Deloria, Vine Vincent, Jr.

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Deloria, Vine Vincent, Jr.

(b. 26 March 1933 in Martin, South Dakota; d. 13 November 2005 in Denver, Colorado), educator, writer, lawyer, political activist, reformer, spokesperson, and intellectual who was a widely respected advocate of American-Indian nationalism.

Deloria was the first of three children born to Vine V. Deloria, a mixed-lineage Sioux Episcopal priest, and Barbara (Eastburn) Deloria. Deloria’s great-grandfather was Saswe, a famous shaman and leader of the White Swan band of Yankton Sioux who adopted Christianity. His grandfather, Philip, became an Episcopal priest who supervised Episcopal activities on the Standing Rock Reservation, in North Dakota, where his family joined the Hunkpapas. Deloria’s father also became an Episcopal clergyman, eventually serving as assistant secretary of Indian missions for the National Episcopal Church and as archdeacon of the Indian missions in South Dakota. His aunt Ella Cara Deloria was a noted ethnographer of the Sioux people.

Deloria grew up in a family that was fluent in Dakota and Lakota dialects and was proud of a Sioux heritage stressing formal education and Christian faith. He received off-reservation schooling in the town of Martin and at the Kent School, a prep school in Connecticut, from which he graduated. He attended the University of Colorado and the Colorado School of Mines before entering the U.S. Marine Corps in 1954. Deloria began college work again in 1956 at Iowa State University, graduating in 1958 with a BS in general science. On 14 June 1958 he married Barbara Jeanne Nystrom, with whom he would have three children.

Following in his family’s religious tradition, Deloria enrolled in the Lutheran School of Theology at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois. He graduated in 1963 with a master’s degree in theology, having focused on religious thought and philosophy rather than ministerial training. He then gained employment with the United Scholarship Service, a religious philanthropic organization in Denver, Colorado, promoting educational opportunities for Indian and Hispanic-American youth.

In 1964 Deloria was elected executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest pan-Indian organization in the United States. In that capacity, he strove to make the NCAI a viable political force in formulating relevant national policy, especially in reversing the policy of tribal termination. His 1965 editorial “Now Is the Time” proved instrumental in unifying calls for tribal autonomy and self-determination and in inspiring the emerging movement for Native-American rights.

Deloria left the NCAI in 1967 to enter law school at the University of Colorado. While completing his degree, he wrote Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969), in which he offered a critique of white attitudes toward and misunderstandings about Native Americans, especially by anthropologists; called for missionaries to help native peoples rather than fight over converting them; advocated the full enforcement of treaty rights; and expounded on the value of tribalism. The book became an award-winning best seller, and the phrase at the start of its title was spread by the National Council of Churches and became a prevalent slogan for Native-American political activists. In 1970 Deloria received a JD and published We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf, in which he again discussed tribalism and the needless conflicts among Christian denominations.

Over the following few years Deloria taught American-Indian and ethnic studies at Western Washington University and at the University of California, Los Angeles, as well as religion at the Pacific School of Religion and at Colorado College. He also worked with church organizations, having been named to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church in 1968. In 1973 Deloria published GodIs Red, to which the subtitle A Native View of Religion was added in later editions, analyzing Western Christianity and American society and calling for people to work toward “harmonious unity” and for whites to seek guidance from Native-American spirituality. Despite his rejection of Christianity in favor of native religious views, Time magazine named him one of eleven “shapers and shakers of the Christian faith” in 1974.

Deloria founded the Institute for the Development of Indian Law in 1971 and later participated in the Wounded Knee trials, which took place after Native American protesters defended themselves against besieging government forces in 1973; he acted as a defense attorney and as an expert witness. He also engaged in other Native-American political conflicts, most notably the fishing rights battle in Washington State. All the while, Deloria continued to write and lecture. In 1978 he accepted an offer to teach political science at the University of Arizona, where he helped create a graduate program in American Indian Studies. In 1990 he moved to the University of Colorado, becoming a professor of American Indian studies and history and also offering courses in political science, law, and religion. Although Deloria retired in 2000, he continued to write and speak in addition to conducting a seminar on treaties for the University of Arizona Law School when wintering in Tucson. While at his home in Golden, Colorado, Deloria became ill with complications from an aortic aneurysm. He died in a Denver hospital.

Deloria was a prominent participant in Native-American politics and scholarship who was also recognized for his intellectual production in the realms of religion and philosophy. He wrote or edited more than twenty books and over 200 articles and delivered numerous lectures and speeches on Native-American policy, law, religion, and politics. His ideas and viewpoints were acknowledged as both thought provoking and controversial. He appeared before congressional committees, influencing important legislation such as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978), the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act Amendments (1988), and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990). He was instrumental in the creation of the American Indian Policy Review Commission and the National Museum of the American Indian. Besides book awards and honorary degrees, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas (1996), the Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year Award (1999), the American Bar Association Spirit of Excellence Award (2001), the Wallace Stegner Award from the Center of the American West (2002), the American Indian Festival of Words Author Award (2003), and the American Indian Visionary Award (2005). In 2004 Time magazine named Deloria one of the eleven most influential thinkers of the twentieth century.

There are no book-length biographical works on Deloria, although remarks on parts of his life are included in some of his writings. James Treat’s “Introduction” to Deloria’s For This Land: Writings on Religion in America (1999) provides biographical information on Deloria. Appraisals of Deloria’s life and work when he received the American Indian Visionary Award are in Indian Country Today (10 Jan. 2005); note, in particular, those by Wilma Mankiller; Charlie Wilkins; and his son, Philip Deloria. Obituaries are in Indian Country Today (14 Nov. 2005) and the Denver Post, Arizona Daily Star, and New York Times (all 15 Nov. 2005).

Thomas Burnell Colbert