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Vine Deloria Jr.'s legacy continues to inspire

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DENVER - Views of the late Vine Deloria Jr., prominent Native scholar, theologian and activist, underscored discussions of Native lands and sacred sites at a recent conference attended by more than 400 scholars from the U.S. and around the globe.

Deloria emphasized the ''power of unique places that tell people who are paying attention that we are in a world full of life,'' said Daniel Wildcat, of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan.

Wildcat headed the American Indian studies portion of the Western Social Science Association's 50th annual conference April 23 - 26, a key venue for contemporary Native studies.

''The problem is we no longer seem to have the time or the interest in paying attention to this world around us - the power,'' Wildcat said. ''Deloria was talking about, 'How can we live in a life-enhancing manner?'''

Knowledge is not abstract in Deloria's world, he said, using as an example climate change studies that show global warming in contrast to the day-to-day experience of circumpolar Inuit who ''know it experientially.''

Tom Hoffman, of the St. Mary's University faculty, San Antonio, Texas, and a panel moderator on Deloria's legacy, said, ''According to Vine Deloria Jr., experiencing the holy, rather than belief, is what characterizes the American Indian experience.''

Deloria, Yanktonai of the Standing Rock Reservation, ascribed to Native belief a universal awareness of a power that is inherent in the land and its features, he said.

George ''Tink'' Tinker, of the faculty of Iliff School of Theology, Denver, said that current sacred sites issues build directly on Deloria's work.

''The problem is that the word 'sacred' doesn't exist in any Indian language; and if they are not 'sacred,' what are they?'' he said, referring to Bear Butte and Wind Cave, in South Dakota, Devils Tower in Wyoming and Nanih Waiyah in Mississippi, among others.

''The problem is that we're dealing with such deep incompatibility between Indian culture and the colonizer's culture, and its categories of 'sacred,' 'good,' and so on.''

''Bear Butte has special energy that has made itself accessible to human beings in the past,'' he said, asserting that power inheres in special places.

When places like Mount Graham in Arizona, sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe, undergo development - in this case, a large observatory - ''spiritual energy doesn't go away; it retreats into the mountain and is not available to human beings,'' he said.

The San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, sacred to some 13 tribal nations, were cited by another panelist as an issue between cultures. The Peaks were ruled off-limits to a ski resort seeking - with Forest Service approval - to use treated effluent on its slopes, but the ruling is under appeal in federal court.

Although the Forest Service said Natives would still be allowed to enter the area, it would be ''physically or spiritually contaminated, or both,'' said Kira Bauer, of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.

Scientific discourse often does not ''reflect the complexity that comprises the natural world,'' she said. ''How do we incorporate non-quantifiable values into institutional processes?''

No monetary value can be placed on the environmental well-being of the Peaks, she said, and multiple-use measures often give priority to institutional and economic values.

Deloria's emphasis on the land and its value may be incorporated in a land-based school described in ''A Ts'ilhqot'in Vision for a School in the Mountains,'' prepared by Russell Ross, of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and distributed at the convention.

''Deloria Jr. challenges indigenous people to reclaim their responsibility to honor the relationships on the land; in similar respects, developing a School in the Mountains seeks to honor the teachings as a way of life and provide a safe environment to cultivate learning from where we belong and where we come from as indigenous people: the land,'' he states.

Deloria Jr. (March 26, 1933 - Nov. 13, 2005) was the author of ''Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto'' (1969); ''We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf'' (1970); ''Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence'' (1974); ''Red Earth, White Lies'' (1999); and ''The World We Used to Live In: Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men'' (2006), among other works.

Steve Pavlik, of the Northwest Indian College faculty, Bellingham, Wash., said Deloria regularly attended the Western Social Science Association convention in his lifetime. The convention draws scholars and others from across the U.S. as well as from Mexico, Canada, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Northwest Indian College will be the site of a Vine Deloria Jr. Indigenous Studies Symposium in July 2008. The keynote speaker will be Hank Adams, Assiniboine/Sioux, president of the Survival of American Indians Association and a longtime Native rights activist.