When Vine Deloria Jr. died on November 13, 2005, the Standing Rock Sioux joined Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Tecumseh in the next world. Like them, he was a leader, a warrior, an intellectual, and a prophet -- with a razor-sharp wit. He was also our most beloved, most inspiring, and most accessible writer.
All across Indian country, tears were shed. Hearts were aching. Fear set in. (Vine is irreplaceable; the rest of us have to work harder and better.) But we had too many memories, too many stories, too many favorite books, articles, and quotes to wallow in our loss. Phone lines and e-mail hummed with conversations: 'Have you heard . . .?' 'Remember when Vine . . .?' You have to understand: Vine has led us, affirmed us, challenged us, motivated us, fought for us, and laughed with us since he burst onto the national scene in 1969 with the publication of Custer Died for Your Sins.
Vine had both a master's degree in theology and a law degree. His innate intelligence was finely honed in an exceptional family, in academia (he was a professor at the University of Colorado), and through an unparalleled desire to contribute. Time magazine named him one of the great religious thinkers of the 20th century. Vine probably had a stack of honors piled away somewhere, but they weren't what drove him.
Vine feared no one. He was an equal opportunity offender. He did not suffer fools, or their foolishness (unless it was really funny). In Custer, he took anthropologists and religious institutions to task. Some resented it, but their conduct in Indian country improved. He took Western science and academia to task in Red Earth, White Lies. He took on the federal government in numerous books, including The Nations Within, We Talk, You Listen, and Of Utmost Good Faith. In fact, he took me to task a few times over the 25 years we corresponded.
People trying to explain his social value to non-Indians have likened Vine to Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and C?sar Ch?vez. Such comparisons are honorable, but limited. He was unique to Indian country. His energy was invested in the survival of Indian country, Indian spirituality, Indian people, tribal sovereignty, and our homelands. He frequently called for a 'leave-us-alone' law that would free Native people to live and develop in a manner consistent with the values of our ancestors.
A descendant of chiefs, medicine men, and a few generations of Episcopal ministers, Vine had a uniquely Native spirituality. He wrote about it, and he lived it. He frequently reminded his audiences (Native and non-Native alike) that one of the critical differences between religious institutions and indigenous spirituality is that the former are commemorative, whereas the latter remain revelatory. In other words, the Great Spirit is alive and well, and we still have a responsibility to learn.
Vine walked his talk, and although he was a giant in intellect and spirit, he somehow remained an everyman. To read him, to hear him, was to know him. His voice resonated like the open sky of his Plains homeland. He could be counted on to be honest, to not back down, to champion the oppressed. He got special pleasure in poking fun -- as much at himself as at the rest of us. He led by humble example, and he encouraged us to find our strength.