Vine Deloria, Jr.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880

Vine Victor Deloria, Jr. (duh-LAWR-ee-uh), was born in 1933 on the edge of the Pine Ridge Reservation in Martin, South Dakota. He was a Standing Rock Sioux, and his father was a minister with the Episcopalian church. Deloria’s education was varied, and he proved to be one of America’s outstanding intellectuals. He attended a preparatory school in Connecticut for the last two years of high school. In 1951 he and his family moved from the reservation in South Dakota to Iowa, where he later graduated from Iowa State University. He served in the United States Marine Corps and later attended the Lutheran College of Theology. Deloria also attended the University of Colorado School of Law. Many of his ideas were strengthened during his college career. His impression of the European American Christian culture was that it did not truly relate to the everyday lives of American Indian people, even though most had been persuaded, if not forced, to convert to Christianity.

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Deloria disputed commonly held beliefs about American Indian cultures. He challenged others, both Indian and non-Indian, to question stereotypes about “Indian-ness” as he does. He was a member of many Indian organizations. In 1963 Deloria was part of the United Scholarship Service, which assisted American Indian and Chicano students in attending Eastern preparatory schools. In 1966 he became the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, working with individual tribes on legislation. It was also in this year that the Red Power movement began. The political climate in the United States fostered change, and many Native American communities and organizations took advantage. Deloria was a long time supporter of activist groups and was often referred to as a spokesperson for American Indians.

Custer Died for Your Sins was Deloria’s first book. He examines the roles of missionaries, anthropologists, and government agents in shaping ideas about “Indian-ness.” Deloria argues that these ideas are false and challenges his readers to think about their own origins. The goal of the missionaries was to “save” the individual through Christian beliefs and customs, but a tragic outcome of this process was the annihilation of the Indian communities. The objective of the anthropologists, with their infrequent and limited visits, was to provide those outside the reservations with “facts” about how Indian people lived. The title of the book refers to a Sioux religious tradition, according to which the only way to break a promise or a treaty is to perform a blood sacrifice. The Sioux Treaty of 1868, in which the Sioux people were ensured land, was broken by the United States government. As compensation for the broken promises, General George Armstrong Custer provided the necessary blood sacrifice. Custer Died for Your Sins reveals many of its author’s ideas about government, Indian communities, sovereignty, and group solidarity. He argues that the false, even dangerous, assumptions that many people have about American Indian communities often affect how the communities view themselves. Deloria explains that these ideas need to be changed to provide more room for the truth about American Indians.

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We Talk, You Listen was published in 1970. Deloria examines the communication gaps present in American society and explores the problems which arise. Deloria explains that when people do not listen to each other and instead make assumptions about the “Other,” stereotypes develop. In 1971, Deloria edited a compilation of historical documents and legal agreements spanning the period from 1830 until the late 1960’s. This book is entitled Of Utmost Good Faith. The collection of documents provides a timeline of treaties broken by the United States government. One of Deloria’s most controversial works is God Is Red. Published in 1973, this was a call for Native American people to return to, or revitalize, the beliefs they held before Christian influences. Although several American Indian revitalistic religions had arisen, God Is Red is the first literature of its kind from the Indian community. In this book, Deloria examines the reasons and methods that were used to convert many people to Christianity and explains that, given the circumstances, conversion was easy: Most people, when faced with the decision whether to convert or face extinction, would choose the former. Deloria provides an alternative to Christianity and other European American religions. His many publications have continued to explore the themes of American Indian religion and spirituality, education, and history. Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths moved into the wider debate on science versus religion in American culture by suggesting that the arguments on both sides are Eurocentric and positing that mythologies presenting the appearance of Earth and life as “emergence” rather than “creation” encode the memory of a series of catastrophes that formed the world that now exists.

Deloria taught at Washington State College in Bellingham and at the University of California, Los Angeles, before becoming a professor of political science at the University of Arizona from 1979 to 1990. In 1990 he became a professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he remained until retirement in 2000. Deloria continued to live in Colorado until his death after an aortic aneurysm in 2005.

As one of the leading spokespeople for many American Indian communities, Vine Deloria, Jr., made a huge impact on the way people, both Indian and non-Indian, think about “Indian-ness.” Deloria challenged popular ideas and misconceptions and provided new ways of thinking.

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