Published on June 11, 2014 by Amy
Vine Victor Deloria, Jr. (March 26, 1933 – November 13, 2005) was an American Indian author, theologian, historian, and activist. He was widely known for his book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969), which helped generate national attention to Native American issues in the same year as the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement. From 1964–1967, he had served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, increasing tribal membership from 19 to 156. Beginning in 1977, he was a board member of the National Museum of the American Indian, which now has buildings in both New York City and Washington, DC. He was influential in the development of American Indian creationism.
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Deloria began his academic career in 1970 at Western Washington State College at Bellingham, Washington. He became Professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona (1978–1990), where he established the first master’s degree program in American Indian Studies in the United States. After ten years at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he returned to Arizona and taught at the School of Law.
Vine Deloria, Jr. was born in 1933, in Martin, South Dakota, near the Oglala Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was the son of Barbara Sloat (née Eastburn) and Vine Victor Deloria, Sr. (1901–1990). His father studied English and Christian theology and became an Episcopal archdeacon and missionary on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. His father transferred his and his children’s tribal membership from the Yankton Sioux to Standing Rock. Vine Sr.’s sister Ella Deloria (1881–1971) was an anthropologist. Vine Jr.’s paternal grandfather was Tipi Sapa (Black Lodge), also known as Rev. Philip Joseph Deloria, an Episcopal priest and a leader of the Yankton band of the Dakota Nation. His paternal grandmother was Mary Sully, daughter of Alfred Sully, a general in the American Civil War and Indian Wars and his French-Yankton wife; and granddaughter of painter Thomas Sully.
Vine, Jr. was first educated at reservation schools. Deloria graduated from Kent School in 1951. He graduated from Iowa State University in 1958 with a degree in general science. Deloria served in the Marines from 1954 through 1956.
Originally planning to be a minister like his father, Deloria Jr. in 1963 earned a theology degree from the Lutheran School of Theology, then located in Rock Island, Illinois. In the late 1960s, he returned to graduate study and earned a law degree from the University of Colorado in 1970.
“Mr. Deloria … steadfastly worked to demythologize how white Americans thought of American Indians,” wrote Kirk Johnson.
In 1964, Deloria was elected executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. During his three-year term, the organization went from bankruptcy to solvency, and membership went from 19 to 156 tribes. Through the years, he was involved with many Native American organizations. Beginning in 1977, he was a board member of the National Museum of the American Indian, which established its first center at the former United States Custom House in New York City.
While teaching at Western Washington State College at Bellingham, Washington, Deloria advocated for the treaty fishing rights of local Native American tribes. He worked on the legal case that led to the historic Boldt Decision of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. Judge Boldt’s ruling in United States v. Washington (1974) validated Indian fishing rights in the state as continuing past the tribes’ cession of millions of acres of land to the United States in the 1850s. Thereafter Native Americans had the right to half the catch in fishing in the state.
In 1969, Deloria published his first of more than twenty books, entitled Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. This book became one of Deloria’s most famous works. In it, he addressed stereotypes of Indians and challenged white audiences to take a new look at the history of United States western expansion, noting its abuses of Native Americans. The book was released the year that students of the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement occupied Alcatraz Island to seek construction of an Indian cultural center, as well as attention in gaining justice on Indian issues, including recognition of tribal sovereignty. Other groups also gained momentum, with organizations such as the American Indian Movement staging events to attract media and public attention for education.
The book helped draw attention to the Native American struggle. Focused on the Native American goal of sovereignty without political and social assimilation, the book stood as a hallmark of Native American Self-Determination at the time. The American Anthropological Association sponsored a panel in response to Custer Died for Your Sins. The book was reissued in 2004 with a new preface by the author, noting, “The Indian world has changed so substantially since the first publication of this book that some things contained in it seem new again.”
Deloria wrote and edited many subsequent books and 200 articles, focusing on issues as they related to Native Americans, such as education and religion. In 1995, Deloria argued in his book Red Earth, White Lies that the Bering land bridge never existed, and that the ancestors of the Native Americans had not migrated to the Americas over such a land bridge, as has been claimed by most archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and other scholars. Rather, he asserted that the Native Americans may have originated in the Americas, or reached them through transoceanic travel, as some of their creation stories suggested.
Deloria’s position on the age of certain geological formations, the length of time Native Americans have been in the Americas, their possible coexistence with dinosaurs, etc. were influential in the development of American Indian creationism. This generally rejects scientific explanations of origins of indigenous peoples in the Americas. Deloria has been criticized for his embrace of American Indian creationism by such scholars as Bernard Ortiz de Montellano and H. David Brumble, who say such views are not supported by the scientific and physical evidence, and contribute to problems of pseudoscience.
Deloria often cited Christian creationist authors in support of his views relating to science. He also relied on Hindu creationists, such as Michael Cremo.
In 1970, Deloria took his first faculty position, teaching at the Western Washington University College of Ethnic Studies in Bellingham, Washington. As a visiting scholar, he taught at the Pacific School of Religion, the New School of Religion, and Colorado College.
His first tenured position was as Professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona, which he held from 1978 to 1990. While at UA, Deloria established the first Master’s degree program in American Indian Studies in the US. Such recognition of American Indian culture in existing institutions was one of the goals of the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement. Numerous American Indian studies programs, museums and collections, and other institutions have been established since Deloria’s first book was published.
Deloria next taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1990 to 2000. When he retired from Boulder, he taught at the University of Arizona’s College of Law.
At his death, Deloria was survived by his wife, Barbara, their children, Philip, Daniel, and Jeanne, and seven grandchildren.
His son, Philip J. Deloria, is also a respected historian and author.
After Deloria retired in May 2000, he continued to write and lecture until he died on November 13, 2005, in Golden, Colorado from an aortic aneurysm.