A member of the Standing Rock Sioux (Lakota) nation, Vine Deloria, Jr., is one of the most important intellectual and cultural voices in American and Indigenous philosophy and politics from the second half of the 20th century. An amazingly eclectic thinker and scholar, Deloria was trained in both Christian theology and American law, and wrote on subjects ranging from the political history of the United States, to the uses of media and cultural narratives by American Indians in the 1960s-1980s, to critiques of scientific theory and academic power. The son of an Episcopal deacon, Deloria served in the US Marines in the 1950s before earning a degree in Theology in 1963 and a Law degree in 1970. Known for his acerbic wit, defiance of categorization, and arguments in favour of the intellectual validity of Indigenous knowledge, Deloria was a key public intellectual from the emergence of the Red Power movements in the 1960s through to his death in 2005.
Deloria is possibly most well-known for his landmark book, Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, which articulated the historical and intellectual basis for American Indian protest movements that were already mobilizing across the United States and Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Through his familiarity with both Judeo-Christian cultural narratives and American legal and political structures, Deloria was able to express the centuries of colonial frustration, Indigenous pride, and economic desperation that informed American Indian resistance but which were all but invisible to mainstream Americans. He took a more philosophical bent with his twin volumes God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, and For This Land: Writings on Religion in America, in which Deloria argued that debates over ‘Indian rights’ were fundamentally rooted in conflicting spiritual relationships to the land that inherently divided native and newcomer peoples.
Deloria firmly believed that Indigenous knowledge systems, far from their portrayal as ‘superstition’ or ‘myth,’ contained vast stores of wisdom regarding ecology and sustainability, human history and anthropology, political and economic equality, and spiritual well-being. He was among the first and most vigorous voices to speak up against the ‘Bering Strait Theory’ – which posited that Indigenous peoples arrived in the Americas by walking across an ice age land bridge from Siberia approximately 10,000 years ago – which for centuries was used as justification for ignoring Indigenous peoples’ rights to land and self-determination, and which has since been largely disproven. He was often labelled as ‘anti-scientific’ because of his critiques of academic and scientific authority on matters relating to Indigenous people, including in his books God is Red and Evolution, Creationism and Other Modern Myths. In reality, Deloria had a great appreciation for diverse scientific theories. His preference was rather for complexity, and for seeing Indigenous knowledges – including spiritual practices, oral histories, and place-knowledge – as constituting separate streams of knowledge, equally rigorous if not more so than scholarly knowledge, and deserving of equal respect and authority as Western science. Deloria was especially critical of the discipline of anthropology and its paternalistic approach to Native culture and society, critiques that were later echoed during the ‘postcolonial turn’ in anthropological studies.
Deloria was well known for his public engagement. He sat on the founding board of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and the NMAI library is named in his honour. He frequently pushed the NMAI and other museums to demystify their portrayals of Indigenous peoples, and helped to shape a public discourse that accepted Indigenous nations and cultures as complex and advanced societies in contrast to the superstition and savagery that marked most representations of Native Americans at the time. He also helped to establish the first graduate program in American Indian Studies in the United States, at the University of Arizona, and was also a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado – Boulder. He appeared on numerous documentaries and television programs, and frequently accepted speaking engagement across the United States, Canada, and the world, especially when he would be speaking to Native audiences. Deloria was named by Time Magazine as one of the ten most influential religious thinkers of the 20th century, and he is often regarded as the intellectual lodestone of late-20th century Native American politics.
Deloria, V. Jr. (1969). Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Deloria, V. Jr., Deloria, B., Foehner, K., eds. (1999). Spirit and Reason: The Vine Deloria Jr. Reader. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Deloria, V. Jr. (2003). God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 30th Anniversary Edition. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Deloria, V. Jr. (2006). 2006. The World We Used to Live In: Remembering the Powers of the Medicine Men. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Deloria, V. Jr. (1979). The Metaphysics of Modern Existence. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Deloria, V. Jr. (1995). Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.
Deloria, V., Jr. (1999). For This Land: Writing on Religion in America. New York: Routledge.
What contradictions does Deloria see between a Western and an Indigenous view of the natural world?
How does Deloria describe the relationship between scientific thought and anti-Indigenous racism?
In what ways is the concept and practice of education different in Indigenous and Western communities?
How are Deloria’s writings related to the Red Power Movement and the American Indian Movement of the 1960s-70s?
Why does Deloria give so much focus to critiquing the Bering Strait Theory, and how do his arguments relate to wider critiques of colonialism in American society?
Submitted by Emma Battell Lowman and Adam Barker