RAPID CITY, S.D. - Vine Deloria Jr. speaks to a variety of diversified audiences across the country on a regular basis, but here he faced a typical Chamber of Commerce group and managed to temper his usually biting, wit-filled opinions of the world.
The large gathering got Deloria's opinion of how the future should look with a strong indictment of the nation's education system.
Deloria, professor of history and religious studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Deloria is the author of "Custer Died for Your Sins," "God is Red," "Red Earth, White Lies," and his new book is "Singing for a Spirit: A Portrait of the Dakota Sioux."
His comments at the gathering that may echo strongest across Indian country were his views on sovereignty and education.
"I'm sick of the word. People talk about it, but do nothing. Sovereignty is a group with integrity working with other groups with integrity. The word is just thrown about and it should be dropped as a buzz word," he said.
He added that in California food is labeled as sovereign, among other things.
"Indian people have to look at their own traditions. No Indian tribe of the past ever tried to govern 20,000 people." He advocated governing in small units, such as the Lakota tiospaye.
"Find ways to deal with the government. Follow the Sioux model. As many people as possible have a say in government. How often do you see people who run your government? Many people don't know who is running things and most don't care."
But survival on the Great Plains could be ensured, as the human population in that region shrinks, the population of the historic dweller of the plains, the buffalo, should increase, he said.
He advocated a cooperative relationship between the American Indian and non-Indian ranchers across the plains to free up as much land as possible and raise free-roaming buffalo.
"Ranchers are clinging to the culture of the past thinking there will always be cattle. Not true. If we could live with the buffalo, we can make it.
"Form organizations and raise buffalo. Get people to cooperate with each other. Find out what this animal can do for us.
"You can't admire a cow, but you can admire a buffalo. Learn from the American Indian how to deal with the buffalo respectfully."
But when Deloria switched to the topic of education, he started to look like his old self, delivering a message that many people would call controversial, but one that had to be heard and thought through.
"Education is the biggest disaster in America," Deloria said. "Teaching was so painful I retired." That was after he was offered a large salary to teach only one class.
"I taught smart kids from the Denver suburbs and they didn't know anything about history."
He said he drew maps and explained battle locations of World War II for a freshman history class and when he came to Casablanca, he assumed most of the freshman students would know about Casablanca from the movie that was named the best movie of the century.
"Three out of the 108 students had heard of Casablanca. I might as well be on top of Devils Tower reciting Keats."
Deloria said to improve education, get the educators out of the planning process. His reasoning was that most students took education classes to become administrators, but when it came to subjects, he said he had education graduate students in his freshman history classes to learn about history.
Teach children what you want them to learn, he said. Reading, writing, math and especially penmanship, are his priorities.
"Pay teachers well and keep classes to 20 students and have teachers teach subjects they love.
"Put kids on a track, let them go back in the evening and certify what kids know. We are boring kids to death forcing them to take certain courses. Go at a speed according to the kid's own speed."
He said national tests are nonsense and the school systems should be designed by people who know what they want the kids to know.
Tribal schools across the nation have been advocating and implementing systems that reflect the community. Tribal schools are teaching the language and culture of the tribe or community and in some cases are using experiential learning techniques. Tribal communities are required to teach certain subjects, but in keeping with Deloria's concept, many of the schools are teaching what the community wants the children to know.
Deloria's appearance was sponsored by the Rapid City Area Chamber of Commerce Cultural Diversity Committee and co-sponsored by Crazy Horse Memorial, state Rep. Mike Derby of Rapid City and Wells Fargo Bank.