Burn tobacco today for the wonderful spirit of Vine Deloria Jr., who passed
into the world of the ancestors Nov. 13. Our sincerest condolences and
warmest embrace reach out to his family and dear friends, and a great
commiseration is extended to all of Indian country, where Deloria --
author, teacher, lawyer, man -- is universally respected and where his
memory will live on for the generations.
Deloria, the world-renown Dakota author and scholar from the Standing Rock
Reservation, made a huge contribution to the Native peoples of North
America and the world. His intellectual output, at once free-ranging with
creativity and yet tight with academic rigor, pinned down the legal and
historical bases desperately needed by the national Indian discourse. He
provided a great piece of the intellectual locomotion upon which a moving
platform of American Indian/Native studies research, publishing, production
and teaching has been constituted.
His writing is legendary, launched by the 1969 classic "Custer Died For
Your Sins," which plugged directly into the common imagination of the
American Indian Movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. Along with "We Talk,
You Listen" and "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties," these early Deloria
works informed, during those crucial years, the widest cross-section of
activists, students and older community leaders and traditional
authorities. For a movement that had disparate and very independent bases
in Indian country, where political persuasions ran the full spectrum of
left to right and front to back, Deloria's deliberate, well-reasoned tone,
backed by acerbic wit and genuine self-effacement, hit the formative chord.
The best of the thinking, and the music of a movement of survival, started
then, with Deloria's exquisite ear for media concepts and the lyrics and
guitar of a musician brother named Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman. Anthems of a
movement came out of that collaboration -- again, now in Westerman's
lyrics, "Custer died for your sins -- a new day must begin -- Custer died
for your sins," and in the old 49er stand-by, "BIA I am not your Indian
Targeting anthropologists, missionaries and bureaucrats alike, Deloria
wrote to Indians and was heard by the national audience. He wrote popular
narratives on the contemporary Indian world, backing those up with deep and
far-ranging academic research, writing and editing.
Deloria went on to write and edit more than 20 books and ranged from Native
contemporary issues in law and history to ponder on scientific and
theological themes. A considerable risk-taker in an era of prudent
assertions in academia, Deloria in his middle years took pleasure in
exploding and deconstructing all manner of facile theories by would-be
Indian debunkers, such as Sheppard Krech III's critical review of
indigenous lifeways in his book, "The Ecological Indian: Myth and History."
With his Indian-take dissection of evolutionary theory and its many
little-founded claims, Deloria willingly stepped out of the progressive
boat and onto his own canoe, daring to follow his instincts into important
theological and scientific questions in order widen the field for Indian
scholarship. He piqued many in academia and government with his
explorations and assertions, but this was the way he seems to have
preferred it -- in the arena, moving the ground forward for the people.
The author and professor was an impeccable social activist, supporting
Indian movement activism in all fields faithfully, always giving of himself
through lectures and strategic seminars and court testimony wherever Indian
tribal people called upon him. Executive director of the National Congress
of American Indians early in his career, Deloria radicalized and activated
the foremost Indian advocacy organization while creating lobbying campaigns
and providing strategy for court cases: often while also defending major
community treaty activists such as Nisqually elder and fishing rights
legend Billy Frank Jr.
Deloria straddled the generations and carried the perspectives and
perception of the generation of leaders who saw Indian country through the
Depression, World War II and termination. He often reminisced fondly about
the old-timers of his formative years.
We remember the beloved teacher for his generosity of spirit. As a
professor, Deloria mentored and touched many people across all ethnic and
religious persuasions while always managing to teach and guide the work of
scores of Native graduate students and young activists, many of whom went
on to gain success and prominence on their own. He wrote prefaces and
introductions and recommendations by the dozens in careful assessments of
the work at hand, but was always ready to add his considerable gravity to
the work of newer hands. He would not tolerate fuzzy thinking, however, and
could and would hold his students to task.
No strangers here to the inspiration extended by the existence of Vine
Deloria Jr., we are ever-thankful to have had the opportunity to have
celebrated his accomplishments earlier this year at the ceremony for the
2005 American Indian Visionary Award, which Deloria received in March.
In every generation, to paraphrase the late Creek Medicine Man Phillip
Deere, there is one who hits the click-stone just right, and sparks the
fire. In his generation, Vine Deloria Jr. sparked the intellectual fire of
political, legal, historical and spiritual illumination. He lighted the
path to the fountainhead of knowledge, which points the way ahead.
We are deeply thankful for the gift of this man who taught, in the evidence
of his own life, that a gift of intellectual power is only given spirit by
service to the people.