About five years ago, I headed south to be a part of the newly created Indigenous Program at the University of Arizona. As a part of my work there, I became the research/teaching assistant to Vine Deloria, Jr. He would come each winter to Tucson to escape the cold winters in Colorado, and so I would help him run his Advanced Seminar on Treaties each spring semester.
He would always have a few coffee breaks during his classes to smoke his trademark unfiltered Pall Malls, and the students would flock around for stories of his incredible life. They would always be treated to his many stories on how the American Indian Movement began and whatever project or conference he was working on. He organized more conferences than most people attend – the themes usually challenged and expanded upon contemporary knowledge or beliefs. His last conference was on traditional knowledge on volcanoes, another on Indigenous stories/names of the constellations, each inspiring people to think beyond.
A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe born in Martin, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, he is the most accomplished North American Indian author, scholar and activist, and he left a changed world behind him when he died on November 13th.
One of his favourite stories was from his time in Washington State when they were fighting for the fishing rights of the Northwest Indian tribes. The actor Marlon Brando had come up to show support, and so they all went out in their boats.
When the government boats came towards them, Vine said he could see Marlon posturing on his boat readying himself to be the first to meet them. But when he was
stopped, and proclaimed that he and his friends had come out in support of Indian fishing rights, the government agents asked him what friends he was talking about. In the mist, all the rest of the boats had faded back.
So, after hours of detention and interrogation, Brando showed up back at their headquarters quite agitated. Vine told him to look at the bright side of it, that many people in America talked about the problem of the Vanishing Indian; he had just witnessed it.
One day, I noticed that Vine had published an article in Playboy magazine in 1969 on his transformative work, Custer Died for Your Sins. I set up an E-bay account, and ordered a copy from a collector to see what it looked like.
After our treaties class one day, we had gone back to my office, and I showed Vine the publication. He laughed and then told me a story of how, after the publication, a senator during a public hearing in had become quite upset with him, saying he did not enjoy the message in the article. Vine said he couldn’t believe the senator had read the article. The senator insisted he had. Vine repeated the accusation. The senator made the mistake of asking Vine why he thought this. Because, Vine responded, the article was at least six pages past the centerfold…
We had many good conversations, and over the years he became a close friend. I never had a meal with him that someone did not walk up to him and shake his hand to thank him for changing their lives with his writing, teaching or work.
I, too, will miss Vine in so many ways, and write this with a heavy heart, but am ever thankful for our annual pilgrimages to Arizona.