Publication Date

March 30, 2023

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam, Long Overdue


  • United States



Vine Deloria Jr.

Photo courtesy Christopher Richards

Standing Rock Lakota citizen Vine Deloria Jr. was arguably the most intellectually gifted and articulate spokesperson for Indigenous nationhood in the 20th century. He walked on in 2005 at the age of 72.

Through his prodigious body of work—beginning with his best-selling Custer Died for Your Sins (Macmillan, 1969)—Vine sought to improve relationships among Indigenous nations as well as those between Native nations and non-Native governments. He was hailed in 1974 by Time magazine as a “Theological Superstar of the Future” and received many accolades from both Native and non-Native organizations throughout his life.

Vine was born into a prominent spiritual family. The anglicized name Deloria dates back to Francois des Lauriers, a French fur trapper who married a Dakota woman, Mazaicunwin (Blackfeet Band of Tetons), around 1800. Many of their descendants were holy people who sought to live amicably with the natural world and serve the community. Vine’s aunt, Ella Deloria, was a groundbreaking anthropologist, while his younger brother Philip (Sam) Deloria, a founding delegate of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, is a towering figure in Native law and politics. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and children Philip, Daniel, and Jeanne; Philip himself is professor of history at Harvard University.

A prolific scholar, Vine authored or edited 29 books and over 200 articles and delivered countless addresses and testimonials. Perhaps even more impressive was the diverse range of intellectual disciplines he traversed with aplomb, including law, religion, natural and social sciences, literary criticism, and education. Through his historical work, he aimed to expand our understanding of the distinctive power of treaties, with critical analyses of important historical figures like John Collier and the Indian New Deal, and examinations of US constitutional history and its bearing on Native rights.

Early in his career, Vine focused broadly on writing popular political and legal tracts, providing critical terminology, intellectual substance, and moral and spiritual foundations that inspired and galvanized Native America’s cultural, political, and legal renaissance. He later produced impressive studies, including The Nations Within (Pantheon Books, 1984); Tribes,Treaties, and Constitutional Tribulations (Univ. of Texas Press, 1999); and The Legal Universe (Fulcrum, 2011)—incisive critiques of federal Indian policy, constitutional law, education, and science. Equally important was a set of thematically connected works exploring religion, spirituality, metaphysics, and philosophy: God Is Red (Grosset & Dunlap, 1973), The Metaphysics of Modern Existence (Harper and Row, 1979), and The World We Used to Live In (Fulcrum, 2006).

In addition to his academic credentials, he held important leadership positions. In the 1960s, he headed the National Congress of American Indians, the leading intertribal interest organization, and played a critical role in developing bodies such as the Institute for the Development of Indian Law and the National Museum of the American Indian.

To me, Vine was much more than the sum of all his accomplishments. Our paths first crossed in 1980, when he recruited me to the University of Arizona as part of a radical new MA program in political science. His goal was to train Native students and others in the contradictions and nuances of federal Indian policy, law, and treaty rights. As part of a small cohort of Native students, I was thrilled with the opportunity to study with him. We jokingly called ourselves “Vine’s Disciples,” not because we viewed him as a savior but because we knew we would receive profound lessons in what was required of us as we sought to defend our respective nations’ sovereignty and self-determination.

As Western science finally begins to comprehend (and perhaps even show respect for) the deep knowledges of Indigenous peoples; as there appears to be a dawning, broader understanding that no boundaries exist between us, the earth, and other creatures; as we defend water and life in places like Vine’s home at Standing Rock, I grieve that he is no longer here to guide our actions, to sharpen our minds—I worry we have arrived too late. And yet I still hear his voice—simultaneously mocking and encouraging, hopeful and cynical, caustic and kindly—admonishing me to keep writing. I am reminded that although he has walked on, he’s left a wealth of ideas that can help our world survive these dangerous times.

David E. Wilkins (Lumbee Nation)
University of Richmond

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