'He Forced Us into the Fray': Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005)

By Watkins, Joe | Antiquity, June 2006 | Go to article overview

'He Forced Us into the Fray': Vine Deloria, Jr. (1933-2005)


Watkins, Joe, Antiquity


Vine Victor Deloria Jr. was born on 26 March 1933 in Martin, South Dakota, and died on 13 November 2005, in Boulder, Colorado. Deloria, of Standing Rock Sioux origin, was born in South Dakota near the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Indian Reservation. He was educated at reservation schools, graduated from Iowa State University in 1958, received a master's degree in theology in 1963 from the Lutheran School of Theology in Rock Island, Illinois, and a J.D. from the University of Colorado in 1970. Deloria taught at the University of Arizona from 1978 to 1990, and then at the University of Colorado. As an author of more than 20 books, he was one of the most outspoken figures in Indian affairs, with his works promoting Native American cultural nationalism and a greater understanding of Native American history and philosophy. He retired in 2000, but continued to write and lecture until his death.

This essay is neither a eulogy nor an obituary, but rather an acknowledgement of an individual who made a significant impact on anthropology; more conventional obituaries were published in the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Denver Post, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, the Associated Press, and Indian Country Today. Internationally, the Guardian (UK) and the Scoop Independent News (NZ) also noted his passing. In addition, Howard Berkes provided a segment on his life and passing on National Public Radio's Morning Edition on November 15, 2005.

Though not an anthropologist, Vine Deloria, Jr., probably had more of an impact on the discipline than many of us practicing the craft today will have. His impact on a generation of scholars is immeasurable. The 1969 publication of his book, Custer Died for Your Sins, marks a watershed event in the history of American anthropology by forcing 'anthros' to become more aware of the feelings that American Indians held toward them. It appeared at a time when American Indians were protesting against the excavation of archaeological sites and the exhibition of human remains in museums. As a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, I was forced to think about the direction I wanted my research to follow. I was not the only one who was likewise influenced by Deloria's work.

Nearly thirty years later, a group of anthropologists wrote on the impact of Deloria's writings. Of particular importance to archaeology, authors McGuire (1997:63-91) and Zimmerman (1997: 92-112) recall how Deloria's writings changed the way they practiced anthropology. More recently, McGuire talks of Deloria's influence on his professional life: 'Two things influenced me to take a pro-indigenous stance in archaeology. The first of these were my Pawnee friends who ... made me aware of how Native People felt about anthropologists and archaeologists. The second was Vine Deloria's book ... I would never have come to the positions that I did without reading Custer Died for Your Sins. Clearly what he wanted to do was challenge us, and forbid us the comfort of our complacency. He was very successful doing these two things' (McGuire pers. comm.).

Not all of the impacts of Deloria's work were seen as positive. A comment on a listserv in response to the posting of Deloria's death noted that '... Deloria may well have done some good for some indigenous people, but he also wrote a lot of incorrect and misleading nonsense that most professional archaeologists, geochronologists, etc, would probably not want to promote . …

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