Vine Deloria Jr. – In memoriam

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AUTHOR: Editors Report / Indian Country Today

Burn tobacco today for the wonderful spirit of Vine Deloria Jr., who passed
into the world of the ancestors Nov. 13. Our sincerest condolences and
warmest embrace reach out to his family and dear friends, and a great commiseration
is extended to all of Indian country, where Deloria – author, teacher,
lawyer, man – is universally respected and where his memory will live on for the
generations.
Deloria, the world-renown Hunkpapa author and scholar from the Standing Rock
Reservation
, made a huge contribution to the Native peoples of North America
and the world. His intellectual output, at once free-ranging with creativity
and yet tight with academic rigor, pinned down the legal and historical
bases desperately needed by the national Indian discourse. He provided a great
piece of the intellectual locomotion upon which a moving platform of American
Indian/Native studies research, publishing, production and teaching has been
constituted.

His writing is legendary, launched by the classic Custer Died For Your Sins,” which plugged directly into the common imagination of the American
Indian Movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. Along with ”We Talk, You Listen
and ”Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties ,” these early Deloria works
informed, during those crucial years, the widest cross-section of activists, students
and older community leaders and traditional authorities. For a movement that
had disparate and very independent bases in Indian country, where political
persuasions ran the full spectrum of left to right and front to back,
Deloria’s deliberate, well-reasoned tone, backed by acerbic wit and genuine
self-effacement, hit the formative chord.

The best of the thinking, and the music of a movement of survival, started
then, with Deloria’s exquisite ear for media concepts and the lyrics and guitar
of a musician brother named Floyd ”Red Crow” Westerman. Anthems of a
movement came out of that collaboration – again, now in Westerman’s lyrics,
”Custer died for your sins – a new day must begin – Custer died for your sins,”
and in the old 49er stand-by, ”BIA I am not your Indian anymore.”

Targeting anthropologists, missionaries and bureaucrats alike, Deloria wrote
to Indians and was heard by the national audience. He wrote popular
narratives on the contemporary Indian world, backing those up with deep and
far-ranging academic research, writing and editing.

Deloria went on to write and edit more than 20 books and ranged from Native
contemporary issues in law and history to ponder on scientific and theological
themes. A considerable risk-taker in an era of prudent assertions in
academia, Deloria in his middle years took pleasure in exploding and deconstructing
all manner of facile theories by would-be Indian debunkers, such as Sheppard
Krech III’s critical review of indigenous lifeways in his book, ”The
Ecological Indian: Myth and History.”

With his Indian-take dissection of
evolutionary theory and its many little-founded claims, Deloria willingly stepped out
of the progressive boat and onto his own canoe, daring to follow his instincts
into important theological and scientific questions in order widen the field
for Indian scholarship. He piqued many in academia and government with his
explorations and assertions, but this was the way he seems to have preferred
it – in the arena, moving the ground forward for the people.

The author and professor was an impeccable social activist, supporting
Indian movement activism in all fields faithfully, always giving of himself
through lectures and strategic seminars and court testimony wherever Indian tribal
people called upon him. Executive director of the National Congress of
American Indians
early in his career, Deloria radicalized and activated the
foremost Indian advocacy organization while creating lobbying campaigns and
providing strategy for court cases: often while also defending major community treaty
activists such as Nisqually elder and fishing rights legend Billy Frank Jr.

Deloria straddled the generations and carried the perspectives and perception of the generation of leaders who saw Indian country through the Depression,
World War II and termination. He often reminisced fondly about the
old-timers of his formative years.

We remember the beloved teacher for his generosity of spirit. As a
professor, Deloria mentored and touched many people across all ethnic and religious
persuasions while always managing to teach and guide the work of scores of
Native graduate students and young activists, many of whom went on to gain
success and prominence on their own. He wrote prefaces and introductions and
recommendations by the dozens in careful assessments of the work at hand, but was
always ready to add his considerable gravity to the work of newer hands. He
would not tolerate fuzzy thinking, however, and could and would hold his
students to task.

No strangers here to the inspiration extended by the existence of Vine
Deloria Jr., we are ever-thankful to have had the opportunity to have celebrated
his accomplishments earlier this year at the ceremony for the 2005 American
Indian Visionary Award, which Deloria received in March.

In every generation, to paraphrase the late Creek Medicine Man Phillip
Deere, there is one who hits the click-stone just right, and sparks the fire. In
his generation, Vine Deloria Jr. sparked the intellectual fire of political,
legal, historical and spiritual illumination. He lighted the path to the
fountainhead of knowledge, which points the way ahead.

We are deeply thankful for the gift of this man who taught, in the evidence
of his own life, that a gift of intellectual power is only given spirit by
service to the people.