Vine Deloria Jr.'s ideas and writings shaped my life for more than 40
years. I know some of his work by heart and can hear the cadence of his
arguments and one-liners in my head. But what I've been remembering since
he died on Nov. 13 are mostly black and white snapshots and bits of
conversations over countless miles of telephone lines and cigarettes.
Hundreds of people gathered to celebrate Deloria's life on Nov. 18 in
Golden, Colo., his longtime home and the only place where he liked to
Relatives came from his Standing Rock and Yankton Sioux tribes in his home
state of South Dakota and from the Lummi Nation in Washington, where he
once lived. His attachment to the peoples and the buffalo and salmon of
those places knew no bounds.
Native and non-Native people came from all walks of life, representing an
astonishing range of fields, institutions, projects and lives that he
directly influenced and guided. It soon became apparent that Deloria had to
have been about 1,000 people who lived many lifetimes, rather than one man
who lived 72 years.
Some people carried autographed copies of one or another of his more than
25 books. He finished his last book - on spirits and the spirit - three
days before returning to the spirit world himself. Spirits had been
visiting him since the springtime and we had many talks about who they
might be, what they might want and whether they were harming, warning or
"Working on the soul book," Deloria told me, "I get the feeling that it's
no distance at all from this life to that one."
I went to his inurnment and services with two papers. One was a poem I
wrote for him that morning - the easiest I'd ever written and the hardest
I'd ever read out loud. The other was the essay he wrote for an unpublished
manuscript by my great-grandfather, Thunderbird. Deloria completed it
before he went into the hospital in September for his first serious
He told me that he wasn't sure if he would be crossing over and returning
during the operation or if he would be going for good, but that the first
two people he would look up were his great-grandfather (Saswe, a medicine
man) and mine, because he was certain they had important information for
the world at this time. He told me to "pay attention and listen for their
messages," saying that he would come back as a hawk or owl or maybe just a
We gathered to celebrate his life with stories of how we were related to a
great man, how lucky we were to know him and how deeply we shall miss him.
We shared memories, formally or informally, during the five-hour public
program, as slides of Deloria's family and friends flashed on a back wall.
Here are some of the pictures of Deloria in my photo album and memory book.
It is 1965 in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the National Congress of American
Indians' convention. Deloria is wheeling and dealing with tribal delegates
and doing what NCAI executive directors do. ! am a new NCAI individual
member, just 20, with a baby on my hip and only one vote, but he takes time
to talk with me about cultural rights. We are strong, fit and decades away
from gray hair.
Here is Deloria in an Iroquois ironworkers' hangout, the Spar Bar in
Brooklyn. Everyone's angry and dispirited about Kinzua Dam, the monstrosity
that flooded the last Seneca lands in Pennsylvania and sacred places in New
York in the mid-1960s. He's telling them how to organize a battle in
Congress. He's telling himself he has to go to law school to protect Indian
Here are myriad images over many years of Deloria at the Lion's Head in
Greenwich Village following the 1969 publication of "Custer Died for Your
Sins" that made him a literary and pop culture star. Assorted celebs and
Indian people are always looking at him, admiringly.
It's 1972 and he's looking admiringly at his father, Vine Deloria Sr.,
who's giving a talk at St. John the Divine in New York City. There's
Deloria, who picked up a law degree in 1970, with civil rights attorney
William Kuntzler, strategizing about the defense of Indian activists and
the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.
There he is, in Washington, D.C., when I roped him into working on
President Jimmy Carter's 1979 Report to Congress on American Indian
There we are in Manhattan in the 1980s, after he brought me onto the Museum
of the American Indian board as his back-up. We are larger versions of
ourselves, eating pastries in David Rockefeller's conference room, dining
at Peter Krindler's "21 Club" and ducking out of meetings to smoke and
There is Deloria the counselor in 1982, kindly comforting our family on the
loss of a husband and father, after Frank Ray Harjo died at age 35. When I
told my son, Duke Ray Harjo, of Deloria's passing, he said, "It's like when
Dad died, and the end of rain."
There is Deloria the good friend, telling me not to become NCAI executive
director and relating that "the job drove me under my desk, sobbing,
because I knew how much needed to be done for Indians and how little I
could do." I don't have an actual picture of that, happily, but I have no
better image for humility and love of the people.
There I am, telling Deloria I decided to take the NCAI position, despite
his good cautionary advice. And, there he is, saying, as only the most
supportive friend could say, "OK, let's get to work." Deloria the
consigliere and master politician always had the best advice during the
long years I directed NCAI. When I left NCAI at the end of 1989, he had me
stay with his family in Tucson, Ariz., for a former director's recovery
Here's Deloria the warrior as we brought the Smithsonian to its knees on
repatriation policy and won the National Museum of the American Indian
(which would not have been possible without him) and in all our years as
NMAI trustees, developing policies and helping the fledgling institution
through the "terrible twos."
Here are pictures from our press conference in 1992, when we sued Pro
Football Inc.; and there's Deloria clowning around at Robert F. Kennedy
Memorial Stadium after a television interview. He was the very first person
I picked to take into battle against the team's vulgar name. In these 13
years of litigation, my first call was always to him.
There's Deloria at the Pueblo of Taos, one month after we filed the
lawsuit, holding forth at "Our Visions: The Next 500 Years" - a gathering
of 100 Native wisdom-keepers, artists and writers. He was so happy to meet
new people, visit with old friends and be a part of the grand mix of
traditional knowledge and creative energy.
Here we are, trying to protect sacred places and planning treaty exhibits
for 15 years, right up until his hospitalization in September.
Here he is, receiving Indian Country Today's 2005 Visionary Award. When I
called to ask if he'd accept the award, he said it should go to two other
fine people "because they'll probably die this year." I told him it was not
their year and, if he didn't accept, it might go to someone he wouldn't
like. Grumbling the whole way, he let us honor him, but he really was
He never received all the eagle feathers he earned. Writing and drawing
fire for the people take a terrible toll. It's no wonder that he did not
live as long as his family's health history suggested he should, and that
his heart finally burst.
My son was right. An essential element is missing and things will never be
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for Indian