Vine Deloria, Jr. (born 1933) is known as a revolutionary thinker who speaks out against the decadence of U.S. culture and insists that young Native Americans receive traditional teachings before exposing themselves to the philosophies of the dominant Euro-American culture. Through his widely published books, he has brought greater understanding of Native American history and philosophy to a vast global audience.
Vine Deloria, Jr., of the Hunkpapa Lakota, became well-known as a political activist whose publications explained to the American people what the Native American rights movement was seeking. His family heritage combined with academic training gave him credibility in his writings. Deloria was born on March 26, 1933, in Martin, South Dakota, the son of Vine and Barbara (Eastburn) Deloria. He joined a distinguished family: his great-grandfather Francois Des Laurias ("Saswe") was a medicine man and leader of the White Swan Band of the Yankton Sioux tribe; his grandfather Philip Deloria was a missionary priest of the Episcopal Church; his aunt Ella C. Deloria was a noted anthropologist who published works on Indian ethnology and linguistics; and his father, Vine Deloria, Sr., was the first American Indian to be named to a national executive post in the Episcopal Church. Deloria's own comment about his family gave context to his first major book. In its afterword 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 fifty-four achievement awards to recognize quality of Indian initiative and leadership. Of these awards, three were to members of the Deloria family: Vine, Sr., Ella, and Vine, Jr.
After attending grade school in Martin, South Dakota, the younger Deloria graduated from high school at St. James Academy in Faribault, Minnesota. He served in the Marine Corps from 1954 to 1956, then attended Iowa State University where he received his B.A. degree in 1958. In his youth, he had considered following his father in the ministry, but exposure to his father's frustrations convinced him that church life did not have the bearing on Indian life that he wanted his career to have. Before he gave up the idea entirely, however, he earned a B.D. in theology at Augustana Lutheran Seminary, Rock Island, Illinois, in 1963. The following year he was hired by the United Scholarship Service in Denver to develop a program to get scholarships for American Indian students in eastern preparatory schools. He successfully placed a number of Indian students in eastern schools through the program.
He served as the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Washington, D.C., from 1964 to 1967, an experience he claimed was more educational than anything he had experienced in his previous thirty years. He was expected to solve problems presented by Indian tribes from all over the country, but found that unscrupulous individuals made the task impossible. He was frustrated by the feeling that the interests of tribes were often played against one other. In addition the NCAI had financial difficulties, and was often close to bankruptcy, so that a majority of time had to be spent resolving funding issues. Increased memberships and a research grant gave the organization enough strength to successfully win a few policy changes in the Department of Interior. Although Deloria felt the organization had been successful, especially because of the support and hard work of organization members, he realized that other tactics would have to be used to further the cause for Indian rights.
Earns Law Degree
Two circumstances influenced his decision to return to college and earn a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1970. One was learning of the success of the National Association for the Advancement of Color People's Legal Defense Fund which had been established to help the black community. The second was the realization that local Indian tribes were without legal counsel and had no idea what their rights were. His goal when receiving his law degree was to start a program which would assist smaller tribes and Indian communities to outline their basic rights. Throughout his career his goal in life has been twofold: to support tribes through affiliation with various advocacy organizations and to educate Native Americans on aspects of the law through teachings and writings which stress the historical and political aspects of the relationships of Indians to other people. His role as an activist in the efforts of Native Americans to achieve self-government has focused on change through education rather than through violence.
From 1970 to 1972 Deloria was a lecturer at Western Washington State College in the division of ethnic studies. While there, he worked with Northwest Coast tribes in their effort to gain improved fishing rights. From 1972 to 1974 he taught at the University of California at Los Angeles. During the same period, from 1970 to 1978, he was the chairperson of the Institute for the Development of Indian Law, headquartered in Golden, Colorado. From 1978 to 1991 he was a professor of American Indian studies, political science, and history of law at the University of Arizona. In 1991 he moved to the University of Colorado in Boulder to join the faculty of the Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race in America. In addition to his teaching positions, Deloria 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.
Publishes Indian Activist Views
Deloria has been an activist writer, dramatically presenting his case for Indian self-determination. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, written while he was attending law school, captured the attention of reviewers and critics and bolstered Native American efforts for recognition. Written at the time the American Indian Movement (AIM) was drawing public attention to Native American rights, Deloria's book was an articulation of the activist goal: to become self-ruled, culturally separate from white society and politically separate from the U.S. government. While blasting America's treatment of Indian people, Deloria explained the concepts of termination and tribalism. Although contemporaneous with the civil rights movement of other American groups, he distinguished between black nationalism and Indian nationalism, explaining that because Indian civil rights issues were based upon treaties they needed to be addressed in a different way. Deloria explained his reasons for writing the book in its afterword: "One reason I wanted to write it was to raise some issues for younger Indians which they have not been raising for themselves. Another reason was to give some idea to white people of the unspoken but often felt antagonisms I have detected in Indian people toward them, and the reasons for such antagonism."
Deloria's second book, We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf, also addressed the issue of tribalism and advocated a return to tribal social organization in order to save society. His third book, God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, again captured a national audience. In this book 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 were offended by his attack on the Judeo-Christian tradition. His later book The Metaphysics of Modern Existence followed up on this theme by questioning non-Indian world views of modern life and recommending a reassessment of reality about moral and religious property.
In all of Deloria's writings, he has emphasized the failure of U.S. treaties to adequately provide for the needs of Indian people. Using his legal training, he has analyzed past relationships between the U.S. government and Native American groups and has continually pressed for renewed treaty negotiation in order to allow more Indian self-control over their culture and government. His book Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties provided an account of events which led to the occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by supporters of the American Indian Movement. In this work he argued for reopening the treaty-making procedure between Indian tribes and the U.S. government. As an expert in U.S. Indian treaties, Deloria was called as first witness for the defense in the trial of Wounded Knee participants Russell Means and Dennis Banks in 1974. Later, in his writing about Indian activism of the early 1970s, Deloria blamed the failure of the Indian civil rights movement on the unwillingness of the American public to forget their perception of what an Indian should be. In the second edition of God Is Red he stated: "When a comparison is made between events of the Civil Rights movement and the activities of the Indian movement one thing stands out in clear relief: Americans simply refuse to give up their longstanding conceptions of what an Indian is. It was this fact more than any other that inhibited any solution of the Indian problems and projected the impossibility of their solution anytime in the future. People simply could not connect what they believed Indians to be with what they were seeing on their television sets." He castigated the American public for its avoidance of the real Indian world in a series of ironic contrasts between current events of the Indian movement of the 1970s and what the American public was reading. "While Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was selling nearly twenty thousand copies a week, the three hundred state game wardens and Tacoma city police were vandalizing the Indian fishing camp and threatening the lives of Indian women and children at Frank's Landing on the Nisqually River. … As Raymond Yellow Thunder was being beaten to death, Americans were busy ordering Touch the Earth from their book clubs as an indication of their sympathy for American Indians. As the grave robbers were breaking into Chief Joseph's grave, the literary public was reading his famous surrender speech in a dozen or more anthologies of Indian speeches and bemoaning the fact that oratory such as Joseph's is not used any more."
Deloria's writing style has been consistent. In his books he often attempts to peel away platitudes that his white readers have developed so that they begin to comprehend the issues and the Indian viewpoint. Not without humor, he cynically derides white culture, and then offers his replacement. He commented in an interview that Americans can be told the obvious fifty times a day and revel in hearing it, but not learn anything from it. Some critics have been disappointed that Deloria's books do not describe Indian culture. As Deloria stated in an interview in The Progressive, "I particularly disappoint Europeans. They come over and want me to share all the tribal secrets. Then I lecture and harangue about the white man." In the same interview he derided his own success as an Indian writer in the early 1970s. "I happened to come along when they [the media] needed an Indian. The writing is not very good at all. But Indians were new, so everybody gave Custer great reviews. I never fooled myself that it was a great book."
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. When The Progressive's interviewer asked Deloria his views on renewed interest in Native American spirituality, Deloria commented: "I think New Age shamanism is very interesting. Whites want to take our images, they want to have their Indian jewelry; at the same time, they need our valley to flood for a dam. People are desperately trying to get some relationship to Earth, but it's all in their heads. … New Age shamanism may be one of the few solutions." At the same time, he admitted his own dependence upon technology. "I wouldn't delude myself for a minute that I could go back to the reservation and live any kind of traditional life. I've been in the cities too long. … I would love to go back to the old shamanism. My great-grandfather was a very powerful man. But here I am in Tucson, Arizona, dependent upon Tucson Electric Power to stay comfortable."
Another of his major themes has been concern for the natural environment. He blames contemporary technological society for destroying the earth, and presents an apocalyptic view. He envisions the end of the earth if changes are not made soon to allow the natural environment to recover. He predicts in The Progressive interview that in 500 years "there will be fewer than 100,000 people on whatever this continent comes up as, there will probably be some Indians and all kinds of new strange animals—the Earth a completely different place, people talking about legends of the old times when iron birds flew in the air."
Other works by Vine Deloria include Indians of the Pacific Northwest (1977), Of Utmost Good Faith (1971), A Better Day for Indians (1976), The nations within: the past and future of American Indian sovereignty (1984), and Behind the trail of broken treaties: an Indian declaration of independence (1985).
Further Reading on Vine Deloria Jr
Bruguier, Leonard Rufus, "A Legacy in Sioux Leadership: The Deloria Family," in South Dakota Leaders, edited by Herbert T. Hoover and Larry J. Zimmerman, Vermillion, University of South Dakota Press, 1989; 367-378, 471.
Contemporary Authors, edited by Linda Metzger and Deborah A. Straub, Detroit, Gale, 20NR, 1987; 130-132.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Sharon R. Gunton, Gale, 21, 1982; 108-114.
Deloria, Vine, Jr., "An Afterword," in Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, New York, Avon Books, 1970; 262-272.
Deloria, Vine, Jr., "Introduction" and "The Indians of the American Imagination," in God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 2nd Edition, Golden, CO, North American Press, 1992; 1-3, 25-45.
Gridley, Marion E., Indians of Today, Chicago, I.C.F.P., 1971; 347.
Native North American Almanac, edited by Duane Champagne, Detroit, Gale, 1994; 1043-1044.
Paulson, T. Emogene, and Lloyd R. Moses, Who's Who among the Sioux, Institute of Indian Studies, University of South Dakota, 1988; 58-59.
Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Howard R. Lamar, New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977; 295.
Something about the Author, edited by Anne Commire, Gale Research, 21, 1980; 27.
Warrior, Robert Allen, "Vine Deloria Jr.: 'It's About Time to be Interested in Indians Again,"' The Progressive, 54:4, April 1990; 24-27.