Vine Deloria Jr. 1933-2005
By Mark N.Trahant

As an activist, an organizer, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, college professor, historian, lawyer, and author of some 20 books–Vine Deloria Jr. life's work helped change the very perception of what it means to be an American Indian in western society.

Consider the telling of American Indian history a generation ago. The literature was packed with stories that went something like this: Once there was a great chief—say, Chief Joseph—who led his people past danger and outmaneuvered the powerful U.S. Army. But instead of a climactic victory, Chief Joseph almost reached Canada, Almost. The Nez Perce people almost won. And the American Indian leader was almost great. Boil it down, story after story, and the condensed version of Native history was reduced to an "almost" narrative.

American Indians were included in America's master narrative only in the context of failure. Stories of dreams or successes were limited by that "almost," and the rich, complex narrative of history was reduced to stories that were flattened by each telling, pounded into a thin, aluminum-like sheet that masked the truth.

But in the late 1960s readers were introduced to another form, stories that took that old, flat American Indian history and crumpled it until the dimensions were recognizable and honest.

"Most books about Indians cover some abstract and esoteric topic of the last century. Contemporary books are predominately by whites trying to solve the 'Indian problem.' Between the two extremes lives a dynamic people in a social structure of their own to be freed from cultural expression," wrote Vine Deloria, Jr. in his 1969 book, Custer Died For Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto.

Deloria's version of a dynamic people included the radical idea that "one of the best ways to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh. Laughter encompasses the limits of the soul. In humor, life is redefined and accepted." Here was a book about American thought, policy, and history that devoted an entire chapter to humor, words that should have destroyed the stereotype of the wooden Indian.

Custer Died For Your Sins was a manifesto—it demanded the right of American Indians to control their image in rich detail. And "manifesto" was precisely the right word—a declaration of principles, policies, or intentions in a political context. Custer was a dual manifesto: To American Indian readers it was a call to arms, a plea to recognize the superiority of tribal philosophies, political systems, and religions. As Deloria wrote, "There is more to the story than that. Indian people today have a chance to re-create a type of society for themselves, which can defy, mystify, and educate the rest of American society. Yet they mill around like so many cattle, not bringing to the surface the greatness that is in them." The manifesto to white readers was a call for understanding, "to give some idea to white people of the unspoken but often felt antagonisms I have felt in Indian people toward them, and the reasons for such antagonism." Or the manifesto was a warning because "we shall wear down the white man and finally outlast him,"

The significance of Deloria's manifesto and, more than that, his life's contributions are greater than can be expressed, especially so soon after his death last November. He was 72. "I was born in Martin, a border town on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in the midst of the Depression," he wrote. When he was one year old, the Indian Reorganization Act was enacted by Congress. That law was supposed to require recognition of tribal ceremonies and practices. "My earliest memories are of trips along dusty roads to Kyle, a small settlement in the heart of the reservation, to attend dances" where people danced "as if the intervening 50 years had been a lost weekend from which they had fully recovered. I remember best Dewey Beard, then in his late 80s, and a survivor of Little Big Horn. Even at that late date Dewey was hesitant to speak of the battle for fear of reprisal. There was no doubt, as one watched the people's expressions, that the Sioux had survived the greatest ordeal and were ready to face whatever the future might bring."

Another childhood memory "was visiting Wounded Knee where 200 Sioux, including women and children, were slaughtered in 1890 by troopers of the Seventh Cavalry in what is believed to have been a delayed act of vengeance for Custer's defeat. The people were simply lined up and shot down ... the wounded were left to die in a three-day Dakota blizzard, and when the soldiers returned to the scene after the storm some were still alive and were saved. The massacre was vividly etched in the minds of many of the older reservation people, but it was difficult to find anyone who wanted to talk about it," Deloria wrote in The New York Times Magazine in March 1970. "Many times, over the years, my father would point out survivors of the massacre, and people on the reservation always went out of their way to help them."

Deloria's childhood was rich with the experiences of leadership. "As long as any member of my family can remember, we have always been involved in the affairs of the Sioux tribe," he wrote. "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 1860s. He spent the rest of his life as an Episcopal missionary ... my father was an Episcopal missionary for thirty-seven years in South Dakota." Deloria says he too considered the ministry until he watched his father's frustrations grow within the church and concluded that the institution was "totally irrelevant to Indian needs." Instead, he found his own relevance, as an activist, an organizer, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, college professor, historian, lawyer, and author of some 20 books.

Deloria's influence went far beyond the printed pages, however. Consider his criticism of the field of anthropology. "Every summer when school is out a veritable stream of immigrants head into Indian country. Indeed the Oregon Trail was never so heavily populated as are Route 66 and Highway 18 in the summer time. From every rock and cranny in the East, they emerge, as if responding to some primeval fertility rite, and flock to the reservations," Deloria wrote in Custer Died For Your Sins. "They" were the "anthros," creatures that could be identified on reservations by their cultural gear—"a camera, tape recorder, telescope, hoola hoop and life jacket all hanging from his elongated frame."

"The fundamental thesis of the anthropologist is that people are objects for observation, people are then considered objects for experimentation, and for eventual extermination," Deloria wrote. He dismissed "pure research" and urged anthropologists to help tribes instead of preying on them.

But anthropology did change. "Deloria did not totally succeed in keeping us away; in fact social scientists flocked to reservations to document the phenomenon of the new Pan-Indianism. He did, however, impose a test on us—a new standard, which those of us who would persevere had to meet. Custer Died For Your Sins became our primer for how not to behave, conjuring up the ultimate image of the tiresome meddler we dreaded and desperately hoped to avoid," wrote Elizabeth Grobsmith in the book Indians & Anthropologists: Vine Deloria Jr. and the Critique of Anthropology.

The new standards, to varying degrees, were part of a larger reform of anthropology itself that began not long after Custer Died For Your Sins was published. Anthropologists developed new codes of ethics about their very methods of research and conduct (with much debate and dissent). In the decades following his manifesto, Deloria said the attitude of American Indians toward social scientists changed, too. He described the "useful" work of anthropologists developing background in fishing rights cases or on behalf of Native communities seeking federal recognition.

But in his review of what's occurred since Custer, Deloria challenged anthropology to rethink its mission—actually to reverse that mission. Why not, he asked, use the values, behaviors, and institutions of tribal peoples to investigate the shortcomings of Western society?

Perhaps another measure of the way Deloria changed anthropology is the very creation of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

"He was a charter member of the National Museum of the American Indian's Board of Trustees and previously had served for years on the Heye Foundation Museum of American Indian Board," said Rick West, National Museum of the American Indian director. "He was the first charter Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian that the board, fittingly, chose to bring back onto the board following his initial term. He was the driving force behind and articulator of most of the fundamental initial National Museum of the American Indian policies on collections management, research, and repatriation."

A year ago, the newspaper Indian Country Today announced it was honoring Deloria with its vision award because he reflected "the highest qualities and attributes of leadership defending the foundations of American Indian freedom."

In an essay for that newspaper, Phil Deloria wrote about his father and how he approached writing and thinking as craft. "Like any good writer, he stuck to his schedule relentlessly, thinking through his arguments while playing solitaire, and then churning out up to 10 pages a night." The thought process was as careful, "The library always helps me to see just how wide-ranging he really is. Vine Deloria does not limit his thinking. He is constantly engaging in ideas. Often these are new ideas, but just as often they are old—traditional knowledge or thoughts once recorded and then passed by. Even his engagements with what seem whimsical turn out to be parts of the habits of a disciplined mind."

There is no "almost" in this story. Only the narrative of a disciplined writer with a disciplined mind who forever changed the stories told by and about American Indians. *

Mark Trahant (Shoshone-Bannock) has been a journalist covering Indian Country for 30 years. He is currently editor of the editorial pages at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

National Museum of the American Indian, Spring 2006, pages 16-20.

© 2006, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian