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  • Vine Deloria Jr. and Indigenous Americans
  • David E. Wilkins (bio)

Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux citizen, widely considered the leading indigenous intellectual of the past century, walked on in November 2005. Deloria spent most of his adult life in an unrelenting, prodigious, and largely successful effort to provide those most grounded of Native individuals and their governments with the intellectual, theoretical, philosophical, and substantive arguments necessary to support their inherent personal and national sovereignty. Importantly, however, his voluminous work also sought to improve the nation-to-nation and intergovernmental relationships of and between First Nations, and between First Nations and non-Native governments at all levels. In fact, he was hailed in 1974 by Time magazine as a "Theological Superstar of the Future," and he received numerous awards from both Indian and non-Indian organizations throughout his life, including, most recently in January 2005, the American Indian Visionary Award from the leading Indian newspaper Indian Country Today.

Deloria, I firmly believe, is the most prolific indigenous writer in history. He was author, coauthor, editor, and coeditor of more than two dozen books, more than two hundred articles and essays, and he delivered an untold number of keynotes, speeches, interviews, and congressional testimonials. More impressive than his incredible output was the stunning diversity of intellectual disciplines he has traversed with aplomb: law, religion and theology, history, natural and social science, [End Page 151] literary criticism, education, anthropology, paleontology, philosophy, political science, and others.

Deloria also held many important positions outside the academy. He headed the National Congress of American Indians in the 1960s, the leading intertribal interest organization, and he has served on numerous boards. He also played a leading role in developing several vital organizations such as the Institute for the Development of Indian Law, which he founded, and others that seek to improve the quality of life for Native and non-Native folk.

But Deloria, to me, was much more than the sum of all his important scholarly, professional, and public accomplishments. Our paths first crossed in a sustained way in 1980 when, based on the recommendation of Helen Maynor Schierbeck, a fellow Lumbee, he recruited me to a new M.A. degree program that he had developed at the University of Arizona. This was a two-year terminal degree in political science that focused on training Native students in the quirks and whims of federal Indian policy and law.

I was part of a small cohort of Native students, thrilled at the possibility of studying with a man we affectionately, and with some trepidation, referred to as "the Godfather" of Indian politics, law, and policy. We called ourselves "Vine's Disciples," not because we viewed him as a religious figure but because we knew that in having the privilege and opportunity of studying with the individual we all considered the most gifted of our time we would receive profound lessons in what was required of us as we sought to become active agents in defense of our respective nations' sovereignty and self-determination.

Those of us who finished this intellectually rich and demanding program left feeling prepared to engage our nations on multiple fronts and knew that we had been armed with research and writing skills that would enable us to be effective agents of change for our peoples. My relationship with Vine and his talented and generous wife, Barbara, only deepened over the last quarter century. Although he continued to be my principal academic mentor, we became good friends, and I was fortunate to have the honor of coauthoring one book with him.

It is, of course, impossible to summarize in such a short space the incredible influence Vine had on me, my nation, the Lumbee, Native nations throughout the land and the world, and the larger society. But what an influence he was and will remain for me and many others. Vine once said that his approach to scholarship had been largely "ad hoc" or "spur-of-the-moment political tracts." But in another work he more accurately noted that, if one read his scholarship in the context of his life, it was possible to "see a persistent effort to lay down certain kinds...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-7901
Print ISSN
0749-6427
Pages
pp. 151-155
Launched on MUSE
2006-11-29
Open Access
No
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