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Remembering Vine Deloria, Jr.

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Vine Deloria, Jr., (b. March 14, 1933-d. November 13, 2005) was a Standing Rock Sioux lawyer, teacher, activist and writer. After completing his schooling, he worked as the executive director for the National Conference of American Indians (NCAI) from 1964-1967, where he advocated for the rights of Native Americans. Shortly after his tenure there, he wrote the groundbreaking work Custer Died For Your Sins. This book was published in 1969, just prior to the We Hold the Rock takeover of Alcatraz, the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC and the Wounded Knee Incident of 1973.

At the time Deloria was writing Custer, he was still in law school and the head of NCAI. As the American Indian Movement (AIM) gained momentum and the Civil Rights movement had achieved multiple milestones, Deloria worked to muster the support of tribes for the NCAI and to improve the civil rights and regain sovereignty for Native Americans. He struggled to raise money to run the underfunded NCAI. He wrote, “What we need is a cultural leave-us-alone agreement in spirit and in fact” (Custer p. 34).

In his writings, he reviewed the history of the multiple broken treaties between tribes and the U.S. government starting with the signing (and breaking) of the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794 through the decisions of the Indian Claims Commission. He dissected and analyzed the effects of anthropologists, missionaries, established religion, government agencies and the termination policy on native culture, sovereignty and economics. Deloria has been credited with coining the term “Red Power,” the civil rights activist movement of Native Americans in the late 1960s and 1970s. He compared the Red Power movement to the Civil Rights movement, both for strategy and for a review of the Red Power movement’s gains.

He maintained his sense of humor in his writings and stayed openhearted. Even as his obituaries referred to him as the once “angry young man” and also “scathing and sardonic“—and Deloria pulled no punches when he was making critical observations—he devoted an entire chapter in Custer to “Indian Humor.” In an interview with Deloria at the Library of Congress at the 2002 National Book Festival, he opened his talk with a story about giving expert witness testimony. He said the U.S. attorney questioning Deloria said that he knew Indians were called Indians because Columbus was seeking India when he stumbled on North America. “Yeah,” Deloria shot back, “We’ve always been happy he wasn’t looking for Turkey.”

Photograph of a blue wall with red graffiti writing stating "Custer had it coming."
“Custer Had it Coming”, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, National Park Service [ ]
Some of Deloria’s later books reviewed Native religion and its relation to the dominant white American culture, and those books did not receive the same attention as his first work. With Custer, Deloria struck a chord in many readers and provided a conversation starter and a text in Native American activism and the ongoing struggle for tribal sovereignty. As the Ponca activist Clyde Warrior said, “We are not free. We do not make choices. Our choices are made for us.” Deloria, a friend of Warrior, wanted Native peoples to have the freedom to make their own choices. He wrote, lectured, and taught to forward that end. Later in his career, he started the first Native American Studies program, at the University of Arizona; he taught at the University of Colorado Boulder, and later returned to Arizona to teach at the College of Law. He was a founding trustee on the board of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). He worked to promote the cause of Native rights throughout his life. His writings should be a key part of the deep background study for lawyers interested in Native law. National Native American Heritage Month is a great reminder for researchers to discover, or rediscover, Deloria’s works at the Law Library.

KIE19.D63 1999   Documents of American Indian diplomacy : treaties, agreements, and conventions, 1775-1979

KF4755.D455 2011 The Legal Universe: Observations on the Foundations of American Law.

KIE2812.D44 1983 American Indians, American Justice. 

KF8203 1934.I53 2002  The Indian Reorganization Act : Congresses and Bills.

KIE1880.D45 1999 Tribes, Treaties, and Constitutional Tribulations. 

E93.D36 1988  Custer Died for Your Sins: an Indian Manifesto.

Comments (4)

  1. Vine Deloria Jr. opened my mind and heart to Native issues. I encountered his writings as a graduate student at the University of Arizona studying literature and law in the American Indian Studies doctoral program he helped launch. Former AIS colleagues like Tom Holm, Rob Williams, Nancy Parezo, and others at UA continue his scholarly and “scathing” analysis of academic and legal policies while educating about Native histories, cultures, and federal laws or Indian cases. Bear Down UA. Vine Deloria Jr. lives on through his words. .

  2. How wonderful that this great legal scholar is memorialized time and again this way. He has lent his life’s work to advancing American Indian Law. His eloquence, inspiration and timelessness has been revered here and in the minds of all of the law students he touched throughout the many years of dedication that he has given through education and policy building.

  3. We as anthropologists must always remember Vine and his teachings. He lifted he veil of ignorance that previously blinded anthropologists to the true human tragedies experienced by Native Americans who have been required to live under the Doctrine of Discovery and the Practice of Manifest Destiny. We must not forget . DEWARD E WALKER Jr.

  4. How well I remember Vine! I first met him when I worked with the Coalition of Indian Controlled School Boards, where he was one of our strongest advocates. The CICSB filed a lawsuit against the federal government when Nixon had impounded Indian Education Act (P.L. 92-318) funds. We based ourselves in Washington D.C. at the Institute of Indian Law, an Indian organization that he helped to found. Vine helped with the lawsuit, and I could help believing what a mind, what a scholar. We also shared many a cup of coffee while we were there. I will never forget him…

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