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Syracuse University hosts 'senior statesman' of Native studies

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - After a lifetime of service to the causes of protecting and advancing American Indian sovereignty and culture, Vine Deloria Jr. has preserved his sense of humor and has the patience of Job.

Deloria demonstrated both traits during his discussion on the journey to American Indian sovereignty as the kickoff speaker in the "Syracuse Symposium 2003: Journeys" lecture series hosted by Syracuse University on Sept. 18. His message may have featured several well-placed jokes and anecdotes, but his message remained on target - to preserve tribal sovereignty several steps must take place and Indians need to avoid the temptations of quick fixes.

The target of at least two of those jokes was Faithkeeper Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation who Deloria said was really the world's leading expert on indigenous peoples' sovereignty and deserving of honors for his life's work.

The author of over 20 books, including his landmark work "Custer Died for Your Sins" in 1969, Deloria said the journey to sovereignty (the right to manage their own affairs and to have international standing with other sovereign nations in the simplest of terms) must first involve the return of land to the American Indian nations. This could, he continued, guarantee the economic success of future generations. According to Deloria, treaty lands can be reacquired by the tribes if they abandon the current "winner takes all" mentality in dealings with the federal and state governments and adopt a less confrontational attitude.

"We need to break our arguments into simple enough parts so it doesn't intimidate the enemy," said Deloria. "We need to present good arguments so that the United States will not be able to contest them.

"Use a little bit of sovereignty at a time and let them know what you want without being in their face and scaring them."

Deloria said that while lawyers are prepared to go to the mat over the political issues they rarely get as excited over religious aspects of sovereignty, a necessary step in founding a moral and religiously sound society. A debate has emerged during the struggle to protest and preserve American Indian religious between those with traditional values and "those with no religion sense at all." Deloria said the latter group includes non-Indian practitioners who are looking for an experienced-based religion that can be provided by many traditional rituals.

"Some of these people are just lonely and others need serious help," said Deloria. 'Tribes need to step up and take control of their religion. If it is a ceremony that is for their people they need to keep with their people and not let outsiders, especially white people, abuse their ceremonies."

According to Deloria, Indian-run gaming is standing in the way of sovereignty by preventing American Indian people from establishing themselves as a moral and religious people.

"It's all about money, money, money," said Deloria. "We are not looking seven generations ahead. If you turn to tribal traditions and act like how Indians are supposed to act - how they used to act - we will have too much to present to the government and they will not be able to deal with it."

Deloria also had words of encouragement for those in the audience frustrated with dealing with non-governmental groups virulently opposed to anything to do with tribal sovereignty including the Upstate Citizens for Equality in New York and the Oklahoma-based One Nation. He said with a great deal of optimism that if these groups are approached in a non-confrontational manner and informed of what the tribes want they eventually will give in.

"Let the other side stew and when they get bored you can correct their thinking," said Deloria.

Before leaving the SU Hill, as it is known locally, Deloria graciously took the time to speak informally with the students and tribal members present to shake hands, take pictures and to autograph copies of his books.

Deloria is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He was a founding member and one of the original executive directors of the National Congress of American Indians and is credited by many as helping to establish Native studies as an academic discipline. He has taught at the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado. His many personal honors include being named one of the top 11 religious thinkers of the 20th century by TIME Magazine and the Native Writers Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award.