Deloria, Vine, Jr.

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DELORIA, Vine, Jr.

(b. 26 March 1933 in Martin, South Dakota), historian, writer, lawyer, and activist known for speaking out against Native American conformity to U.S. culture.

Deloria's family heritage is the impetus for his writings. Born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Deloria is the son of the Reverend Vine Deloria and Barbara Eastburn. His grandfather was a Yankton chief, and his great-grandfather, Francois Des Laurias, was a medicine man who led the White Swan Band of the Yankton Sioux tribe.

Although Deloria's family converted to Christianity when his grandfather became an Episcopal priest, Deloria cherishes his Native American roots and the traditional teachings of the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe. His family has a history of leadership. For their prominent roles among their people, three members of the Deloria family were given achievement awards by Chicago's Indian Council Fire. One award went to Deloria's father, one to his aunt Ella (a prominent anthropologist), and one to Deloria himself.

After graduating from high school in Saint James Academy in Faribault, Minnesota, Deloria served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1954 to 1956. He earned a B.A. degree from Iowa State University in 1958 and a B.D. degree in theology from Augustana Lutheran Seminary, Rock Island, Illinois, in 1963. In 1964 Deloria began developing a scholarship program for Native American students through the United Scholarship Service in Denver.

The 1960s was a pivotal decade for Deloria. His first book was published and his career was off to a promising start. From 1964 to 1967 Deloria was the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in Washington, D.C. He found, however, that dishonest people stood in the way of bettering Native American lives. Indian tribes were often pitted against each other so that they became more involved in serving their own interests than in benefiting their people as a whole. Also, financial difficulties plagued the NCAI, limiting its ability to serve the Native American cause.

All of Deloria's work reflects a deep commitment to the well-being of the Native American people. His first book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969), deals with the pain of generations of Native Americans trying to act as if their ancestors had not been murdered by white immigrants. The book advocates Native American self-rule and separateness. In his foreword to the book, Deloria explained his motivation for writing it. He felt he was giving voice to his people's silent suffering and loss: "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 antagonisms."

In Deloria's second book, We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf (1970), he discusses the revival of tribalism and how living in harmony with the environment ensures the survival of the human race. Deloria's mixed religious feelings surfaced in his third book, God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (1973). In this book he compares Native American worship of the Great Spirit to Christianity. He considers the Native American religion to have the energy of creation and Christianity to have the energy of destruction. Although critics welcomed Deloria's views on Native American theology, some were offended by his treatment of Christian beliefs.

As an activist, Deloria sought to help Native Americans become educated so they could promote change peacefully rather than through violence. Deloria felt drawn to his Native American heritage and wanted to make certain his people did not forget their roots. His goal was to help Native Americans govern themselves rather than be governed by the United States.

Throughout the 1960s Deloria promoted Native American civil rights. By the end of the decade he was frustrated by his inability to make a difference in the lives of Native Americans and decided to try a different approach. He returned to school and earned a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1970. He knew that local tribes were not aware of their legal rights and that with a law degree he would be able to assist them. He believed that in order to preserve their identity as a unique people, Native Americans needed to pursue legal measures and renegotiate treaties with the United States. As an expert on U.S.–Indian treaties, Deloria sought to help Native Americans regain some of what they had lost.

As Native Americans agitated for more self-rule, incidents occurred such as the seizure of the village at Wounded Knee in 1973. Wounded Knee was in 1890 the site of the last major battle between U.S. federal troops and Native Americans; it is remembered because of the many Sioux who were massacred there. Inspired by the activism of the 1960s, the 1973 takeover began as an effort to secure a place where Native Americans could speak publicly of their grievances. But the takeover escalated into a clash between Native Americans and federal forces, and weapons were fired. As a Native American, Deloria sympathized with and helped defend Russell Means and Dennis Banks, two American Indian Movement participants who were put on trial for their actions at Wounded Knee.

Deloria was crushed when the Indian activist movement in the early 1970s failed. He blamed the failure on the views Americans held about Indians. "Americans simply refuse to give up their longstanding conceptions of what an Indian is," he wrote in God Is Red.

In the 1970s Deloria taught at Western Washington State College, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Arizona. In 1991 he began teaching at the University of Colorado in Boulder. A prolific author, Deloria books include Of Utmost Good Faith (1971); The Indian Affair (1974); Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence (1974); Indians of the Pacific Northwest: From the Coming of the White Man to the Present Day (1977); The Metaphysics of Modern Existence (1979); American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century (1985); and Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact (1995).

Deloria cofounded the Institute for the Development of Indian Law in the 1970s, where he served as chairperson from 1970 to 1978. He and Barbara Nystrom married in 1958 and had three children. Deloria is six feet tall and wears his hair long, as did his forebears.

Articles on Deloria can be found in Gale Group's Encyclopedia of World Biography (2nd ed.), Contemporary Authors Online, Contemporary Heroes and Heroines (Book I), and American Decades CD-ROM. A book review by John C. Wittaker of Deloria's Red Earth, White Lies can be found in Skeptical Inquirer (Jan.–Feb. 1997). Deloria is mentioned in Jefferson Faye, "Revealing the Storyteller: The Ethical Publication of Inuit Stories," American Review of Canadian Studies (spring–summer 2001): 159.

A. E. Schulthies

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