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Vine Deloria Jr., 72; Native American Activist Wrote 'Custer Died for Your Sins'

November 15, 2005|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Vine Deloria Jr., author of the scathing bestseller "Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto" and an influential historian and spokesman for Native American rights, has died. He was 72.

Deloria, who taught at the University of Colorado from 1990 to 2000, died Sunday in Denver of complications from an aortic aneurysm, his family said. He lived in nearby Golden, Colo.

"Vine was a great leader and writer, probably the most influential American Indian of the past century -- one of the most influential Americans, period," said Charles Wilkinson, of the University of Colorado School of Law at Boulder and an Indian law expert.

Deloria wrote more than 20 books, but it was his first in 1969, "Custer Died for Your Sins," that brought him to the nation's attention.

In 2002, Wilkinson called it "perhaps the single most influential book ever written on Indian affairs" and described it as "at once fiery and humorous, uplifting and sharply critical."

J.A. Phillips, in reviewing the book for Best Sellers shortly after it was published, wrote that Deloria "asserts the worth if not the dignity of the red man and blasts the political, social and religious forces that perpetuate the Little Big Horn and wigwam stereotyping of his people."

The author's disdain for Gen. George Armstrong Custer never wavered. In 1996, he reiterated his views on the Civil War hero who died at Little Big Horn at a symposium at the Autry National Center's Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

Deloria told The Times then that he continued to view Custer as the Adolf Eichmann of the Plains. Eichmann was the Nazi official in charge of implementing Hitler's extermination of millions of people during the Holocaust, in particular Jews.

"Soldiers were nothing to him, except tools," Deloria told The Times, describing Custer as a psychopath. "The soldiers were not defending civilization. They were crushing another society."

Publication of the powerful "Custer" book followed Deloria's 1964-67 tenure as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. His leadership in lobbying Congress and setting forth Native American rights issues in speeches and articles during the 1960s is widely credited with forcing a turning point in Indian policy.

"I think what we saw in" Deloria's "generation of Native Americans was this transition of federal policy from termination" -- moving or integrating Indians into cities and eliminating reservations -- "to self-determination, and Vine, I think, was the real leader in making that happen," John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, told Associated Press on Monday. "Through Vine's leadership, tribes started to stand on their treaties and their right to self-determination."

Among Deloria's other books were "We Talk, You Listen" in 1970, "God Is Red" in 1973 and "Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties" in 1974, about events leading to the confrontation between Native American activists and federal authorities at Wounded Knee the previous year. As an expert on Indian treaties, Deloria was a key witness for the defense in the Wounded Knee trial in St. Paul, Minn.

Born a Yankton Sioux in Martin, S.D., near the Pine Ridge Reservation, Deloria was the son of an Episcopalian Indian minister and earned a master's degree in theology from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Themes of spirituality and theology infused much of his writing. At the time of his death, Deloria had been working on a book about Indian medicine men, the spiritual ministers of Native Americans.

Deloria served in the Marine Corps in the mid-1950s and then earned a bachelor's degree at Iowa State University, his theology degree and then a law degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He taught at the University of Arizona from 1978 until 1990, when he joined the Colorado faculty, teaching in its departments of history, political science, law, ethnic studies and religious studies.

Earlier this year, Deloria received the American Indian Visionary Award presented by Indian Country Today magazine in Washington, D.C., for displaying "the highest qualities and attributes of leadership in defending the foundations of American Indian freedom." In 2002 he received the University of Colorado Center of the American West's Wallace Stegner Award for his sustained contribution to the cultural identity of the West.

Deloria is survived by his wife of 47 years, Barbara; two sons, Philip and Daniel; a daughter, Jeanne Deloria; a brother, Philip; a sister, Barbara Sanchez; and seven grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Vine Deloria Scholarship Fund, c/o The American Indian Scholarship Fund, Attn: Rick Williams, 8333 Greenwood Blvd., Denver, CO 80221.

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