Vine Deloria, Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

Deloria, Vine, Jr. (Vol. 122)


Vine Deloria, Jr. 1933–

(Full name Vine Victor Deloria, Jr.) Sioux nonfiction writer and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Deloria's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 21.

Vine Deloria is representative of the well-educated politically active sector of American Indians. Deloria is especially concerned about the plight of Indians forced to live in a white man's system. In his writings, Deloria argues for the return of sacred Indian grounds and an isolationist policy that would enable his people to function as a separate nation within the United States.

Biographical Information

Deloria was born on March 26, 1933, in South Dakota to an Episcopal minister and his wife. Deloria is a Standing Rock Sioux who was raised on a reservation. In 1958 he received his Bachelor of Science degree from Iowa State University. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Deloria trained for a career as a minister. After receiving his degree in divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology in 1963, however, he realized a more effective means of serving the Indian's cause was through the legal system. Consequently he earned a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1970. Deloria became involved in Indian affairs as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D. C. During his leadership, from 1964 to 1967. Deloria turned the nearly defunct organization into a forceful voice for Indian tribes. Deloria also has been active in the Council on Indian Affairs, the Institute for the Development of Indian Law, and the Indian Rights Association. In addition to his involvement in these organizations, Deloria has written and edited several books on Indian affairs and taught political science at several universities.

Major Works

Deloria has stated that his exposure to Western culture has served to reaffirm his childhood commitment to the traditional Indian way of life. The main premise of his writings focuses on the need for an Indian cultural nationalism, as opposed to the intellectual assimilation of minorities advocated by the white establishment. Deloria approaches the issues from a religious and legal standpoint. In Custer Died for Your Sins (1969). Deloria satirizes the way in which anthropologists and churches have historically perpetuated stereotypes and misconceptions of Indians. In God Is Red (1973), Deloria proposes that Christianity is no longer practical; that its promise of heaven is too remote from everyday life in an industrial society; and that the naturalism of Indian religion is the only hope for Western civilization. In Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties (1974); The Indian Affair (1974); and American Indians, American Justice (1983), Deloria examines the history of Indian-white relations, especially the role of the government. In these books he criticizes federal policy toward Indians and their institutions as being ethnocentric and destructive. Deloria also proposes that the United States government should honor its treaty obligations to Indians concerning their lands. Despite the seriousness of his subjects, Deloria's writing is informal and often wryly humorous, making it accessible to any reader interested in the modern American Indian.

Critical Reception

Most reviewers comment on the lack of bitterness present in Deloria's work. Critics praise his use of humor and his scholarly approach to the sometimes very emotional question of Indian rights. Edward Abbey stated, "Despite the sense of injustice and frustration which he and most Indians must surely feel, Mr. Deloria presents his case without the deep bitterness we might expect." Although many people do not agree with his ideas, Deloria is nevertheless respected for the sincerity and integrity of his works. Wilcomb E. Washburn asserts, "The secret of Deloria's success in becoming the preeminent Indian spokesman is his inexhaustible energy, his wry good humor, his not inconsiderable scholarly gifts, and his diplomatic skill."

Principal Works

Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (nonfiction) 1969
We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf (nonfiction) 1970
Of Utmost Good Faith [editor] (nonfiction) 1971
The Red Man in the New World Drama: A Politico-Legal Study with a Pageantry of American History [editor and author of introduction] (nonfiction) 1971
God Is Red (nonfiction) 1973; republished as God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 1992
Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence (nonfiction) 1974
The Indian Affair (nonfiction) 1974
A Better Day for Indians (nonfiction) 1976
Indians of the Pacific Northwest: From the Coming of the White Man to Present Day (nonfiction) 1977
The Metaphysics of Modern Existence (nonfiction) 1979
American Indians, American Justice [with Clifford M. Lytle] (nonfiction) 1983
The Aggressions of Civilization: Federal Indian Policy Since the 1880s [editor with Sandra L. Cadwalader] (nonfiction) 1984
The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty [with Lytle] (nonfiction) 1984
A Sender of Words: Essays in Memory of John G. Neihardt [editor] (nonfiction) 1984
American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century [editor] (nonfiction) 1985
Frank Waters: Man and Mystic [editor] (nonfiction) 1993


Edward Abbey (review date 9 November 1969)

SOURCE: A review of Custer Died For Your Sins, in New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1969, p. 46.

[In the following review, Abbey asserts that in Custer Died For Your Sins, Deloria "writes with much humor and even sympathy for what he believes to be the white Americans' pathetic inability to feel and understand the true nature of the situation we are living in."]

Even our Indians are turning against us now. Red Power. All the chickens coming home to roost. In Custer Died For Your Sins the author reminds us—and Vine Deloria, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, is himself an Indian—that America was discovered not by Columbus, not by Leif Ericson, but by the Indians—over 20,000 years ago. This simple fact has somehow eluded the rest of us, perhaps because the original discoverers of this continent were regarded by the English settlers not as people or human beings but simply as part of the wild life, i.e., as animals.

"They used to shoot us for our feathers," Mr. Deloria complains, going on to point out that the practice of scalping, for instance, was invented in New England by white men. Why? For the same reason that mountain-lion trappers in Arizona nowadays remove the scalps of their victims, as proof of kill, in order to collect the bounty.

Details such as these were never mentioned in our public-school history classes. Why not? The word "genocide" is used a little too easily and carelessly these days (it flows trippingly on the tongue); but in the case of the American Indians, particularly those unfortunate enough to find themselves in the path of our Pilgrim and Puritan forefathers, the term may not be inapplicable. How many Indians are left in New England? Along the Eastern seaboard?

The many parallels between the war in Vietnam and the war against the American...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Christian Science Monitor (review date 2 April 1970)

SOURCE: "A Sophisticated Indian Looks at the Savage Whites," in Christian Science Monitor, April 2, 1970, p. 7.

[In the following review, the critic praises Deloria's humor and hopefulness in his presentation of the American government's broken promises to the Indians in Custer Died for Your Sins.]

All of Vine Deloria's stylistic limitations, all the lifeless passages which smack of going through the motions in order to get a book-length manuscript, cannot defeat the subject matter of this angry polemic [entitled Custer Died for Your Sins].

The condition of the American Indians is, for the most part, intolerable. In the names of manifest...

(The entire section is 330 words.)

Cecil Eby (review date 4 October 1970)

SOURCE: "Tonto was an Uncle Tomahawk," in Washington Post Book World, October 4, 1970, p. 4.

[In the following review, Eby discusses the commercial relationship between white America and its use of land versus the Indians' veneration of nature as presented by Deloria in We Talk, You Listen.]

Adding to the already formidable list of "problems" bedeviling white America is the rise, in recent years, of Red Power. Armed not with tomahawks but with briefcases chock-full of broken promises and treaty violations, the Indian has joined other minority groups in demanding his due. Once upon a time white America could count on a docile Indian population content to subsist on...

(The entire section is 1100 words.)

Rosemary Radford Ruether (review date 5-12 January 1974)

SOURCE: A review of God Is Red, in New Republic, Vol. 170, Nos. 3078-3079, January 5-12, 1974, pp. 25-6.

[Ruether is an American educator and theologian. In the following review, she highlights the contrasts between Christianity and Native American religions that Deloria presents in God Is Red.]

Vine Deloria, spokesman for the rise of "red consciousness," is the son of an Indian Episcopalian clergyman. Himself seminary-trained, Deloria's criticism of the white man's relation to Indian society has increasingly focused on the character of Christianity. Deloria believes that the white man's destruction-relationships with other people and with the earth have been...

(The entire section is 984 words.)

James R. Kerr (review date November 1984)

SOURCE: A review of American Indians, American Justice, in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 476, November, 1984, pp. 186-87.

[In the following review, Kerr praises American Indians, American Justice as a highly readable examination of the United States federal government's policies concerning American Indians and their effects on Native American governmental and judicial institutions.]

This admirable book [American Indians, American Justice] analyzes the roots of Indian tribal government and justice and how they have been modified by the American legal system. It asks the important question, How much of...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Wilcomb E. Washburn (essay date January 1985)

SOURCE: "Toward Indian Nationhood," in Natural History, Vol. 94, January, 1985, pp. 76, 78-9.

[In the following essay, Washburn asserts that in The Nations Within, "When all is said and done, Deloria and Lytle, while not providing a practical solution to the Indian future, have laid the basis for a more mature consideration of that future by Indian tribal leaders."]

Vine Deloria, Jr.! The name—to some contemporary white Americans—conjures up emotions similar to those raised in the nineteenth century by the names Geronimo and Red Cloud. For many years Deloria, with his pen (and now with his word processor), has struck terror in the hearts of snooping...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)

Southwest Review (review date Autumn 1985)

SOURCE: A review of American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century, in Southwest Review, Vol. 70, No. 4, Autumn, 1985, pp. 550-51.

[In the following excerpt, the critic states that the essays contained in Deloria's American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century "contain valuable information of interest to scholars and general readers alike."]

American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century, edited by Vine Deloria, Jr., presents eleven essays that examine several often ignored areas in Indian history. Tom Holm, for example, in "The Crisis in Tribal Government," suggests that Wounded Knee II was not a "typical" inner city riot, but instead was an...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Thomas Burnell Colbert (review date February 1987)

SOURCE: A review of American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century, in The Historian, Vol. XLIX, No. 2, February, 1987, pp. 287-88.

[In the following review, Colbert asserts that the essays in Deloria's American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century are educational and informative.]

Native American studies programs at colleges and universities have increased in number and size over the last twenty years. Likewise, the amount of scholarly activity focusing on Indian life and history has proliferated. However, much of the endeavor, especially within the discipline of history, has centered on Indian-white relations in the years before the twentieth...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Stephen Cornell (review date March 1987)

SOURCE: A review of American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century, in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 16, No. 2, March, 1987, pp. 157-59.

[In the following review, Cornell traces the policy issues addressed in Deloria's American Indian in the Twentieth Century.]

Vine Deloria introduces this valuable new collection[, American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century,] with the observation that the last few decades in Indian affairs have seen substantial progress. This progress, he argues, has been in the formulation of Indian policy, where Indian input is greater than it has ever been. Whether or not policy outcomes actually have improved remains, as...

(The entire section is 1065 words.)

James Biser Whisker (review date 1989)

SOURCE: A review of A Sender of Words: Essays in Memory of John G. Neihardt, in Reprint Bulletin, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, 1989, p. 16.

[In the following review, Whisker asserts that the essays in A Sender of Words are in honor of John G. Neihardt and his importance to Amerindian studies, rather than a critique of his work.]

The title of the work comes from a letter of 1931 from a visionary Sioux Indian named Black Elk to the subject of these essays, John G. Neihardt. Black Elk was the subject of Neihardt's most significant work, Black Elk Speaks. Few, if any, Americans better understood the Americans culture, at least as its remnants existed into the...

(The entire section is 343 words.)

Tod D. Swanson (review date January 1995)

SOURCE: A review of God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, in Journal of Religion, Vol. 75, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 161-62.

[In following review, Swanson lauds how Deloria has updated his God Is Red for the 1990s.]

The second edition of God Is Red is a badly needed updating of a groundbreaking book. Before it was first published in 1973, scholars tended to portray Native traditions either as though they were frozen in a timeless past or as though they were precarious survivals of premodern times. By contrast, Vine Deloria presented the Native religions as a viable alternative for modern Indian people. Just as Jewish theologians had started with...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Further Reading


Wild, Peter. Review of A Sender of Words. Western American Literature XX, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 79-80.

Discusses the insights A Sender of Words, edited by Deloria, provides readers concerning the work of John G. Neihardt.

(The entire section is 85 words.)