Vine Deloria Jr.'s unfolding legacy


When "Custer Died for Your Sins" appeared in 1969, no one could have
predicted the author would go on to a distinguished career as an author and
professor. Vine Deloria Jr. was already a nationally-known figure, a past
executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and an
influential presence among Washington's Indian professional community. He
had a reputation as something of an activist, with a very interesting
formal education consisting of professional degrees in Law and Theology.
With the publication of "Custer", which soon became a bestseller, he could
have hung up his typewriter (in those days they still had typewriters) and
rested on his already considerable laurels. Fortunately for the world, he
chose writing and academia as a career path and in doing so became the most
prolific and successful American Indian academic and philosopher in the
United States.

Although he would later assert that the success of the book was due largely
to fortunate timing, and although timing was undoubtedly a factor in its
success, subsequent books were to prove it was no fluke. Vine Deloria Jr.
began this career on a successful note, and has built on that success with
book after book and paper after paper for 35 years. His success is
unparalleled. He is to American Indian philosophy and political thought
what W.E.B. DuBois has been to African American thought.

Deloria brought some considerable assets to the job. He was, after all, a
member of a significant Lakota family that had a tradition as intellectuals
and advocates among their people. And he had already dedicated himself to
addressing the problems of the people. He possessed a powerful intellect
and the courage necessary to attack muddle-headed thinking even when it was
owned by powerful established disciplines. And he projected a presence that
could be forceful or display humor as the occasion required. He was, in
short, born to the job of representing a people in the rarified and usually
impenetrable conversations that pass for academic discourse and encounters.

In an essay of this length, there is space to speak only of a few of many
notable books, but a quick survey might give people an idea of the depth
and scope of his remarkable career. In "Custer", Deloria attacks
stereotyping and its official messengers including historians, churches,
the Indian bureaucracy, anthropologists and others. His use of irony and
humor set a pattern for things to come. "God is Red" appeared in 1973. This
book offers a critique of Christianity through indigenous eyes and a
stirring defense of Native American culture's centering of nature as a
manifestation of the sacred. It is vintage Deloria and it sets the tone for
his work from that time forward. It has remained, after more than three
decades, a seminal work on the topic of comparison of American Indian and
Western religious thought.

In 1974's "Trail of Broken Treaties" in which he recounts, among other
things, the 1972 occupation of the BIA building in Washington D.C. by the
American Indian Movement and others in the national protest movement. (The
Trail of Broken Treaties, the event after which the book is named, was an
organized gathering in Washington to protest U.S. exploitation of Indian
assets and its paternalism in Indian affairs.) Some reviewers complained
that Deloria showed bias in his reporting of this and other incidents of
abusive behavior toward Indians, but I was in attendance at that event and
in my opinion his account is at least equal to the standard of "fair and
balanced" as it is known these days.

"The Metaphysics of Modern Existence" appeared in 1979 and I reviewed it in
Akwesasne Notes that year. At the time, Indian authors were expected to
limit themselves to discussions around abuses to Indians, and there are
such discussions here. It wasn't a hard and fast rule, but it was there.
Here Deloria goes further and engages in a discussion of the almost
unspeakable ethnocentrism (the flip side of racism) which permeates Western
ideology in any discussion about how things came to be the way they are.
Western ideologues talk as though modernity appeared almost magically, and
if there is an incremental growth history, it is devoid of meaningful
participation by any but other Westerners. Thus modernity is discussed as a
project of the west, as though other peoples, including Natives, were
nowhere present, even though Native contributions, including ideas, are
crucial to modernity's birth. The only contribution to world philosophy to
come from the United States, pragmatism, has its roots in Native America.

"Red Earth, White Lies" appeared in 1995 and is a complex book with some
great humor thrown in. When Christian fundamentalists question the science
behind evolution, scientists generally grow glum but silent, even though
the attack is squarely aimed at the scientific method as a way of gathering
information if that information contradicts doctrinal belief. Deloria
questions some conclusions of science based on poor technique, not on the
project of information gathering, and he makes fun of some ideas that have
weathered time despite fuzzy logic. A favorite is his discussion around
whether paleo-Indians could have rendered the megafauna, the giant animals
which disappeared at the end of the last ice age, extinct. His account is
hilarious, but serious too. Although serious anthropologists discount the
idea that people with spears and clubs could have slaughtered countless
mammoths and giant sloths, sabre tooths and other dangerous beasts, such
nonsense is still taught in colleges and high schools. Although there has
been change in some quarters since the book appeared, for a long time too
many with scientific credentials have speculated too forcefully about
topics for which they had little more than vague theories. The land bridge
as the only way early people could have moved from continent to continent
is an example.

Professor Deloria has tweaked the noses of the established theologians
while arguing the humanity and clear thinking of peoples whose spirituality
honors the natural world, and he has exposed the bureaucrats who have made
a profession of perpetuating injustices on Indian people while plundering
their lands. He has been a major voice questioning the techniques and
morality of ethnocentric anthropologists. And he has left a body of legal
work which forms a foundation for deconstruction of the most persistent
form of racism on the planet: The idea that indigenous peoples have no
rights to a continued existence as distinct peoples because popes
designated them as people who could be made slaves and whose lands could be
taken during the Crusades more than 500 years ago. That idea is still at
the center of U.S. and Canadian policy and a lot of other law on indigenous
rights. Deloria's is a powerful legacy, but those of us who have followed
his work think of it is a great start, and we're looking forward to more of
the same. It is appropriate that we honor him now, while he is at the
height of his powers, and wish him many more productive years. No one
deserves it more.

John C. Mohawk Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and
professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.