It is fitting that Vine Deloria Jr. is the second, and not first, recipient
of the American Indian Visionary Award. I believe he would want it this
way. Why? Because Vine, despite his unparalleled activist and scholarly
career has always appreciated that individuals like last year's recipient,
Billy Frank Jr., clearly embodies the natural sovereignty that emanates
from living, depending on, and defending a given sacred landscape and the
various species that are connected to a sacred space. Vine understands as
well as anyone that it is those stout Native men, women and children who
are most deserving of such recognition.
In fact, most of Vine's adult life has been spent in an unrelenting,
prodigious and largely successful effort to provide those most grounded of
Native individuals and their governments with the intellectual,
theoretical, philosophical and substantive arguments necessary to support
their inherent personal and national sovereignty. His work, however, has
also sought to improve the nation-to-nation and intergovernmental
relationships of and between First Nations, and between First Nations and
non-Native governments at all levels.
Vine is undeniably the most prolific indigenous writer in history. He's
authored, co-authored, edited and co-edited well over 20 books, more than
200 articles and essays, and he's delivered an untold number of keynotes,
lectures, interviews and congressional testimonials.
Equally as impressive as his incredible output is the stunningly diverse
range of intellectual disciplines he has traversed with aplomb - law,
religion and theology, natural and social science, literary criticism,
education, anthropology, paleontology, philosophy and political science,
Of course, he has also held many important positions outside the Academy -
he headed the National Congress of American Indians in the 1960s, and he
has served on numerous boards. He also played a leading role in developing
and leading a number of critically important organizations like the
Institute for the Development of Indian Law, which he founded, and others
that seek to improve the quality of life for Native and non-Native folk.
But Vine, to me, is much more than the sum of all his major and ongoing
scholarly, professional and public accomplishments. Our paths first crossed
in a sustained way in 1980 when, based on the recommendation of Helen
Maynor Schierbeck, Lumbee, he recruited me to a new M.A. degree program
that he had developed at the University of Arizona. This was a two-year
terminal degree in Political Science that focused on training Native
students in the quirks, whims and nuances of Federal Indian Policy and Law.
I was part of a small cohort of Native students, thrilled at the
possibility of studying with a man we affectionately, and with some
trepidation, referred to as "the Godfather" of Indian politics, policy and
law. We called ourselves "Vine's Disciples," not because he was a religious
figure, but because we sensed that in having the privilege and opportunity
studying with the individual we all considered the most gifted of our time,
that we would receive profound lessons in what was required of us as we
sought to become active and informed defenders of indigenous nationhood.
For those of us who finished this intellectually rich and rigorous program,
we left feeling prepared to engage our nations on multiple fronts and knew
that we had been armed with research and writing skills (though I, for one,
never did learn the proper use of my grammatical nemesis, the apostrophe,
despite Vine's best efforts), that would enable us to continue to mature in
whatever fields we chose.
My relationship with Vine and his talented and generous wife, Barbara, has
only broadened and deepened over this last quarter century. While he
remains my mentor we have become good friends and I've had the honor of
co-authoring a book with him, and we are hard at work on another.
It is, of course, impossible to summarize in such a short space the
incredible influence that Vine has had on me, my nation - the Lumbee - who
Vine and his aunt, the noted ethnographer and linguist, Ella Deloria, have
supported since the 1940s, a period when some other national Indian figures
regularly sought to belittle and disparage my people - Aboriginal nations
here and abroad, and the larger society.
But what an influence he has been. Vine has said, I think too abruptly,
that his approach to scholarship has been "ad hoc" or "spur-of-the-moment
political tracts." In another work he noted more accurately that if one
reads his scholarship in the context of his life it is possible to "see a
persistent effort to lay down certain kinds of strategies for political
action which are consistent from start to finish" and "they would be
alerted that it is in the actions of my life that theories and ideologies
are worked out."
We see this most clearly in what I term the Delorian trilogy: His powerful
articulation of tribal sovereignty, his distinctive conceptualization and
defense of the essential doctrine of tribal self-determination, and his
cogent discussion and analysis of the importance and sacredness of space
and place for indigenous nations.
Vine, in reflecting on his own work, and in particular, his research and
thoughts on these three ideas, states that "these concepts form the major
framework of the federal relationship with Indian tribes." This is
certainly the case and much of the fortunes of First Nations today are
linked to their ability to effectively implement and fundamentally relate
to the notions of their own inherent sovereignty, their fundamental right
of self-determination, and the relationship Native communities have with a
Of course, in the vast array of Vine's many works there are other equally
profound, timely and important recommendations that if ever implemented by
Native nations and the states and federal government would go far towards
stabilizing and clarifying the cultural identities, political and legal
standing, and territorial basis of First Nations and their diplomatic
relations with other governments.
Such recommendations would include, but not be limited to the following:
Formal federal acknowledgment of tribal sovereignty, revival of the
treaty-making process, disavowing congressional plenary (read: absolute)
power, continuing the consolidation and restoration of tribal lands,
affirming the political rights of bona fide non-recognized tribal groups,
establishment of a permanent Court of Indian Affairs, supporting the
international status of First Nations, modifying the trust doctrine from an
"active" to "passive" role, forging better ties between urban and
reservation-based communities, increasing the teaching of indigenous
knowledge to Indian youth, strengthening tribal governments, etc.
While some of Vine's suggested reforms have been acted upon, it is clear
that many others have not yet been responded to. The fact that we have not
acted upon many of his timely recommendations is cause for some dismay; but
that they have been proposed and retain all their potency to improve the
human condition gives us cause to hope.
David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, is professor of American Indian Studies at the
University of Minnesota.