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reed magazine logoAutumn 2007

Vine Deloria Jr.
Vine Deloria Jr. (1933-2005)


Native American History:
A Personal View

Native American scholar Philip J. Deloria spoke of the complex overlap of family history and ethnic identity as he inaugurated a new lecture series at Reed this fall. The series is named after Deloria’s father, Vine Deloria Jr. (1933–2005), a preeminent Native American scholar and activist. Philip Deloria is professor of history at the University of Michigan, author of Indians in Unexpected Places and Playing Indian, and president-elect of the American Studies Association. His visit to Reed coincided with the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the college’s program in American Studies.

The new Vine Deloria Lecture Series is designed to “call attention to the often-silenced voice” of Native American scholars, says Lisa Moore, assistant dean of multicultural affairs at Reed, who was instrumental in arranging the Deloria events on campus.

Vine Deloria grew up in South Dakota, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. He taught at the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado–Boulder, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians in the 1960s. He wrote 27 books on Indian history, ethnography, theology, and politics, including Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto and God Is Red: A Native View of Religion.

Acknowledging his filial bias, Philip Deloria called his father the most important Native American intellectual of the 20th century, saying that Custer Died for Your Sins, published in 1969, “remains a powerful statement of Native American resistance.” Modern sovereignty politics, he asserted, “rest fundamentally” upon his father’s body of political and legal writings.


Duke Harjo ’07 was instrumental in arranging the Deloria visit and lecture series. Harjo is the son of Native American activist and writer Suzan Shown Harjo, and a friend of the Deloria family. “It’s fitting that Duke and I should reunite here tonight,” Deloria reflected, “keeping close in our heart the memory of our fathers, mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers.” In fact, much of the lecture—titled “Vine Deloria Jr.: Histories, Memories, and Legacies”—was devoted to family history. Vine Deloria Sr. was an Episcopal priest and Native American; his wife was white. “My father inherited the queasiness that settled around Martin [South Dakota] and around his parents in terms of the question of mixed-bloodedness,” Deloria said. “I believe that he was both dismissive of and yet haunted by [these] questions . . .”

In a seminar for American Studies students, Philip Deloria recounted an anecdote that illustrated this point in a personal way. As a mixed-race teenager growing up near a Lummi Indian reservation in Washington State, he was harassed on the school bus by Native American students who assumed he was white. Deloria recalled his confusion—and his awakened sense of irony—when a Native American student mashed his face against the bus window one day and shouted “Custer died for your sins!”

Deloria said his father’s prolific literary output sometimes brought his scholarly credentials into question, mixing as it did science, politics, law, and spirituality. “One might call him an indigenous fundamentalist,” Deloria said, “in that he rejected evolution and took Indian origin stories as true narratives. When he said that bison—or a people—came from a particular hole in the ground, he meant it. And that kind of openness led him to investigate all kinds of things that stand outside the pale of Western religious and scientific traditions, including non-uniformitarian geology and catastrophism, flying saucers, near-death experiences, and other psychic phenomena. Some of this was just plain fun.”

Deloria ended the inaugural Vine Deloria Lecture by demystifying his father’s legendary status and calling for action: “Is it possible that achievement is also within our grasp, that the future leaders of the Indian Country that he longed for are out there right now, hesitant to even try to invoke his legacy? . . . He would reject such hesitation, tell us to pull our pants on one leg at a time like everyone else, and to get to work.”

Deloria delivered a second talk on campus titled “Back Down to the Crossroads: Integrative American Studies in Theory and Practice,” in which he outlined the state of American Studies and discussed issues central to the field, including the importance of interdisciplinary endeavors.

Jacqueline Dirks ’82, Cornelia Marvin Pierce Professor of History and Humanities, helped develop the lecture series. She notes the growing diversity of Reed’s American Studies program. “We are excited to welcome a number of professors—Margot Minardi in history, Rebecca Gordon in English, Mark Burford in music, Rob Slifkin in art history—who teach new subjects, all of whom will contribute to our ongoing colloquium series,” she says.

 —Devin Bambrick ’08

reed magazine logoAutumn 2007