Tales of a remarkable father

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I leave it to others to testify to the public significance of Vine Deloria
Jr. His political commitment, his wicked sense of humor, his ability to
anticipate and thus to lead, even his path through his own history - these
things are better discussed by others. What I am able to offer, however, is
something few others can: A small sense of the backstage of his life. I do
so not in the mode of the tell-all family confessional (there's nothing
gossipy here), but as another way of exploring his achievements.

My father organizes time and space in curious ways. In every house in which
we've lived, he has carved out an office space, marked always by the pine
board bookshelves we built and rebuilt and rebuilt again each time we
moved. Into those shelves, arranged by subject, has gone his ever-growing
library. He is meticulous in ordering things - shelving, filing cabinets,
banker's boxes, card files - but that does not prevent piles of papers from
being scattered everywhere, testimony to the volume of information he is
working through. Almost every office has had a canine writing companion: JD
(for "Just Dog"), New Dog, Harper the Dog, Comet, Marlowe and, presently,
Bob the Dog. His most productive years, I suspect, can be indexed to the
affection and endurance of particular hounds.

For many years, his writing routine - always at night - was like clockwork:
Watch the 10:00 news, play solitaire for an hour, retreat to a beat-up
armchair next to the low coffee table that held the IBM Selectric (still
his weapon of choice) and type (with a dog curled up nearby) into the early
morning. I remember in the late 1960s, when a thin wall separated his
office from the room my brother and I shared, how the clatter of the keys
used to wake me up in the middle of the night. I realize now that he was
probably writing "Custer Died For Your Sins."

Like any good writer, he stuck to his schedule relentlessly, thinking
through his arguments while playing solitaire, and then churning out up to
10 pages a night. In the midst of this regimen, however, he never failed to
maintain a sense of whimsy. For a while, he watched "The Godfather" almost
every night, memorizing the script and developing a pretty fair Brando
impression. Another time it was "Junior Bonner." Once, he made audiotapes
that played a single favorite song over and over again. Listening to him
write "God is Red" (through the floor this time), I also heard songs like
"Wolverton Mountain" and "El Paso", some nights 20 times in a row. When I
first picked up a guitar, I found that it was if I had been born knowing
"Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life."

Indeed, his favorite photograph of himself originates, not in politics or
academics, but from music. He is looking back over his shoulder, with
country singer Jerry Jeff Walker's guitar in hand, and the crowd at Red
Rocks amphitheater in the background. His smile is bemused joy. My father
has always made Thanksgiving interesting by demanding popcorn on his turkey
("Corn is Indian food and we can do what we want with it.") He hasn't
adopted gear from the football team from Washington D.C., but he did at one
point own three 1950s vintage Pontiac Chieftains, only one of which ran
(all three of which, however, had the Chieftain hood ornament). He adores
the house band at Lil' Abners Steakhouse in Tucson.

My father has always taken other worlds seriously. Sometimes late at night,
he will do a tarot card reading for me or talk about reincarnation. He has
a good friend who drives around the country following an alien mothership;
the welcome mat is always out when the UFO people hit town. At one point,
enamored with the theory of pyramid power, he asked my brother to build him
a pyramid, some five feet tall and painted "Giza Tan." He put razor blades
out there to sharpen, filled old milk jugs with water and let them sit in
the pyramid in the hot Tucson sun. We all hoped that the molecules would
line up in a North-South direction (and maybe they did), but the "power
water" was also home to some powerfully unpleasant bacteria that thrived on
the pyramid. His wide-ranging, open-minded and serious engagement with the
unseen possibilities, visible in books like "The Metaphysics of Modern
Existence" and "God is Red", also produced other late night talk sessions,
during which he passed along family stories of spiritual experience and
power.

In the office/library, he has an amazing collection of material on the
occult, catastrophism, religion and spirituality. On the pine plank
shelves, you'll also find (in addition to the rich collections of American
Indian history and politics you would expect) complete sets of all the
great detective fiction writers, classic tracts of continental philosophy,
a massive set of the collected writings of Carl Jung (he's read every
page), huge sections on the Supreme Court, dinosaur origins, geology and
theology, as well as a number of obscure single volumes that seem
completely out of place.

The library always helps me to see just how wide-ranging he really is. Vine
Deloria does not limit his thinking. He is constantly engaging ideas. Often
these are new ideas, but just as often they are old - traditional knowledge
or thoughts once recorded and then passed by. Even his engagements with
what seem whimsical turn out to be part of the habits of a disciplined
mind.

From the perspective of the kid in the room next to, or underneath, his
office, he has been able to accomplish so much in large part not only
because of his political commitment and his Native intelligence, but also
because of these sometimes quirky habits of practice and belief - habits
which, in the end, are part of a deep seriousness of purpose.

I could not be prouder of his achievements ... but I also like the memories
of popcorn on turkeys, pyramid water cocktails and dogs with character.
Those things are important too, not simply as family memories, but as part
of the life that has produced - and will continue to produce - so much.

Philip J. Deloria is Vine Deloria Jr.'s eldest son. He is professor of
History and American Studies at the University of Michigan and the author
of "Playing Indian" and "Indians in Unexpected Places."