Vine Deloria Jr., the intellectual star of the American Indian renaissance, passed on Nov. 13, after struggling for several weeks with declining health. His immeasurable influence became immediately apparent in an outpouring of tributes from all corners of Indian country.
''I cannot think of any words I could possibly say that even begin to capture the significance of this man and his work among Native people and on our behalf for the past half century,'' said Richard West Jr., director of the National Museum of the American Indian in a message to his staff.
''He has been our ranking scholar and intellectual light for all of those years.''
Made deep impression
The NMAI was only one of many Native institutions that Deloria made possible or deeply influenced during his 73 years. From the activist end of the spectrum, a tribute on the Colorado AIM Web site said, ''It is safe to say that without the example provided by the writing and the thinking of Vine Deloria Jr., there likely would have been no American Indian Movement, there would be no international indigenous peoples' movement as it exists today, and there would be little hope for the future of indigenous peoples in the Americas.''
Deloria wrote more than 20 books, starting with his best seller ''Custer Died for your Sins'' in 1969. His powerful, acerbic criticism made a deep impression on the dominant culture as well as the activist movement then erupting on the scene. But he has an even longer career working behind the scenes of Native organizations.
He was drafted, as he put it, to be executive director of the National Congress of American Indians in 1964. He was a founding trustee of the NMAI when it consisted of the Gustav Heye collection in New York City and helped guide its sale to the Smithsonian Institution. He was a major thinker for the movements for sacred land protection, for treaty rights and for the protection and repatriation of Indian remains.
One of most influential thelogians
In spite of his trenchant criticism of European Christianity, he also served for a time on the executive committee of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. He was the fourth generation descendant of the Yankton Sioux prophet Saswe, and his father and grandfather were both prominent Episcopal churchmen.
TIME magazine once called Deloria one of the 10 most influential theologians of the 20th century. This March he received the second annual American Indian Visionary Award from Indian Country Today.
In a self-deprecating acceptance speech abounding in anecdotes and teasing humor, Deloria gave credit to the remarkable generation of leaders that it was his privilege to work with, beginning with his service at the NCAI.
Deloria was born in 1933 in Martin, S.D., on the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Although his lineage was predominately Yankton Dakota, his grandfather Philip, an Episcopal priest, had enrolled the family in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where he was stationed.
Deloria served in the U.S. Marine Corps and received a master's degree from the Lutheran School of Theology in Rock Island, Ill. After his stint at the NCAI, he pursued an academic career, culminating in the position of professor of history at the University of Colorado.
He remained an incisive writer and social critic to the end. He refused an honorary degree from the University of Colorado because he disapproved of its performance during an athletic scandal. During his last year, he was at work on a major book on the miraculous deeds of American Indian medicine men.