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Rick Williams: On the passing of Vine DeLoria Jr.

Richard B. Williams, Oglala Lakota, is the president of the American Indian College Fund in Denver, Colorado.

Vine Deloria was a wonderfully gifted Lakota man who quite possibly saved Indian people from extinction. His writings advanced a strong positive argument that Indian people should assert their right not only to exist, but also to grow and thrive independently in a nation whose policy for Indians was paternalistic subjugation. Vine's work set forth the foundation for the development of a modern definition of sovereignty for Indian nations. Custer Died for Your Sins opened the nation's eyes to the wrongs it had wrought on Indian people.

The prolific nature of his contribution to altering the path of this country's history is far too extensive to recount here. It is an understatement to contend that his political awareness and savvy leadership changed American people's perception of Indian people irrevocably. His work with the National Congress of the American Indian (NCAI) in combating the assimilation policies of termination and relocation were key to reversing hostile federal policies and practices that had persisted since this country's inception. His leadership during the post World War II era set the foundation for the civil rights movement that followed in the late 1960's and early 1970's. This passion for his people often times put him in conflict with the federal government and its policies. Yet, the federal reaction did little to stifle his political passion. Instead, it served to instill a fight for Indian rights that was unparalleled in those times.

He was always supportive and willing to help young Indian people in their intellectual pursuits. This applied even to me during my years as a scholar. I had great fortune to sit in on nearly every class Vine taught at the University of Colorado-Boulder that I could. His lectures were awe-inspiring. The historical material included often-overlooked items such as the Indian Depredations Act, or personal recollections of the modern wars being fought over federal policy during his time with the NCAI. He was history himself, a living treasure.

On rare occasions, I would visit and pose questions that led to thought-provoking conversations about metaphysics and the advanced theories in quantum mechanics and physics and how our ancestors understood these realities and had well thought out concepts that governed the universe. His grasp on the complexities of ancient Indian knowledge and its application in today's society astounded me then, as it still does today. Constantly challenged, Vine was once confronted by academic critics that his work lacked intellectualism and sophistication. He responded by writing The Metaphysics of Modern Existence.

Vine had a highly developed sense of humor. Specialists in cognitive processing will tell you that humor has its source in intelligence. In this way, Vine's genius displayed itself frequently through his complex sense of humor. I was challenged to sort the whim from the wit, often being gently encouraged to laugh when I didn't quite get "it." When his jokes and pokes at fun more often than not went over their heads of the non-Indian students in his class, Vine would often look at me or others who did understand the humor with a raised eyebrow of puzzlement. His facial antics were delightful and added to the fun of gentle Indian teasing.

Through all the genius and fame of his work he remained true to his Indian ways. He often said that the most important value that Indian people had was freedom. Individual freedom found in the democracies of the American Indian nations served as the framework of our government today. As a lifelong student of history, I was moved-as were many-by Vine's contention that Indian people's values, traditions and histories be rightfully asserted into the larger, mainstream fabric of knowledge. This was both revolutionary and rejuvenating. It restored pride in Indian people, preventing our extinction, if not in the physical sense, in the spiritual sense, undoubtedly.

To some, Vine seemed unapproachable, even intimidating to those who would try to get close to him and his work. To those of us who persisted and broke the artificial grumpy faade, we found a wonderful compassionate Indian grandpa. I managed to break into that tightly guarded world, not as a student of Indian intellectualism but as Vine put it, as "a darn good backyard mechanic." And although the relationship evolved over the years, I still believe that his greatest confidence in me involved my ability to fix his old truck.

Some of my last conversations with Vine involved the Spirit World and process one goes through to cross over into it. He was deeply involved in several projects and was evaluating how our wakan leaders converse with the spirits. We discussed a theory on how our prayers are processed and answered, and why, at times, prayers are not answered. I guess now he will have firsthand knowledge and experience of how it works.

All that knew him will so dearly miss his wit, charm, intellect, and passion for all Indian people. To me, he was a teacher, mentor, grandpa and friend. I send him my prayers for a safe journey to the Spirit World, as he assumes his rightful place among our honored ancestors. Mitakuye Oyasin.

Indian Country Today Articles from January 10, 2005:
Wilma Mankiller: An original thinker with a warrior's spirit
Suzan Shown Harjo: Selective memories of Vine Deloria Jr.
Faith Spotted Eagle: Deksi (Uncle) Vine
Charlie Wilkins: Visionary thinker and wordsmith par excellence
Hank Adams: A Vine Deloria Jr. collaboration: The first decade
John Mohawk: Vine Deloria Jr.'s unfolding legacy
Philip Deloria: Tales of a remarkable father
Norbert Hill: A hero to many

Related Stories:
Vine DeLoria: Spoke for a nation of Natives (11/15)
Deloria hailed as 'visionary' for role in Indian affairs (03/11)
Jodi Rave: Deloria unknown because he's Indian (01/24)
Vine Deloria is ICT's American Indian Visionary (01/10)
Column: Vine Deloria refuses honorary degree (05/25)