Recipient inspired and provoked a generation
TUCSON, Ariz. - Vine Deloria Jr., writer, teacher and social critic, will
receive the second annual American Indian Visionary Award March 2 at 6:00
p.m. in a celebration at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The award, presented by Indian Country Today, honors leaders who display
"the highest qualities and attributes of leadership in defending the
foundations of American Indian freedom."
Deloria's wide circle of friends and proteges responded enthusiastically to
his selection. (Essays from many associates in his long life of activism,
and even an original honoring poem by N. Scott Momaday, appear elsewhere in
In a telephone interview from his home in Tucson, Ariz., Deloria reflected
on his life's work and four generations of distinguished family history
which has led to more than 20 books, innumerable articles and lectures and
a voice of influence in the past four decades of Indian history.
Furthermore, he indicated that his career as a writer and center of
controversy is far from over, describing a major new work that he said
would be finished in about a year.
Born 1933 in Martin, S.D., on the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation,
Deloria came to the attention of the dominant culture in 1969 with the
publication of his powerful, "Custer Died for Your Sins." But he was
already a growing influence in the Native world. After serving in the U.S.
Marine Corps and receiving a master's degree from the Lutheran School of
Theology in Rock Island, Ill., he was drafted to the position of executive
director of the National Congress of American Indians in 1964.
Deloria modestly credits his role in the rising Indian militant movement to
happenstance. "A lot of what happened," he said, "was accidental stuff." At
NCAI, he worked with an older generation whose experience went back to the
Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and encouraged a new breed of activists.
"I worked with some awfully good Indian leaders," he said. Among other
things he directed legal and financial aid to the fishing rights struggle
in the Northwest. He noted with satisfaction that Nisqually elder Billy
Frank Jr., a leader of the struggle, was the first recipient of the
Visionary Award. Leaders like Frank "really put in the time and energy,"
said DeLoria, and he was happy to be able to support them.
But Deloria emerged as an inspiration to the new generation through the
power of his pen. His early polemical works, "Custer", "We Talk, You
Listen" and the first edition of "God is Red", attacked mainstream
stereotyping with acerbic wit and sharp analysis. As national best sellers,
they startled a mainstream culture not used to the idea that Natives could
more than hold their own through the written word. Many in the current
bumper crop of Indian intellectuals trace their inspiration to these books.
Deloria's influence deepened as he added rigorous scholarship to his
polemics. He puts his works in three main groupings. After the political
essays came legal studies, such as "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties",
on the sovereign status of Indian nations, "American Indians, American
Justice" on tribal courts as a mainstay of sovereignty, a two-volume set of
unratified and little known tribal treaties and a recent study of the
tribal congresses that preceded the 1934 enactment of the Indian
Reorganization Act. Deloria calls these works an effort "to explain some of
the technicalities of Indian legal and political practice."
The third group of writings, Deloria said, could be called "theological."
As a son and grandson of Episcopalian churchmen and a trained theologian
himself, Deloria was once called one of the 10 most influential theological
thinkers of the 20th century. Perhaps ironically, he is best known as a
critic of the Christian missionary impulse that attacked Native religious
insight. But these works also include a wide-ranging critique of scientific
dogmatism. In his recent books "Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and
the Myth of Scientific Fact" and "Evolution, Creationism and Other Modern
Myths", he has taken on both of the Eurocentric viewpoints on the Darwinian
debate, science and Christianity, but it is noteworthy that he cuts deep
against what he sees as the closed mind of science. "You get disappointed
that these people don't tell the truth, so you're not very forgiving," he
In his current work, Deloria is returning to the theology of his ancestors.
He said he is compiling accounts of the incredible deeds of Indian medicine
men, some witnessed firsthand by non-Indians. With over 120 such stories in
hand, he expects to be finished by next January.
His current work in a way brings his family history full circle. Four
generations of the Deloria family, he said, have lived under the influence
of a vision that came to his great-grandfather, Saswe. The son of a French
father and Yankton Sioux mother, Saswe had a dream in the late 19th century
that he was walking down a path that split into two smaller paths. On one
side were four skeletons with grass wrapped around them. On the other were
four purification tents. If he chose the path with the skeletons, his
family would become prominent mixed-blood ranchers. If he chose the other,
his family would become spiritual leaders of the people.
"He chose the path to his right, the purification path," said Deloria, "so
he was given all kinds of power." Saswe became a Yankton Sioux medicine man
who practiced the yuwipi ceremony, a rite rarely done these days of
communicating with the spirit world to help find lost things. But Saswe's
son Philip converted to the Episcopal Church and became a priest. His son
Vine also became an Episcopalian churchman, serving as the first Native to
head the missionary program of a major denomination. His sister Ella, Vine
Jr.'s aunt, was a famous linguist and associate of the Columbia University
anthropologist Franz Boas, and devoted much of her career to collecting
Dakota folk tales.
The grouping of four, said Deloria, meant that the vision applied to four
generations, including Saswe, "so my brother and I are the last
In returning to the study of the medicine men, however, Deloria is bringing
along the latest theories of modern quantum physics, which he said fit
better with the Native view than with the dogmatism of professional
science. "All the tribes say the universe is just the product of mind," he
said. "It fits perfectly with the Quantum."
"Indians believe the universe is mind, but they explore the spiritual end
of it, not the physical end. That's why medicine men are able to do these