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Vine Deloria urges Indian authors to "earn their spurs"

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Vine Deloria, who officially retired from his career as a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder in May, isn't planning to stop working.

"I've given all of my papers to the Denver Public Library, so I need to get those in order," he said at a book signing at Prairie Edge here last month.

After Deloria, who taught law, history, political science and religious studies at the university, sorts through his manuscript papers, he plans to tackle his basement. "I've over-researched every book I've written," said the author, whose writing career spans 30 years. "All those notes are stacked in my basement. If I'm ever going to use them, I need to get the material organized."

Deloria, whose most recently published books include "Singing for a Spirit: A Portrait of the Dakota Sioux and Tribes, Treaties and Constitutional Tribulations," has looked at American Indian issues from many angles. "My first books were protest books," he said. Analysis and critiques followed these.

"Red Earth White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact," released in 1995, defended American Indian accounts of creation and population movement while critiquing what anthropologists claim as scientific fact, namely migration across the Bering Strait. Although the book met with criticism from a number of academics, scientific research has since proven him correct. Five years after the book's publication, scholars have come to accept many of his arguments.

Although he clearly relishes a good fight, Deloria said that the book closest to his heart is "Singing for a Spirit." In the first half of the book, he writes about his own ancestors, starting with Saswe, his great-grandfather, a medicine man, who later became an Episcopal priest.

The book weaves together family stories with material gathered from Deloria's grandfather, Tipi Sapa, and written down by Sara Olden in 1917. The last half of "Singing for a Spirit" is an edited version of Olden's book on the customs and religious practices of the Dakota based on the accounts of Tipi Sapa, who like his father became an Episcopal priest.

Unlike many authors who write about American Indian religion, Deloria asserts that both traditional religion and Christianity were beneficial to Indian people. "There is no question that Christianity served as a bridge to enable the Sioux people to make the transition from their life of freedom to a new life confined within the small boundaries of the reservation," he wrote.

Deloria holds that Christianity never replaced tradition. "The core of the traditional religious ways continued to provide a foundation upon which another religious tradition could be seen to be useful for a short time," he wrote.

"Tribes, Treaties, & Constitutional Tribulations," co-written with David E. Wilkins, provides a comprehensive examination of the relationship of the three branches of the U.S. government to American Indian tribes. The book thoroughly examines the constitutional clauses as amendments that affect Indian people, detailing both the history of the constitution and amendments as well as case law.

Deloria said his inspiration has been to "put knowledge into the hands of ordinary people." He urged aspiring American Indian writers to follow his example by writing nonfiction. "History as it is written by non-Indian authors is often rampant with errors," he said.

"We need to have a whole group of people writing non-fiction," he said."It is easier to write about our own emotions than it is to write non-fiction. Fifteen years ago Indians began writing poetry - 'I'm an Indian in Gallup and I'm lonely.' We've had years of that and now it is time for Indians to start writing about science and social science."

He said he believes nonfiction is not only more demanding than literary writing, but it is difficult for Indian authors to gain acceptance in the field because social science is a closed group.

"It's a club, a celebrity cult that is based on personality not scholarship. It's time for Indian authors to start earning their spurs."

'Singing for a Spirit: A Portrait of the Dakota Sioux and Tribes, Treaties and Constitutional Tribulations' can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1574160486

'Red Earth White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact' can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1555913881