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The legacy of an indigenous intellectual

I am saddened by the death of Vine Deloria Jr. This sadness is compounded
by the fact that outside of the indigenous communities, institutions and
nations of North America, too few Americans really know what Deloria
accomplished. Consequently, the general public cannot really appreciate
what his passing represents, and this is a tragedy. I lost a friend and
mentor, but the world lost one of the most important voices of the 20th
century.

Deloria never called attention to himself -- it was unnecessary. His words
and ideas demanded the attention of anyone who came into contact with his
intellectual energy, virtuosity and activism. Through five decades, Deloria
articulated through his books and teachings the importance of tribal
knowledge -- wisdom, really. He called attention to American Indian ways of
knowing and the knowledge produced not as museum or historical artifact,
but as practical knowledge conducive to living well in this world.

Deloria encouraged several generations of indigenous scholars to take
seriously their tribal traditions and reject the still-prevailing notion
that success meant complete adoption of the culture of the dominant
non-Native society. It would be impossible to list all the areas of
American Indian affairs Deloria influenced, but a short list would include
the American Indian Policy Review Commission (1975 -- '77), the American
Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), the Indian Self-Governance Act (1988)
and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990).

So why is one of the most important intellects and social justice activists
of the last century, known and respected so widely among indigenous peoples
of North America, still unrecognized -- to a shameful extent -- by the
larger society? Think about it. It is a sign of how much popular
stereotypes and thinking about the people of the first nations of America
still needs to change. Rosa Parks received the nationwide attention her
life and death deserved; the absence of a similar response for Deloria's
life and death is telling. Almost 40 years after Deloria captured the
attention of the general public with his wit and keen insights in the now
classic "Custer Died For Your Sins" and his follow-up work "We Talk, You
Listen," it appears far too few are listening.

Throughout his life's work, he never stopped trying to engage the dominant
institutions in an honest dialogue and discussion about the important
issues of life on this planet and the universe. Deloria read widely and
wrote across academic disciplines. At best, this earned him a reputation as
a "Renaissance man" and at worst, a dismissal because he was not an
academic specialist. Both evaluations miss the distinguishing feature that
indigenous people recognized in Deloria's work: he was an indigenous
thinker, an indigenous intellectual.

I guess American Indians and Alaska Natives, in the mind's eye of most
Americans, are not supposed to be intellectuals. If we diverge from either
the "noble savage" script or, conversely, the "despondent dependent
colonial victim" motif, many Americans simply turn the channel or put the
book down.

Today, leaders throughout the institutions of modern societies desperately
need ideas about ways to solve pressing problems. I suggest one way to
honor Deloria is to listen seriously to what indigenous people around the
world have to say: we talk, you listen. It's a good time to ask a question:
Do people in modern societies, especially the United States, have the
spirit and reason to do so?

Daniel Wildcat is a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University and a
Euchee member of the Muskogee Nation. He is the coauthor, with Vine Deloria
Jr., of "Power and Place: Indian Education in America."