I don't remember actually meeting Vine Deloria Jr. Like the wind, water or
any other force of nature, he's always been there.
I do remember when he first talked to me - not so much because of what was
said, but more the fact of it.
Vine was executive director of the National Congress of American Indians
and I was a young mother with a baby on my hip. We had an exchange about
traditional Indian rights and political involvement. He took time to say
some good words of encouragement and didn't do anything dopey like kiss the
baby and make her cry.
What impressed me was that he was smart, funny and kind. It was humbling
and empowering that this important Indian man treated me as if I had
something serious to say.
Wow, I thought. (We said wow a lot in the 1960s.) Wow, he has original
thoughts and a genuine sense of humor, and is not a self-absorbed gasbag -
not bad for a politician. (Politicians were pretty much at the bottom of
the food chain back in the day, before there was so much competition for
As time went by and I saw Vine in various settings and began to work on
projects with him, I gained a greater appreciation for his devotion to
justice for Native people and nations, his skill at thinking strategically
and his ability to learn from the past and shape the future.
Vine has a phenomenal talent for assessing a situation and foreseeing the
best possible outcome. He has a huge capacity for fighting the good fight
for Indian rights and often adds his name to a losing battle to give hope,
to instruct or to inspire, or just because it's the right thing to do.
Sometimes when he does this, he tips the balance and converts a potential
loss to a victory.
I've also gained an appreciation for Vine's ability to just have fun. His
place for that in Greenwich Village was the Lion's Head, a favorite hangout
joint of journalists, politicians and musicians.
When "Custer Died For Your Sins" was published in 1969, Vine became the
toast of New York City, as well as a celebrity in Indian country. Word
would spread through various networks of people, including the Indian
community, that Vine was back in town. This meant to go early to get a good
table for a late supper at the Lion's Head, where Vine would hold court and
hold his own with the best of New York's storytellers. It was the finest
entertainment south of Broadway.
I seem to remember that Vine met singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker at
that saloon. I never saw them together there, but did see them on stage at
Summer Sunshine Mountain Music in Colorado, where Walker performed and Vine
had the time of his life as the concert's Master of Ceremonies.
Vine comes alive around music and has amassed an extensive collection of
vintage cowboy music. He understands the power of music and movies and all
the arts to unlock old, stubborn thought processes and to clear a way for
But don't accuse him of having an artistic sensibility. "The only thing I
know about high art," he is fond of saying, "is a John Elway poster."
His longstanding friendships with musicians include one of his most valued,
with singer/songwriter/actor Floyd Red Crow Westerman. They collaborated on
Westerman's first album, taken from and named after Deloria's "Custer"
book, and featuring such songs as the title song and "Here Come the
Anthros" that have been Indian country mainstays since their 1970 release.
Both wise and prescient, Vine knew that movements need touchstones,
documentation and institutions, and he set about bolstering and shaping
various Indian rights movements with good stories, songs, a lot of laughs,
strong arguments and hard facts.
He helped envision and realize the Native American Rights Fund (which was
established in 1970) and the National Museum of the American Indian (which
was authorized by law in 1989), and many organizations in between.
Many aspects of federal Indian law would not have developed in as positive
a direction as they have without his foresight and guidance. Certainly this
is true of Indian education, repatriation and the modern exercise of
Starting with the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington and the
Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, numerous "terminated tribes" and
"unrecognized tribes" have taken their rightful place among the community
of Native nations because Vine saw the same future they saw for themselves
and joined the effort to attain it.
Oh, yes, he picked up a Law degree in 1970 and followed "Custer" with two
dozen books, including the definitive two-volume set of treaties. He taught
a few generations of students law, history, religion, political science
and, most importantly, how to think.
He has launched and guided the careers of myriad bright lights in the
Indian world. Some of the finest critical thinking being done in Indian
affairs today comes from his former students and proteges.
He encourages Native and non-Native people to respect and learn from
indigenous traditional knowledge, the wisdom of which is more apparent with
each major environmental catastrophe and with each new discovery of Indians
by Western science.
Vine has led the charge to discredit the Bering Strait theory that Indians
are Asians who walked across the ice and then ran to all parts of this
hemisphere as fast as they could, in order to populate it uniformly. It
once was considered heresy to question this theory. Now, the numbers of
scientists who stand behind it are rapidly dwindling.
Anthropologists, archaeologists, linguists, lawyers. These are only a few
of the entire professions he has challenged as racially and culturally
biased against Native peoples. In looking toward improved conditions for
and treatment of Indians, he is improving professions and non-Indian
people, too. Making the whole world better - now, that's vision.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian