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.”
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.
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.