Indian Activist, Author Vine Deloria Dies
- I liked Vine Deloria. I did not see this posted forgive me if it already has been. Awen
Indian Activist, Author Vine Deloria DiesBy Joe HolleyWashington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2005; Page B07
Vine Deloria Jr., 72, a writer, legal scholar and social activist dedicated to raising public awareness about Native American life -- its extraordinary past, its contemporary plight and its continuing promise -- died Nov. 6. A son told the Associated Press that Mr. Deloria died of complications from an aortic aneurysm. He was a resident of Golden, Colo.
Best known as the author of "Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto" (1969), Mr. Deloria played a powerful consciousness-raising role as a trailblazer and iconoclast from the volatile 1960s until his death four decades later. James May, a writer for Indian Country Today, suggested this year that he was the greatest American Indian thinker since Sequoyah, the Cherokee who devised a system of writing for his people in the early 1800s.
" 'Custer Died for Your Sins' is perhaps the single most influential book ever written on Indian affairs," said Charles Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law.
Mr. Deloria, who labeled Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer "the Adolf Eichmann of the Plains," sought to shatter the stereotypes and ignorance that had belittled and belied Native Americans for centuries.
In "Custer Died for Your Sins," as in most of his books, he relied on acerbic humor, biting sarcasm and a keen sense of history. In one chapter, he reports the results of an opinion poll taken among Native Americans on the Vietnam War. Fifteen percent replied that the United States should get out of Vietnam; 85 percent said the United States should get out of America.
"We have brought the white man a long way," he wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in 1976. "From a childish search for mythical cities of gold and fountains of youth to the simple recognition that lands are essential for human existence."
Humor was intrinsic to who he was, observed Patricia Nelson Limerick, a historian of the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a friend of Mr. Deloria's since they met in 1981. "There was an element of merriment in it," she said, and yet when he was wielding humor as a rhetorical device, "it was not a gentle process. It wasn't like a chiropractor's gentle massage. It was more like, 'Good heavens! I'm being reformed! Ouch!' "
In "God Is Red: A Native View of Religion" (1994), Mr. Deloria contends that tribal religions are more relevant to issues confronting mankind today than traditional Christian concepts. He asserts that Christianity justifies imperialism, rootlessness and environmental destruction and maintains that America's survival depends on a theological revolution.
As writer and storyteller and as lawyer, theologian, scholar and activist, Mr. Deloria was impatient with categories, which defined and confined in ways that he found misleading. "You name a category, and he's not going to be constrained by it," Limerick said.
A member of the Standing Rock Sioux, Mr. Deloria was born in Martin, S.D., in 1933, on the edge of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
After attending reservation schools and serving in the Marines Corps, he received a bachelor's degree in general science from Iowa State University in 1958. In 1963, he received a master's degree in theology from the Lutheran School of Theology in Rock Island, Ill., intending to follow in the footsteps of his father, an Episcopalian minister among Native Americans.
Instead, he plunged into the burgeoning Native American militant movement, becoming executive director in 1964 of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest intertribal organization. Serving in that role for three years, he lobbied Capitol Hill, worked to build tribal coalitions and fought religious and political repression on the reservations.
Heir to a Sioux storytelling tradition, he soon recognized that the pen was his most effective weapon in the battle for Native American rights and recognition. He was the author of hundreds of articles and essays and more than 20 books, including "We Talk, You Listen" (1970), "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence" (1974) and numerous other works of history, theology and political polemics.
Believing that he could do more for Native Americans if he had formal training in the law, he enrolled at the University of Colorado School of Law, receiving his degree in 1970. In 1992, he joined six other prominent Native Americans in a lawsuit against the Washington Redskins that sought to remove the nickname.
He taught at the University of Arizona from 1978 to 1990 before joining the faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he taught American studies, law, history, religion and political science. He retired in 2000 but continued to write, lecture and teach.
"That man had a prodigious capacity for work," Limerick said. "At any one moment, he had a book that was just coming out, a book he was writing, a book being edited, a book he was just getting started on -- plus he responded to all his correspondence, sometimes the same day. I don't know how he did it."
At the time of his death, he had just finished two books, one about the powers of Native American medicine men, the other about pioneering Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and the Sioux. When he wasn't writing, he loved watching classic movie Westerns on TV.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Barbara N. Deloria of Golden; three children, Philip Deloria of Ann Arbor, Mich., Daniel Deloria of Moore, Okla., and Jeanne Deloria of Tucson; and seven grandchildren.