Vine Deloria, Jr. (March 26, 1933 – November 13, 2005) was an a Native American author, theologian, historian, and political activist from the Yankton Sioux tribe of South Dakota. He became one of the most prolific writers on American Indian rights and culture with nearly 25 books and hundreds of articles.
During the time when predominantly black-white civil rights issues were dominating the American political scene, Deloria, Jr. made the case that treaty rights, not civil rights, should be the basis of the United States government's dealings with Native Americans.
He worked to document treaty and sovereignty laws and developed arguments for interpreting federal Indian law in favor of self-determination by tribal governments, often testifying before the U.S. Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court.
Several of his scholarly texts are now used as standard works in Indian law and policy classes throughout the United States. His legal advocacy for Native Americans led to the return of millions of acres of tribal land, established the national tribal college structure and reaffirmed the United States' treaty and trust obligations to Native people.
As a historian, he promoted Native science as superior to conflicting Western views. And as an advocate, he worked on countless initiatives, legislative and otherwise, to protect sacred sites, ancestral remains and artifacts, and the federal-tribal relationship.
In 1974 he was hailed as "one of the 11 great religious thinkers of the twentieth century" by Time. His first work, Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) was one of the most influential books written on Indian affairs and helped launch the field of Native American studies. In God is Red: A Native View of Religion (1973), he took his position of deliverance-through-Indian-ways further, arguing that American Indian spiritual traditions, far from being dated, were in fact more in tune with the needs of the modern world than Christianity.
Deloria was the grandson of Tipi Sapa (Black Lodge) aka Rev. Philip Joseph Deloria, an Episcopalian priest and a leader of the Yankton band of the Nakota Nation. Vine Jr. was born in one of the poorest parts of the nation at Martin, South Dakota, near the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota Indian Reservation, and was first educated at reservation schools.
Deloria's father, Vine Sr., studied English and Christian theology, became an Episcopal archdeacon and missionary on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, to which he transferred the family's Sioux Tribe citizenship.
Deloria Jr. studied geology for two years at the Colorado School of Mines before enlisting in the U. S. Marine Corps reserve from 1954-1956. In 1956 he enrolled in Iowa State University, where he met his future wife, Barbara Jeanne Nystrom, and received his degree in 1958.
Deloria later earned a master of theology degree at Augustana Seminary, Rock Island, Illinois in 1963.
From 1964 to 1967, he worked as executive director for the National Conference of American Indians (NCAI), where he became a leading spokesman for Native Americans in Washington, D.C. He often testified before Congress at a time when civil rights centering on ethnic identity were at a peak.
The NCAI was founded in 1944 in response to termination and assimilation policies that the United States forced upon the tribal governments in contradiction of their treaty rights and status as sovereigns. The Indian termination policy was implemented in the 1950s and 1960s to assimilate the Native Americans into mainstream American society, by terminating the government's trusteeship of Indian reservations and making Indians assume all the responsibilities of full citizenship. NCAI stressed the need for unity and cooperation among tribal governments for the protection of their treaty and sovereign rights.
NCAI's job, Deloria said, was to point out the "illogical" consequences of the policy, while fighting members of Congress who promised to save bigger tribes from termination in exchange for eliminating small tribes in California and elsewhere. His work on the issue set the stage for the focus on termination to change towards a focus on self-determination.
In 1969, Deloria published the first of his more than 20 books, entitled Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. This book launched Deloria into the national limelight. In it he addressed Indian stereotypes and challenged white audiences to take a new look at the history of American western expansionism. He also strongly criticized the anthropological community for its impersonal dissection of living Native American cultures. In the book he said, "The massive amount of useless knowledge produced by anthropologists attempting to capture real Indians in a network of theories has contributed substantially to the invisibility of Indian people today."
The book led him to become the intellectual leader of the burgeoning, and often tumultuous, Native rights movement. In the book he stated:
"Ideological leverage is always superior to violence...The problems of Indians have always been ideological rather than social, political or economic...[I]t is vitally important that the Indian people pick the intellectual arena as the one in which to wage war. Past events have shown that the Indian people have always been fooled by the intentions of the white man. Always we have discussed irrelevant issues while he has taken our land. Never have we taken the time to examine the premises upon which he operates so that we could manipulate him as he has us." — Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969) 251-252
The decade following "Custer's" publication saw the enactment of a series of landmark laws that gave tribes greater control over their affairs, led to the return of millions of acres of tribal land, established the national tribal college structure and reaffirmed the United States' treaty and trust obligations to Native people.
After obtaining a degree in law from the University of Colorado in 1970 Deloria accepted his first faculty position with the College of Ethnic Studies at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham in the Fall of 1970. He taught there for a year-and-a-half.
It was during his tenure there that he became a legal advocate on behalf of tribal fishing rights. His work in this area helped pave the way for the passage of the Boldt Decision in 1974, the landmark case that affirmed Indian treaty fishing rights. Deloria’s involvement with tribal fishing rights also led to his writing, Indians of the Pacific Northwest: From the Coming of the Whiteman to the Present Day in 1977.
While teaching at WWU he also became one of the first board members of Native American Rights Fund in 1970. This organization is the oldest and largest non-profit law firm focused on defending and asserting Indian rights.
Later he took other teaching positions including with the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA for four quarters, followed by brief visiting appointments at the Pacific School of Religion, the New School of Religion, and Colorado College.
In 1978, he accepted a tenured appointment as professor of law and political science at the University of Arizona where he created two Master’s degree programs—one in American Indian policy, the other—the first of its kind in the United States—in American Indian studies.
In 1990, he left Arizona to accept another professorship at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in American Indian studies and history, with adjunct appointments in law, political science, and religious studies.
He retired from full-time teaching in 2000. For the next five winters, however, Deloria remained professionally active by returning to Tucson to teach a course in treaties at the University of Arizona’s College of Law. He donated his papers to the Denver Public Library.
Deloria also served in leadership positions in several organizations including the Citizens Crusade against Poverty, the Council on Indian Affairs, the National Office for the Rights of the Indigent, the Institute for the Development of Indian Law, and the Indian Rights Association.
As a university professor he provided an intellectual understanding of the concept of tribal sovereignty. The ideas and writings of Deloria played a major role in the passage of important reform legislation including the Indian Education Act (1972), Indian Self-Determination Act (1975), and the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act (1978).
Deloria also acted as a witness for the defense team in the Wounded Knee Trials in 1974. His testimony as an expert witness in the four trials that followed the American Indian Movement’s takeover of Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973 helped win the inclusion of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) into these hearings—a major legal and strategic accomplishment in that it brought historical treaty rights into a contemporary legal proceeding.
Two books which he co-authored with Clifford M. Lytle, American Indians, American Justice (1983) and The Nations Within (1984), and later a third book, Tribes, Treaties, and Constitutional Tribulations (1999 co-authored with David E. Wilkins), are used as standard works in Indian law and policy classes throughout the United States. Another of Deloria’s achievements in this area was the retrieval and compilation of documents—including many long lost and forgotten treaties—that were most critical to the understanding and study of American Indian law and policy. This work culminated with the monumental Documents of American Indian Diplomacy (1999 with Raymond DeMallie) and The Indian Reorganization Act: Congresses and Bills (2002).
His efforts also led to the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990 and amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1994.
Most of today's current understanding and interpretation of treaties, the concept of tribal sovereignty, and respected roles and responsibilities of the tribes and the federal sector in a “government to government” relationship, is owed to the work of Deloria.
He was also a charter member of the National Museum of the American Indian's Board of Trustees and served for years on the Heye Foundation Museum of American Indian Board. He was a driving force behind and articulator of most of the fundamental initial National Museum of the American Indian policies on collections management, research, and repatriation.
After Deloria retired in May of 2000, he continued to write and lecture until he died on November 13, 2005.
Deloria was widely recognized as being the foremost leading authority on tribal religion and an outspoken champion of Native American religious freedom. In 1973 he published God Is Red: A Native View of Religion—a book that cemented his reputation as an eminent religious theorist. The following year, 1974, Time named him as one of the 11 most important “shapers and movers” of the Christian faith—a “theological superstar of the future.”
In God is Red Deloria offered an alternative to Christianity which he explained had failed both in its theology and its application to social issues. He proposed that religion in North America should follow along the lines of traditional Native American values and seek spiritual values in terms of "space" by feeling the richness of the land. Most critics applauded his presentation of Indian religious practice, but at the same time were offended by his attack on the Judeo-Christian tradition.
His second edition of God Is Red, published in 1992, built upon the arguments against Christianity he wrote in the first edition. Encouraged by trends in American society to be more concerned about religion and ecology, he raised additional issues in the revised edition. "I suggest in this revised edition that we have on this planet two kinds of people—natural peoples and the hybrid peoples. The natural peoples represent an ancient tradition that has always sought harmony with the environment." Hybrid peoples referred to the inheritors of Hebrew, Islamic, and Christian traditions who adopted a course of civilization which exploits the environment.
In a essay titled Sacred Lands and Human Understanding, published in 1992, Deloria related how Dr. Charles Eastman, a Sioux, reflected on the changes that civilized life had wrought in him:
"As a child I understood how to give; I have forgotten this grace since I became civilized. I lived the natural life, whereas I now live the artificial. Any pebble was valuable to me then, every growing tree an object of reverence. Now I worship with the white man before a painted landscape whose value is estimated in dollars."
In 1999, he published, with James Treat, For This Land:Writings on Religion in America—a collection of many of his works on this topic. Also in 1999 other important essays on religion—and other topics—that appeared earlier in various often obscure journals and magazines, were published together as a collection entitled Spirit and Reason: The Vine Deloria, Jr. Reader.
In his final years, Deloria was especially passionate about preserving Native traditional knowledge. Throughout his life he encouraged young Native people to see the validity and importance in the wisdom of their tribal past. Beginning in 1992, Deloria sponsored a series of conferences designed to foster traditional knowledge and to build a network of people—spiritual leaders, elders and scholars—who could share this knowledge. His own writings in this area, including The Metaphysics of Modern Existence (1979), Red Earth, White Lies (1995), Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths (2002), and a final book released posthumously in the spring of 2006, The World We Used to Live In:Remembering the Powers of Medicine Men focus on encouraging Native Americans to find their own way intellectually rather than to simply accept and follow established dogma. Deloria places the medicine man and shaman traditions in the context of wider spirituality and quantum physics.
With the publication of Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact in 1995 Deloria turned his attention towards prevailing scientific views of the peopling of the Americas. He forcefully, but humorously, challenged the theory that all of the ancestors of American Indians came across the Bering Strait.
"Scientists, and I use the word as loosely as possible, are committed to the view that Indians migrated to this country over an imaginary Bering Straits bridge, which comes and goes at the convenience of the scholar requiring it to complete his or her theory. Initially, at least, Indians are homogenous. But there are also eight major language families within the Western Hemisphere, indicating to some scholars that if Indians followed the trend that can be identified in other continents, then the migration went from east to west; tourists along the Bering straits were going TO Asia, not migrating FROM it." 
In an interview in 2000 Deloria said, "Being attuned to their environment, Indians could find food, locate trails, protect themselves from inclement weather, and anticipate coming events thanks to their understanding of how all things are related. This knowledge isn't unique to American Indians. It's available to anyone who lives primarily in the natural world, is reasonably intelligent, and respects other life-forms for their intelligence. Respect for other life-forms filters into our every action, as does its opposite: perceiving the world as lifeless. If you objectify other living things, then you are committing yourself to a totally materialistic universe—which is not even consistent with the findings of modern physics."
He goes on to say... "although most of the greatest scientists dabbled considerably in spiritual matters and believed that mystical and intuitive experiences provided them with knowledge. This is true even of Descartes, the first materialist, who is famous for articulating the mind/body, human/nature split. He said an angel came and explained things to him. Heisenberg, Einstein, and Bohr all had sudden insights. What's the difference between that and the Indian performing a ceremony and hearing the plant say, "Do this"?"
Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact won the 1996 Nonfiction Book of the Year Award from the Colorado Center for the Book.
In 1999, he received the Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year Award in the category of prose and personal/critical essays for his work Spirit and Reason.
He was honorably mentioned on October 12, 2002 at the National Book Festival and also received the Wallace Stegner award from the Center of the American West in Boulder on October 23, 2002.
Deloria was the winner of the 2003 American Indian Festival of Words Author Award.
Deloria won the Second Annual American Indian Visionary Award in 2005 from the Indian Country Today (ICT) newspaper, for his life of achievement.
Vine Deloria, Jr. was survived by his wife of 47 years, Barbara, of Golden; his brother, Philip Deloria, of Albuquerque; his sister, Barbara Sanchez, of Tucson; his children, Philip Deloria, of Ann Arbor, Mich., Daniel Deloria, of Moore, Okla., Jeanne Deloria, of Tucson, and seven grandchildren.
His father, Vine Deloria, Sr., was the first American Indian to be named to a national executive post in the Episcopal Church. In the afterword of his first book he wrote: "As long as any member of my family can remember, we have been involved in the affairs of the Sioux tribe. My great-grandfather was a medicine man named Saswe, of the Yankton tribe of the Sioux Nation. My grandfather was a Yankton chief who was converted to Christianity in the 1860's. He spent the rest of his life as an Episcopal missionary on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in South Dakota."
From 1923 to 1982 the Indian Council Fire, an organization in Chicago, presented 54 achievement awards to recognize Indian initiative and leadership. Of these awards, three were to members of the Deloria family: Vine, Sr., Ella, and Vine, Jr.
Deloria, Jr.'s brother, Philip Samuel Deloria, was named director of the American Indian Graduate Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2007 after serving for 37 years as the director of the American Indian Law Center at the University of New Mexico's law school, during which time he performed groundbreaking work in analyzing federal Indian policy.
Deloria Jr.'s oldest son Philip, followed in his father's footsteps by getting his Ph.D. from Yale University, 1994, in American Studies and is Professor in the Department of History, the Program in American Culture, and the Native American Studies program at the University of Michigan. In 1998 he published Playing Indian, and Indians in Unexpected Places in 2004.
Vine Deloria's legacy includes more than 20 scholarly books and hundreds of articles about Indian political, cultural, legal, historical and religious issues that will be read by many generations to come.
The Vine Deloria, Jr. Library, National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened in 1999 as one of the 20 branches of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and is housed in the Cultural Resource Center, Suitland, Maryland. The Vine Deloria, Jr. Native Writers Series is presented monthly, September through May, at the NMAI. The series features emerging and well-known Native writers from the Americas, including historians, philosophers, journalists, poets, playwrights, children’s authors, and more.
In February 2008 The Peace and Justice Award was presented posthumously to Vine Deloria, Jr., by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.
The Third Annual Vine Deloria, Jr. Indigenous Studies Symposium was held at the Northwest Indian College in July 2008.
All links retrieved July 18, 2019.
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