Deksi (Uncle) Vine


In Indian country the name Vine Deloria Jr. is a household word. His quotes
are on walls and often roll off the tongues of young Natives doing reports
and speeches. Most importantly, he writes what we all would like to say. I
read somewhere that someone said that an act of genius "is saying what we
are all thinking." That is what Uncle Vine does. He speaks for a nation of

In order to speak for an indigenous nation and receive the respect of that
nation, one must be a "good relative." In Dakota/Nakota culture, the first
principle is to possess and demonstrate compassion or wowaunsida. Even the
fiercest warriors of olden days had to possess compassion, if they were to
be respected by the people. Tunwin Ella Deloria, who studied under Columbia
University Anthropologist Franz Boas, wrote of this in the beautiful story,
"Waterlily." Younger relatives learn of this principle through watching the
actions of older relatives. I had the honor of experiencing that with Uncle
Vine back on the Yankton Reservation of South Dakota, in December of 1999.

People may or may not know that grandfathers and grandmothers of the
Deloria family lived, died and were buried throughout the Yankton
Reservation, but mainly at the White Swan Community. Deksi Vine's father,
Vine Sr., grew up on the river bottom of this community. Grandpa Vine and
other relatives, including my father, Henry Spotted Eagle, told and retold
the story of the White Buffalo incident on the Yankton Reservation, as

Yankton relatives were gathered for one of the last buffalo hunts which was
allowed before we were imprisoned in our own land. At this particular hunt,
one of the relatives had a dream of killing a white buffalo, something
which was quite unusual to begin with. Of course, this dream had spiritual
significance and, although controversial, had to be carried out. Indeed, a
white buffalo was slain by one of our relatives. Upon much prayer and
ceremony, the relatives were told that the descendants of those who had
killed the white buffalo would experience many years of hardship and would
be severely tested. However, after generations of hardship, the members of
this kinship system would be those who would persevere and would become
known in future generations for honoring and hanging on to their cultural
ways. This prophecy has become apparent in the legacy that Deksi has
created and is also so with other relatives of this tiyospaye from White

Remembering this, on a cold December night in 1999, I had reached my wit's
end and did not know where to turn, because of the ancestral remains which
were disturbed at the old White Swan community. The U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers had told us that, despite the numerous relatives whose bones were
scattered all over the river bottom, they were going to raise the river and
not allow us time to take care of these relatives. At this point in time, I
did not even know of the existence of the Native American Graves Protection
and Repatriation Act.

I prayed hard for help and the thought came that I should call Deksi Vine
Deloria. It was late at night as I sat with tears of disbelief that a
federal agency could have such disrespect, just as the U.S. Army did in the
1800s. On the other end of the line, Deksi answered my call and I tearfully
told him what was happening in 1999 at old White Swan Community.

In a firm voice of the "good relative," Deksi said: "You get yourself a
good attorney and get up to Sioux Falls and file a temporary restraining
order in federal court and stop that river. It can be done and call me if
you need anything." I sat in disbelief not knowing we could do that.

As a consequence, Deksi's brief but crucial encouragement came in a dark
time when our Yankton people were paralyzed with grief and anger. It
provided the direction we took in a federal courtroom in the following four
years. As a result, the small Ihanktonwan Nation stopped the Missouri River
for six weeks during that very cold winter, while we took care of our
relatives at a spiritual encampment where the weather often reached minus
26 degrees. It was a David and Goliath story, Native-style, and resulted in
the rebirth of the White Swan Warriors and the Brave Heart Society.

As a result of our actions, a federal judge ruled that the Corps of
Engineers had violated Sec. 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act
and the Programmatic Agreement on the Missouri was foreclosed. Because of
our actions at a cold, remote spiritual camp on the river, Missouri River
tribes have had the opportunity to negotiate a new Programmatic Agreement
with tribal input.

The brave-hearted relatives who answered the call to protect those who had
been put to rest generations before, I suspect, will never be the same.
They endured six weeks of below-zero weather without question and will pass
this experience down to generations of young ones who will also learn to be
"good relatives." On a cold day in February 2004, supported by other Bands
of the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) we watched young men transformed
into warriors and lower their ancestors into a restful place above old
White Swan. A light snow began to fall; a sure sign of appreciation from
the old ones.

It was very possible that some of the remains that we protected could have
been of Saswe, the greatly respected medicine man of the Deloria kinship
system and other families. In the years to follow, like the good relative
that he is, Deksi continued to check on us and sent a financial donation to
help the camps out with food. Yes, the prophecy has certainly been

Thank you, Deksi, from your Yankton relatives.

Faith Spotted Eagle (Tunkan Inajin Win/Standing Stone) is a member of the
Ihanktonwan Band of the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires of the
Dakota/Lakota/Nakota). An educator and Dakota/Nakota language teacher at
Ihanktonwan Community College, she represented the White Swan Community in
the repatriation and sacred places protection work on the Missouri River.