SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Vine Deloria Jr. is a man to whom problems are
considered challenges. In fact, he has made it his life's work to tackle
difficult subjects - the more complex or problematic the better. Accepted
thinking on nearly any academic subject, only raises more questions. The
status quo, to Deloria, creates opportunities to explore.
It is perhaps not surprising that the son of a Christian minister would
attack accepted thinking with a near religious zeal. In fact, accepted
religious thinking has always been one of Deloria's favorite targets.
Fundamentalism and orthodoxy of all stripes has rubbed Deloria the wrong
way. Modern American Christianity is as much in Deloria's line of fire as
are people who take their tribal religions literally.
In 1995 he wrote "Red Earth, White Lies", in which he finally launched a
full-scale criticism of the Bering Strait theory. In that book, he offered
an alternate view of the peopling of the Americas which also incorporated
Indian oral traditions and has garnered mainstream acceptance from some
important quarters, while, of course garnering equal amounts of criticism.
No less of a formidable figure, former Cherokee Principle Chief Wilma
Mankiller has said of Deloria: "Vine is an original thinker with the spirit
of a warrior. He has been variously described as an activist, a scholar and
a religious philosopher. He is all that and more."
Deloria's hard-edged style comes from experience. A member of the Standing
Rock Sioux Tribe, Deloria was born in the midst of the great depression in
Martin, S.D. At the time the Plains tribe was just putting the pieces of
their society back together after the bitter defeats of the late 19th
Perhaps the biggest irony of Deloria's scathing criticisms of religion and
other academic subjects belie the moderate and commonsense message that
underlies his seemingly angry and passionate arguments. Like the
groundbreaking rock group Nirvana, whose abrasive sound was made palatable
by a sweet melody at its core, the equally groundbreaking Deloria often
delivers his opinions with grace and humility and often spikes his tonic
with generous doses of humor, some of it aimed at himself.
However funny Deloria is, he is certainly no clown. His approach to
religious thinking, almost as obvious and obtuse as inventing the wheel,
has garnered nods from mainstream sources no less representative than TIME
Magazine which once named him one of the greatest religious thinkers of our
Perhaps the greatest American Indian thinker since Sequoyah, Deloria has
certainly outpaced the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet in longevity. Age
has not mellowed Deloria in what should be the twilight of his career, a
time when no one would blame him for resting on his laurels. Thankfully,
for a society that has become more orthodox, Deloria has chosen to follow
the advice of Dylan Thomas and not go quietly. He has cultivated
controversy the way the New York Yankees cultivate big stars.
Just last year Deloria turned down an honorary degree at the University of
Colorado, Boulder (CU), a school where he had taught for several years,
because of recent scandals regarding the school's football team. A female
place kicker claimed that she was assaulted and raped by teammates and
subsequent unapologetic remarks by the football coach, Gary Barnett, that
degraded the place kicker's abilities.
The scandal led to several charges of malfeasance among the football squad
that included serious charges of rape and visits among team players to
prostitutes. Barnett only received a slap on the hand and was allowed to
return to his $1 million-plus-a-year job.
All of this naturally disgusted Deloria and when the school offered him an
honorary degree in Humane Letters, he turned them down cold saying it was
"no honor" to be associated with the school.
For such an iconoclastic figure, Deloria made his name by saving a
mainstream organization. Mankiller recalled a time in the mid-1960s when
the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) was losing membership and
influence. New and more radical organizations were springing up and
threatened to supercede NCAI until the little-known Deloria, a former
Marine who had recently obtained an master's degree in Theology
successfully took over as executive director of the organization.
"During his tenure, Vine revitalized NCAI and used his formidable
intellectual skills to set the standard for how the federal government
should view treaty and tribal rights," wrote Mankiller about Deloria. In
contrast to his passionate beliefs, in person Deloria is calm and mildly
jovial. His humility shows through. For example, when told that Indian
Country Today was going to present him with an award he responded that he
believed the award should go to noted actor, musician and activist Floyd
Red Crow Westerman.
Deloria also easily reconciles his simultaneously moderate and radical
stances and explains how he moves between them with ease.
"I think you just jump back and forth between poles of radical and moderate
- you can bring up very radical things by using a moderate style ... I've
generally tried to phrase radical change - moderately," said Deloria.
Deloria goes on to point out that when change is presented moderately, it
often produces the more radical changes. This style has led to some very
tangible results. Deloria cites as an example suggestions that he made in
the closing pages of his classic 1969 book "Custer Died for Your Sins."
In "Custer" Deloria argued that some functions of the BIA should be
subcontracted to tribes, a radical idea for the late 1960s. Eventually, the
BIA did just that. Deloria said that it was in the form that it was
suggested that the BIA eventually began to do just that.
"[It] did not seem to be a big change - but it was," contended Deloria.
One thing that Deloria never seems to be is idle. With dozens of published
books since the late 1960s, he reports that he is working on another about
the powers of medicine men. Combining the radical and the moderate and with
his trademark humility Deloria offers this thought on his upcoming book:
"[The new book is] very radical in its theological implications but
certainly presented in such a moderate format as to appear to be merely
interesting - at least I hope so."