This month, Colorado Law pays tribute to another truly legendary alum, Vine Deloria, Jr., a lawyer and theologian, known to many as the leading American Indian intellectual of the 20th century. Deloria, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, was born in 1933 in Martin, South Dakota, near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. After graduating in 1951 from Kent School, a private college-preparatory school in Connecticut, Deloria served in the Marines for several years. In 1958, Deloria graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in general science. Later, he earned a master’s degree in theology from Lutheran School of Theology in 1963 and a JD from Colorado Law in 1970.
After law school, Deloria accepted a teaching position at the Western Washington University College of Ethnic Studies. As a tenured professor of political science at the University of Arizona from 1978 to 1990, Deloria established the first master’s degree program in American Indian Studies. He joined the University of Colorado faculty in 1990, where he taught until his retirement in 2000. During his tenure at CU-Boulder, Deloria was affiliated with Colorado Law and the departments of history, ethnic studies, religious studies, and political science.
Deloria was a giant in the realm of American Indian policy. From 1964 to 1967, Deloria served as the executive director for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), reviving the organization and laying the foundation for its contemporary prominence. Under his leadership, NCAI’s membership grew from 19 to 156 tribes, became financially stable, and brought its platform of tribal sovereignty to the attention of Congress and the Executive Branch.
In 1969, Deloria published Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, the first of more than 20 books he would write during his career. The book is considered one of the most prominent works ever written on American Indian affairs. Custer asserted a vibrant Indian presence, drove the tribal struggle into the national spotlight, and became a centerpiece of the movement for tribal “self-determination,” a principle now recognized in tribal, federal, and international law.
Deloria’s publications spanned several fields including law, education, anthropology, philosophy, and religion. In addition to his own studies in theology, Deloria was the grandson of a medicine man and son of an Episcopalian minister, a heritage that he wrote about in Singing for a Spirit: A Portrait of the Dakota Sioux. In 1974, following the publication of his book, God is Red: A Native View of Religion, Time Magazine named Deloria one of the “primary movers and shapers” of Christian faith and theology. Deloria received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas in 1996 and the Wallace Stegner Award from the University of Colorado’s Center for the American West in 2002.
Colorado Law Professor Charles Wilkinson, a nationally renowned Native American affairs scholar and Deloria’s personal friend, once wrote, “the modern tribal sovereignty movement has had no single great inspirational leader, no Martin Luther King, Jr., no Cesar Chavez.... Yet if one person may be singled out, it is Vine Deloria, Jr." Deloria’s influence in Washington, DC, in Indian Country, and in academia can be felt to this day. At Colorado Law, the American Indian Law Program honors Deloria through a spirited tradition of research, service, and engagement with Indian tribes. Even though Deloria is gone, his legacy continues.