Vine Deloria Jr., our indigenous champion, has walked on, causing a tsunami
of emotions that will rock the heart of Indian country, and beyond, for a
He was never quite comfortable with the notion that he was, in fact, the
principal champion of tribal nations since he wanted -- no, demanded --
that each Native nation express confidence in its own national identity,
develop its own unique talents and together wield their collective
sovereignty, that is, their dignity and integrity, in a way that enriches
them and the nations around them as well.
Deloria's multitude of accomplishments, including two dozen books
(beginning with "Custer Died for Your Sins"), several hundred articles,
thousands of speeches and testimonials, etc., covering topics as broad as
federal Indian law and policy, anthropology, American Indian studies,
education, theology, indigenous knowledge systems, science, and numerous
other fields, are staggering for their depth and breadth. In recent years,
he had reluctantly begun to accept various "lifetime" achievement awards
for his sustained and prodigious intellectual and pragmatic efforts aimed
at improving conditions for all oppressed groups -- beginning with tribal
nations. Still, his unique human quest cannot be easily summarized.
Above all, he fought tirelessly for human, not just indigenous, freedom and
for ecological respect and common sense approaches to heal the
environment's many wounds. Deloria believed that America's national soul
would never be cleansed until justice had been fully achieved by indigenous
nations, blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, women, impoverished whites, any
disempowered groups, and especially young people.
For Deloria, freedom and justice could only be achieved when those wielding
political, legal and economic power acted with dignity and decency and
engaged in a thorough and honest examination of history. The dispossessed
and disadvantaged, in his view, also had an active role to play. He
expected the leaders of those often put-upon communities to take the time
and carefully articulate the needs and goals of their constituencies.
Deloria's voluminous and diverse written works and his constant engagement
with various human communities over the last four decades are undeniable.
But trying to understand the volcanic and nourishing power that was Deloria
is not easy. His life and his actions reflect a man of unusual talent and
fortitude. Edward Said once described intellectuals as "exiles," since
metaphysically they were always in a state of "restlessness, movement,
constantly being unsettled and unsettling others." And, according to Said,
"the exilic intellectual does not respond to the logic of the conventional
but to the audacity of daring, and to representing change, to moving on,
not standing still."
Deloria was never smitten with the notion of being identified as an
"intellectual." But much of what Said had to say about intellectuals
applies to Deloria, especially Said's discussion of the "marginality" that
many intellectuals experience -- a state of existence outside the halls of
privilege and power, yet carrying certain recognition. Paradoxically,
Deloria had a remarkable ability to slide back and forth between various
intellectual positions, as evidenced by the following:
On the one hand, Deloria exhibited a passionate revolutionary spirit of
people like Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr.
On the other hand, he was also deeply pragmatic and looked to find ways to
resolve the sometimes profound intellectual and normative differences
without taking extremist positions that tend to cut off conversation.
On the one hand, he was a universalist who had a visionary spirit with the
breathtaking ability to scan the political, social and cultural horizons in
a comprehensive way that surmounted partisan, racial, tribal and
ideological differences. On the other hand, he was a grounded and stalwart
Standing Rock tribal citizen, and he drew immense strength and knowledge
from his deep and particular kinship ties to those of his extended family
and tribal nation.
On the one hand, Deloria had exhibited brilliantly incisive, critical and
theoretical abilities that he used to skewer social institutions, stodgy
academic institutions and disciplines, and inflated political egos --
whether tribal, state or federal. On the other hand, while he could be
formidably critical, he was rarely cynical, always believing that human
beings have the capacity for growth and maturity.
On the one hand, Deloria always remained fiercely independent -- never
allowing blind loyalty to particular institutions, power brokers, or even
tribal nations to interfere with his ability to speak honestly. On the
other hand, he accepted the reality that as a tribal person he had a clear
moral and intellectual responsibility to help family, friends, nations and
others in need.
Finally, while Deloria was a remarkably public figure, with all the
attendant duties and obligations that come with that status, he remained an
intensely private person. He always looked to maintain a comfortable, quiet
space for him and his immediate family.
At the recent memorial service, Norbert Hill, a close friend of Deloria's,
noted that with his passing "the training wheels had been taken off." It
was now time, said Norbert, for each of us to continue the struggle that
Deloria had led for so long, relying now on our own individual and
collective knowledge and talents. It is unquestionably true that over the
last four decades we in Indian country were overly dependent on Deloria's
penetrating knowledge; his exquisite wit; his cunning and hugely effective
political, legal and cultural strategies; and his delicious and biting
I hope our overdependence on this incomparable warrior did not contribute
to his premature passing. But if it did -- and I believe we all bear some
culpability here -- then let us step forward doubly energized to carry on
the essential battles he labored over throughout his fascinating life.
Treaty rights, repatriation, land recovery and consolidation, federal
recognition, affirming the international status of Native peoples,
reclaiming and reasserting traditional knowledge, etc., are all struggles
required of us if we are to ensure our nations' perpetuation and
If we do this, Deloria will smile upon us from his perch in the other world
and rest easily alongside his ancestors knowing that if good people act
from good values and time-honored traditions, they and the institutions
they control will make appropriate decisions more often than not.
David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, is a professor of American Indian studies at the
University of Minnesota.