-day revival of ancient cultures, led the
National Congress of American Indians, successfully lobbied the U.S.
Congress for the National Museum of the American Indian, taught at
universities and maintained a cantankerous activism in Indian affairs into
your 70s - when you've done all that and more, any attempt at avoiding
public recognition is bound to be difficult.
Yet there arises a responsibility that comes with leadership to acknowledge
and accept your role and to do so while emphasizing community values ahead
of individual accomplishment.
So in accepting the 2nd annual American Indian Visionary Award from Indian
Country Today on March 2, Vine Deloria Jr. resolved the contradiction by
bestowing honors on anyone but himself. And he did so mostly in stories,
stories at once so humorous and from a heart of such large experience that
an audience of 100 was roaring and cheering from the moment he took the
podium until well after he sat down.
Following last year's honoree, Billy Frank Jr., on the speakers' roster,
Deloria had some great stories to top. Frank regaled the group with fishing
war stories from the Northwest; he was always in among the cattails, chased
by state game wardens and soon to call his lawyer - "My sovereign lawyer,"
he said with emphasis, pointing to Deloria in his front-row seat.
"The game wardens aren't after us anymore," he concluded, a testimony to
having Deloria in his corner all those years ago. "Of course, they've
killed all the fish off."
When it was his turn at the podium, Deloria brought the house down with his
own humorous gloss on the old days spent "teaching how to lie on the
Then he mildly rebuked the Visionary Award selection committee for settling
on him and turned to his own list of heroes beginning with Native activist
Hank Adams. "If I were ever to get a vote, it would be Hank Adams ... I
don't think Indian affairs would be anywhere near where it is today if it
were not for Hank Adams."
Floyd Westerman, the singer/songwriter and social critic, was another
Deloria choice. "He spent 35 years on the back roads, doing benefits
[concerts] for Indian tribes."
He praised Leslie Dunbar as "another guy I'd rank ahead of me" for making
"the first big grant to Indians anywhere in history" - $35,000, a long time
and many, many Indian grants ago.
Deloria highlighted the work of Bradley Patterson, the Republican political
insider and veteran of the Nixon administration who endured stormy but
constructive years in Indian affairs. "For the first time, you could go in
and there was a guy [in the White House] who knew what you were talking
about," said Deloria.
Then there was Franklin Ducheneaux, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe attorney
and congressional staffer who spent years guiding Indian affairs in
Washington; and Cato Valandra, an honored old-time leader of the Rosebud
Sioux Tribe. "If you get three years' apprenticeship with some of the
finest political leaders ..." Deloria said, reflecting on his own political
apprenticeship. "It's not how much energy you put into it, but you gotta
understand timing all along ... They [Indian leaders] had to have political
devices they could use because they didn't have any money."
After the honor roll came more stories - a flood of them, each better than
the one before. Stories ranging from the sale of a highly perishable salmon
catch, forbidden by state gaming regulations, to questionable New York
businessmen who smiled to know they were bending the law as Deloria sweated
it out in their presence. There were many stories about Billy Frank and
Yet more stories flowed about one "Tiny Bud" Jameson, another hero from
Deloria's NCAI years. "He worked like a demon ... So he came to NCAI as a
paid vacation." With the vacation came fun and trouble in about the same
measure. At one convention, Deloria and Cato Valandra waited for an
elevator that opened on a couple dozen Vietnamese soldiers, in-country for
training at a nearby U.S. military base.
"Did you see one of ours in there?" Valandra asked.
"Don't think so."
But well into the wee hours, military police called to ask if Deloria could
accept delivery of an Indian prisoner; and an hour later when the jeep
pulled up, there was Tiny Bud, handcuffed and more or less happy.
"That was my baptism by fire, trying to run an Indian convention," Deloria
said. "But I really miss those days. Because I meet a lot of Indians today
and they're very serious: very serious about themselves, not so serious
about the issues. In our day, we were serious about the issues, but we had
a helluva good time."
Introducing Deloria were Indian Country Today senior editors Tim Johnson
and Jose Barreiro, Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Washington-based
Indian policy advocate Suzan Shone Harjo, and Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation
representative and Indian Country Today president and CEO.
Johnson the editor paid tribute to Deloria's family, which includes many
illustrious names from the Hunkpapa of Standing Rock. "There is but one
person who has come to symbolize the modern American Indian intellectual
renaissance," he said. "That person is Vine Deloria Jr. ... We have no
doubt that your ancestors have placed the winds strongly at your back."
Harjo, a Deloria ally and long-time friend, anticipated the evening's air
of informal pleasure by noting "Vine has known me long enough... to have
called me Henry." A story featuring Harjo in the role of "Henry" followed,
to great laughter from an audience already sensing that this would be a
great and memorable occasion.
Johnson the senator, breaking briefly from a late Capitol Hill meeting, was
all accolades: "Truly, our world is an immeasurably better place because of
Vine Deloria Jr."
Barreiro praised the Oneida Indian Nation, owners of Indian Country Today,
for granting the newspaper independence in its writing and editorial
decision-making. "Indian self-government - sovereignty - is good for
America, and an independent journalism of integrity is good for Indian
peoples," he said.
Halbritter added that Deloria embodies the intellectual integrity aspired
to at Indian country's newspaper of record, stating: "I and all the Oneida
Nation leadership could not agree more that Vine Deloria Jr., in the course
of his publishing and teaching career, has provided a great service to the
cause of Indian rights and intellectual freedom.
"We hope to signal Indian country leadership with this award that, now more
than ever, it should fully support its intellectuals, its thinkers and
writers, its free and independent press. This has been a central mission of
our investment in the remodeling of Indian Country Today over the past
In keeping with one of the evening's main themes, Halbritter's wit also
rose to the occasion. Referring to the Oneida Nation's Turning Stone
properties, he said it was only natural to gravitate toward someone like
Deloria, who is from Standing Rock.
For Deloria and his admirers, the good times lived again and lasted long
into the night.