A Nov. 16 Style article incorrectly said that Indian rights activist Vine Deloria Jr. was born in Lemmon, S.D.; he was born in Martin, S.D. Also, a Nov. 17 obituary incorrectly said that Deloria died Nov. 6. He died Nov. 13.
The Indian Who Overturned The Stereotypes
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Some of you may not have heard of Vine Deloria Jr., Sioux, historian, attorney, theologian, best-selling author and Indian rights activist. Or maybe you remember his 1992 suit, along with six other prominent Indians, against the Washington Redskins, just one of his many activist firebombs lobbed on behalf of Native Americans. Dubbed the "red man's Ralph Nader," he reveled in the control of the keyboard, taking the scorched-earth approach to his writing, blasting Gen. Custer as "the Adolf Eichmann of the Plains."
Deloria, who died Sunday in Denver at 72, apparently of an aortic aneurysm, was known for his sardonic wit, for the many hats he wore comfortably, for his 20 books, many of them bestsellers. He courted controversy, took glee in it, even. And for generations of Native Americans, he was the intellectual spark that fueled a movement. Some see him as the most important Native American of the 20th century. Others see him as one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century, period.
The son of an Indian Episcopal priest and an avowed "Seventh-day Absentist," Deloria first elbowed his way into the national dialogue in 1969 with his blockbuster "Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto." His was a unique voice, grouchy and garrulous, tossing out one-liners while excoriating Anglo hypocrisies and urging Indians to get up, stand up.
"The American public feels most comfortable with the mythical Indians of stereotype-land who were always THERE," he wrote. "These Indians are fierce, they wear feathers and grunt. Most of us don't fit this idealized figure since we grunt only when overeating, which is seldom." He didn't suffer fools, whatever stripes they came wrapped in, and bemoaned the fact that every other ethnic group in America got to have "difficulties." Indians, he said, got to have "plights," and Anglos thought they were an expert on those plights.
He liked to remind those Anglos, every chance he got, that they weren't the experts. Far from it.
As he wrote once, "When asked by an anthropologist what the Indians called America before the white man came, an Indian said simply, 'Ours.' "
The books that followed "Custer" -- "We Talk, You Listen," "God Is Red," "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties" -- echoed this assertion, carving out a canon for Indian philosophy and thought, arguing that Native spiritual and intellectual beliefs were at least equal to those of Europeans.
As a teen attending high school on an Arizona reservation in the early '70s, Tom Arviso, now 48 and CEO and publisher of Navajo Times, first read "Custer." He and his friends passed it back and forth, completely fascinated. Reading it, he says now, was a revelation. His parents grew up afraid -- afraid to speak up, afraid to speak their own language, he recalls. In the schools, they were punished for being Indian, and passed that legacy on to their children.
"['Custer'] said things I hadn't heard before," Arviso says. "About stepping up and voicing what was right for Native American people. That we had been done so wrong for so long, it was time we did something about it." Arviso was intrigued because the "doing something" that Deloria advocated was embracing intellectual rigor rather than violence.
"[Deloria] created a great reality out of that, of Indians taking control of their communities," says Kirk Kickingbird, an Oklahoma attorney of the Kiowa Nation who worked with Deloria in the 1970s on Indian land rights.
But Deloria didn't limit his activism to his writing. He acted , serving as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington in the '60s, where he is credited with forcing U.S. government policy changes. His dealings with government officials frustrated him; he said administrators would look him in the eye and lie to him, remembers Kickingbird. Deloria became convinced that more Indian lawyers were needed to give credibility to their cause. In 1971, he founded the Institute for the Development of Indian Law. He shaped ideas, formed committees, agitated.
In 1992, Deloria was part of a petition to have the Redskins trademark canceled; in 1999, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board of the Patent and Trademark Office decided the case in their favor, but a federal judge overturned the decision in 2003. That decision is being appealed.
To look back on his career is to indulge in a moment of vertigo. Indeed, his was a dizzying trajectory: He grew up on a reservation in Lemmon, S.D., served in the Marine Corps in the 1950s and earned a bachelor's degree from Iowa State University, a master's in theology from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and a law degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder (where he would later teach). Earlier this year, he was honored here at the National Press Club and awarded the American Indian Visionary Award.
I met Deloria in 1997, when he was speaking at a Native American conference in Chicago. The audience listened, rapt, as he stood onstage, caressing a cane with a laborer's nicotine-stained fingers, peering through thick bifocals.
"I'd like the freedom to say harsh things to people in the audience."
And so he did, naming names and slamming his hosts, the Newberry Library, for not being aggressive enough about hiring Native Americans. A woman who grew up on the same reservation urged him to come home (at this point he was living in Golden, Colo.). He told her no thanks; he'd rather "buy Lemmon, South Dakota, and burn it." He was, he readily admitted -- with considerable relish -- the "worst guy you can have speak because I've got nothing to lose. I don't care who I insult."
Later, after his speech, he sat outside in the sunshine, holding court as acolytes lined up to take pictures of him, throwing an arm around him as the camera snapped. There, he was soft-spoken and thoughtful, fretting about the future of Native American youth. He was charming -- slightly terrifying -- and completely unforgettable.