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Chapter 1 Eyes Wide Open

Politics of Activism Infused by Reflective, Responsible Sovereignty

Vine Victor Deloria Jr., a Yankton by blood, was born in Martin, South Dakota, on March 26, 1933. He was the first of three children that his father, Vine V. Deloria Sr., and his mother, Barbara S. Eastburn Deloria, would bring into the world. His father and grandfather, Philip J. Deloria (Tipi Sapa), Standing Rock Lakota citizens, were both Episcopal priests. He grew up in Martin, a small border town next to the Pine Ridge Reservation where his father was doing missionary work.

His grandfather, Philip, was the son of the well-known Yankton chief, François (Saswe) des Lauriers. Saswe, a powerful holy man in the Lakota tradition, was a signer of the 1858 accord with the United States by which the Lakota ceded a great deal of territory in southeastern South Dakota in exchange for retention of their reduced lands and other vital rights and benefits along the Missouri River. Throughout his life, Saswe had a series of visions and life experiences that would impact generations of his family’s vocational and religious choices, culminating in a very active presence in the Episcopal Church well into the late twentieth century. His visions guided his decision to direct his son to become a Christian and a priest.

As the son of a prominent priest, Vine Deloria Jr. traveled frequently with his father in Indian Country and attended both church services and traditional tribal events. One of his most lasting and formative boyhood memories was of a visit to the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. He recalled seeing some of the survivors of that horrific event on the reservation during his childhood.

Vine attended an off-reservation school in Martin before heading out in 1949 as a sixteen-year-old to attend Kent School, a private college-prep institution in Connecticut. Deloria graduated in 1951 and then enrolled at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, with the goal of becoming a geologist. In 1952 in an application for a John Whitney Foundation educational grant, he wrote that his plan was to earn a degree in geological engineering because “our country needs geologists very badly … I have a very deep feeling for the land since my ancestors, the Sioux Indians, once ruled it.” “My ultimate purpose,” he said, “is to become a good geologist. Then I would like to remain in South Dakota to help build up the state, particularly the immense tracts of land held by the Indians.”

Deloria elaborated further, indicating the early primacy of land in his consciousness:

There are many Indian ministers, teachers, government workers, and so on. But I know there is a great need for a geologist, who is himself an Indian and naturally has a keen interest in the welfare of the Indians. For example, I know that the average Sioux Indian in South Dakota has very little conception of mineral deposits which might be underneath the very ground he owns. I would like, not only to locate such deposits, but also enlighten the owners so that they will stop selling their lands so cheaply.

While seemingly deeply committed to the study of geology, he flunked out of school upon the realization that he was not meant to be a “rockhound.” He then briefly attended Iowa State College in Ames, but found himself uninspired by that as well. He decided to enlist in the US Marine Corps, where he was trained as a telephone repairman and honorably served from 1954 to 1956. Deloria always recalled his military years with affection.

Financial support from the GI bill enabled him to return to Iowa State College, and it was there that he met his future wife, Barbara Jeanne Nystrom. They graduated and married on the same day in 1958. Together, they had three children: Philip, Daniel, and Jeanne.

The next three years were unsettled. Deloria attended graduate school at the University of Oregon for time, but money was short, so he and Barbara decided to move to Rock Island, Illinois, where he worked in a machine shop for a year before he enrolled in the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. In 1960, he and his family moved again, this time to Puerto Rico where he taught English at Colegio San Justo, an Episcopal boarding school close to San Juan, but that endeavor “blew up after three months,” and he returned to Lutheran Seminary where he earned a master’s degree in 1963.

He then went to work with the United Scholarship Service in Denver. A little more than a year later his career would again take a dramatic shift when at the age of thirty-one he became the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the country’s leading Native interest group. Three years at NCAI provided Vine the opportunity to learn firsthand about the major issues, hopes, and concerns of Indigenous people throughout the United States.

By the end of his term, he understood that a law degree was necessary if he hoped to tackle critical issues such as defense of treaty rights, land reacquisition, empowerment of Native government self-determination, and recovery and revitalization of the concept of tribal sovereignty.

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