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Deloria, Vine Victor Jr.

Published onJul 30, 2021
Deloria, Vine Victor Jr.

(March 26, 1933 - November 13, 2005)

Quick Facts

Standing Rock Sioux, prolific author, lawyer, seminarian, educator, political scientist, and Native American civil rights activist.

Source: Photograph by Cyrus McCrimmon. Associated Press

Vine Jr. was born in Martin, South Dakota, near the Pine Ridge Reservation, to Vine Victor Deloria Sr. (a Yankton Sioux Episcopal archdeacon) and Barbara Eastburn Sloat Deloria. Among the Deloria family's notably educated and intellectual members was his paternal aunt, anthropologist Ella Deloria (1881-1971). Vine Jr.'s education was eclectic. He attended primary grades in reservation schools. He then traveled to Connecticut where he enrolled in Kent School, a private preparatory boarding school from whence he graduated in 1951. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1954 to 1956. Next he attended Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) graduating with a degree in general science in 1958. He subsequently earned a theology degree at the Lutheran School of Theology in Rock Island, Illinois. Finally, he obtained a law degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1970.

Deloria burst onto the civil rights scene in the United States at a most propitious time. The Black Power, Red Power, and Counter-Culture movements were formulating and beginning to foment. His background in law, theology, political science, history, and anthropology were masterfully integrated into his book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969). This book fit the mood of many people seeking equality and justice in American society and, in particular, brought to the attention of the general public the historic mistreatment of American Indians and the contemporary failure of the Federal government to address economic poverty, health, education, and social issues on reservations. Deloria's 1970 book, We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf, extended this discussion, bringing a Native American perspective that was not well known by readers outside academia. Both of these books go far in challenging the false and often derogatory stereotypes Euro-Americans have of American Indians.

He would continue educating Americans about these topics in more detail in subsequent publications. In Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An American Declaration of Independence (1974), The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty (1984), and American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century (1985) Deloria meticulously recounts the signing and subsequent abrogation of treaties signed by American Indian nations and the Federal government, and also the inconsistency of legislation reflecting changing goals of governmental policies. Between the 1830s and 1930s, the government attempted to destroy American Indian cultures through policies of removal and allotment in severalty of tribal lands. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, with the advice of anthropologists and other social scientists, attempted to staunch the flow of tribal properties to non-Indians, and build self-government. Deloria praised this policy as about the only bright spot in Federal relationships with American Indians. After World War II, however, assimilationist policies of Relocation and Termination took hold again.

Deloria's interests and academic background were bases for his writings relating to American Indian worldviews and religions: Of Utmost Good Faith (1971), God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (1994), Red Earth, White Lies: Native American and the Myth of Scientific Fact (1995), Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths (2002), and The World We Used to Live In: Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men (2006). These books deal with significant worldview differences between the Euro Americans and indigenous Native Americans. Conveniently, though simplistically, these differences are often contrasted as the "humans IN nature" vs. the "humans AND nature" worldviews. Essentially, it is maintained, Native Americans see themselves as a harmonic part of nature with animals, birds, fish, mountains etc., while Euro Americans follow the dictum from Genesis that their God gave humans dominion over the earth and its non-human components. Again, Deloria was sentient of broader controversies in American society, in particular the schism pitting western scientific evolutionary thought vs. creationism and indigenous origin stories. For many readers, Deloria's writings were, and continue to be, controversial, although he usually managed to deliver his strong arguments with a dose humor and satire.

During his career, Deloria served as the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians and a board member of the National Museum of the American Indian (NAMI). He was a faculty member at Western Washington State College and the University of Arizona, where he established the first master's degree program in American Indian Studies. Between 1990 and 2000 was a professor at the University of Colorado, and then taught at the University of Arizona College of Law.

Vine Deloria Jr. died at his home in Golden, Colorado, on November 13, 2005. He was survived by his wife of 47 years, Barbara N. Deloria, their three children (Philip, Daniel, and Jeanne) and seven grandchildren.

In 1981, Deloria delivered the Richard Thompson Memorial Lecture at Iowa State University, an event co-sponsored by the American Indian Symposium Committee, United Native American Student Association, American Indian Rights Organization, and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Today Deloria House in the Geoffroy Hall residential complex honors the name and memory of this outstanding ISU alumnus.

Selected Sources

Obituary, New York Times

Library of Congress, “Remembering Vine Deloria,” online blog published Nov. 14, 2016.

Library of Congress, Interview with Vine Deloria,

Deloria's life and career are described in most reference books on contemporary Native-American life. See Marion E. Gridley, ed. and comp., Indians of Today (1971), as well as Gridley's Contemporary American Indian Leaders (1972), and Sharon Malinowski, ed., Notable Native Americans (1995). Detailed critical examinations of Deloria's impact on American thought and the public perception of Native Americans are Thomas Biolsi and Larry J. Zimmerman, eds., Indians and Anthropologists: Vine Deloria, Jr., and the Critique of Anthropology (1997), and Steve Pavlik and Daniel R. Wildcat, eds., Destroying Dogma: Vine Deloria, Jr. and His Influence on American Society (2006). 

Among Deloria’s Principle Publications

1969 Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, New York: Macmillan.

1970 We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf, New York: Macmillan.

1971 Of Utmost Good Faith, San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books.

1974 Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An American Declaration of independence, New York: Dell Publishing.

1984 The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty, New York: Pantheon.

1985 American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

1994 God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, Golden, CO: North American Press.

1995 Red Earth, White Lies: Native American and the Myth of Scientific Fact, New York: Scribner.

2002 Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths, Golden, Co: Fulcrum.

2006 The World We Used to Live In: Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men, Golden, CO: Fulcrum.

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