GOLDEN, Colo. -- Vine Deloria Jr., the intellectual star of the American
Indian renaissance, passed away on Nov. 13 after struggling for several
weeks with declining health. His immeasurable influence became immediately
apparent in an outpouring of tributes from all corners of Indian country.
"I cannot think of any words I could possibly say that even begin to
capture the significance of this man and his work among Native people and
on our behalf for the past half-century," said Richard West Jr., director
of the National Museum of the American Indian, in a message to his staff.
"He has been our ranking scholar and intellectual light for all of those
The NMAI was only one of many Native institutions that Deloria made
possible or deeply influenced during his 72 years. From the activist end of
the spectrum, a tribute on the Colorado American Indian Movement Web site
said, "It is safe to say that without the example provided by the writing
and the thinking of Vine Deloria Jr., there likely would have been no
American Indian Movement, there would be no international indigenous
peoples' movement as it exists today, and there would be little hope for
the future of indigenous peoples in the Americas."
Deloria wrote more than 20 books, starting with his best seller "Custer
Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto" in 1969. His powerful, acerbic
criticism made a deep impression on the dominant culture as well as the
activist movement then erupting on the scene. But he has an even longer
career working behind the scenes of Native organizations.
He was drafted, as he put it, to be executive director of the National
Congress of American Indians in 1964.
In a statement, the NCAI described his role in its history: "As Executive
Director he restored financial and managerial stability and rescued the
organization from insolvency and internal differences. More importantly,
with his writing and speeches he became a leading voice against termination
and for reform of federal Indian policy. He laid the groundwork for the
federal policy of tribal self-determination that emerged in the late 1960s
and the 1970 Nixon Statement on Indian Self-Determination.
"His leadership at NCAI marked a major turning point in federal Indian
policy that continues to benefit Indian tribes and communities today."
Deloria was a founding trustee of the NMAI when it consisted of the George
Gustav Heye collection in New York City and helped guide its sale to the
Smithsonian Institution. He was a major thinker in the movements for sacred
land protection, for treaty rights and for the protection and repatriation
of Indian remains.
In spite of his trenchant criticism of European Christianity, he also
served for a time on the executive committee of the Episcopal Church. He
was a fourth-generation descendant of the Yankton Sioux prophet Saswe, and
his father and grandfather were both prominent Episcopal churchmen.
Time magazine once called Deloria one of the 10 most influential
theologians of the 20th century. This March he received the second annual
American Indian Visionary Award from Indian Country Today.
In a self-deprecating acceptance speech abounding in anecdotes and teasing
humor, Deloria gave credit to the remarkable generation of leaders with
whom it was his privilege to work, beginning with his service at the NCAI.
Deloria was born March 26, 1933 in Martin, S.D., on the border of the Pine
Ridge Reservation. Although his lineage was predominately Yankton Dakota,
his grandfather Philip, an Episcopal priest, had enrolled the family in the
Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where he was stationed.
He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1954. In 1958 he graduated from Iowa
State University with a bachelor's degree in general science. In 1963, he
received a master's degree from the Lutheran School of Theology in
Illinois. After his stint at the NCAI, he pursued an academic career,
culminating in the position of professor of history at the University of
He remained an incisive writer and social critic to the end. He refused an
honorary degree from the University of Colorado because he disapproved of
its performance during an athletic scandal. During his last year, he was at
work on a major book on the miraculous deeds of Indian medicine men. The
book will be issued by Fulcrum Publishing in the spring under the title
"The World We Used to Live In."
In an interview with ICT earlier this year, Deloria divided his writings
into three categories: his political essays, such as "Custer" and "We Talk,
You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf"; his legal studies; and his theological
works. His legal works brought renewed attention to the tribes' treaties
with the United States, which Deloria emphasized as recognition of Indian
In his theological writings, however, Deloria was at his most provocative.
In seeking to explain the Indian understanding of the sacred to the
European mindset, he found himself attacking both Christianity and modern
science. His books tell the story in their titles: "Red Earth, White Lies:
Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact" and "Evolution,
Creationism and Other Modern Myths: A Critical Inquiry."
A quote from the "Custer" manifesto serves well as his epitaph: "The
problems of Indians have always been ideological rather than social,
political or economic ... [I]t is vitally important that the Indian people
pick the intellectual arena as the one in which to wage war."