Vine Deloria Jr., a Standing Rock Sioux, was born on March 26, 1933, in Martin, South Dakota, and grew up near the Pine Ridge reservation. He was the son of Barbara Sloat and Vine Victor Deloria, Sr., who had studied English and Christian theology and became a missionary. This way, Deloria learned a lot about Christian religion growing up, and he would later study theology himself as well, although he ultimately decided not to do anything with it. Deloria was first educated at reservation schools, then went to Iowa State University, where he graduated in 1958 with a degree in general science. After his initial studies, he went on to do a theology degree in Illinois, from which he graduated in 1963, after which he became executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) from 1964 to 1967. This was his first experience with activism and he quickly became an influential figure, giving the organization, which had been deeply divided at the start of the decade (Hoxie 343) a new sense of direction. Above all, he showed “an uncanny ability to identify the central issue confronting (and dividing) Native activists and to propose a future course of action” (352), helping to unite Indigenous people across the United States. He also played an important role in lobbying the federal government to end its policy of termination of Native tribes that had been introduced under the Eisenhower administration to dissolve Native tribes.
After leaving his position at the NCAI, Deloria returned to his academic career, earning a law degree in Colorado in 1970. It was also around this time that he began writing. His first and perhaps most influential book was Custer Died For Your Sins, which came out in 1969. It gave an overview of issues that were troubling the Native community at the time, as well as American society at large, and was followed a year later by We Talk, You Listen. Deloria went on to write over twenty other books in which he laid out Native philosophies, and discussed the activism of the Red Power movement in works like Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties, holding similar views and applauding their fight for sovereignty, even if he was never really a part of the movement. Nevertheless, he continued to be an influential figure within the Native community and most of his works addressed the colonial misconceptions that existed of Natives, trying to show the world that their notion of Natives as “simple folk with primitive traditions that can be easily encapsulated and put away on some library shelf or museum” (Tinker 175) was wrong. In his writing he also frequently touched upon issues outside the Native American community, commenting for example on the rise of Black Power and the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, his views on these issues are thoroughly shaped by his own experiences and views as a Sioux, making him a unique observer of the American scene during this time. This is not surprising, given that certain historical policies, such as John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier had very different connotations for Indigenous people. Deloria became a Professor of Political Science at the University of Arizona in 1978, helping to establish an Indigenous Studies program there, later moving to teach in Colorado in 1990, before returning to Arizona in 2000. All the while, he continued to write and make important contributions to debates surrounding Indigenous issues as “a legal scholar, an American Indian philosopher, a historian, and a social thinker” (Tinker 168), never losing his sharp sense of humor. Vine Deloria died at the age of 72 on November 13, 2005 in Golden, Colorado.