Vine Deloria, Jr.

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Native Americans
Social Action
Through out his life, Vine Deloria Jr. strove to make a difference in the lives of the American Indian people. As an activist, advocate, author, and professor, he was able to promote valuable changes in people's lives and perceptions.


Biographical Highlights

Vine Deloria Jr. is one of the best-known American Indian activists of the 20th century. A member of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, Deloria came from a family of prominent American Indians. Deloria worked in the mid 1960s for the National Congress of American Indians and brought the organization through a very rough time in its history. After becoming a national figure himself with the publication of his book “Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto” in 1969, Deloria continued his education with a law degree and expanded his writings to more than two dozen books before his death. His writings are as diverse as his education with topics including politics, theology and law. Deloria culminated his professional life as a professor working at both Arizona State University and the University of Colorado at Boulder. (Adams Jan. 2005)


Historical Roots

Vine Deloria Jr. (1933-2005) was born on March 26, 1933 in Martin, South Dakota. He was the son on an Episcopalian priest and member of the Standing Rock Sioux. Deloria was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, which he joined in 1954. His first degree came from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s in general studies in 1958. He then attended the Lutheran School of Theology in Illinois where he received his master’s degree. (Adams Nov. 2005)

In 1964 Deloria became the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). During his time in Washington, he established himself as an advocate for Indians. In addition to his work with the NCAI, he was often called upon by Congress to testify during this time when social, civil rights, and ethnic identity movements were in full swing. (Johnson, 2005)

Deloria left the NCAI in 1967 and two years later released his first book “Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto”, which launched him further into national prominence. The next year he received his law degree from the University of Colorado. He continued writing, becoming one of the most prolific writers about American Indian rights and culture in history. His writings total more than 20 books including, “We Talk, You Listen”, “God is Red”, “For this Land”, and “Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties”. (Adams Jan. 2005)

Deloria returned to education, this time as a professor at first Arizona State University and later back at the University of Colorado in the history department. He left teaching in 2000 but continued writing and providing leadership for American Indians. Deloria received many honors and awards including the 2003 American Indian Festival of Words Author Award and the American Indian Visionary Award in early 2005. Deloria died November 13, 2005. (Adams Nov. 2005)



Through out his life, Vine Deloria Jr. strove to make a difference in the lives of the American Indian people. As an activist, advocate, author, and professor, he was able to promote valuable changes in people’s lives and perceptions.

As an activist and advocate, Deloria was called upon by Congress to be a voice for American Indians during the turbulence of the 1960’s. Also Deloria acted as a witness for the defense team in the Wounded Knee Trials in 1974. (Schultz 2000) Charles F Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado agrees with Deloria’s important role by saying “I think in the last 100 years, he’s been the most important person in Indian affairs, period.”(Johnson 2005)

In his writings, Deloria challenges the typical ideas that surround the American Indian people. The fact that many of his books have been national best sellers is a testament to his ability and effectiveness to communicate his message. In his 1969 work “Custer Died for your Sins,” Deloria puts forth his vision for the American Indian in a way that touches all who read it. His books are mainstays for the American Indian activist. Wilma Mankiller wrote of Deloria, “No writer has more clearly articulated the unspoken emotions, dreams and lifeways of contemporary Native people.” (Indian 2005)

When Deloria returned to the universities to teach, he turned to his experience, passion and knowledge to educate all those in his classroom. Through his teaching, writing, and advocacy, Deloria has established himself as an important individual within the American Indian society and beyond.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The 1960s were a very formative time in American history, especially in relation to racial and ethnic rights movements. This was the time that Vine Deloria Jr. was executive director for the National Congress of American Indians. During his time there he worked hard to deescalate the Indian militant incidents to chance happenings. He collaborated with the older generation of Indians in order to cultivate their experience and promote a different kind of activism. (Adams Jan. 2005)

At this time Deloria also worked to help create groups including the National Indian Youth Council and the Institute for the Development of Indian Law. (Schultz 2000) He has also been a board member for the National Museum of the American Indian and the Intertribal Bison Council. (Indian 2005)


Key Related Ideas

Activism: The principle or practice of working directly either for or against one side of a controversial issue.

Social Justice: Social justice is the idea that justice doesn’t always come from the strongest group but instead that everyone has the right to justice. In this case the American Indian has been persecuted since the landing of the settlers in the 1600’s. Through the idea of social justice, people are now working on a way to right those wrongs and make sure that it doesn’t happen again.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Ella Deloria (1888-1971): Ella Deloria, Vine Deloria’s aunt was a well-known American Indian author. She began her career as a teacher but also worked as an anthropologist, linguist and translator.
  • Vine Deloria Sr. (1901-1990): Vine Deloria Jr.’s father and Episcopal priest. Vine Sr. led by example and provided Vine Jr. a solid example of a man who was dedicated to his people.
  • Wilma Mankiller (1945- ): Wilma Mankiller is the first woman to be the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Both Mankiller and Deloria worked hard to promote the rights of the American Indian.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • National Congress of the American Indian: Founded in 1944, this organization is the oldest and largest tribal governmental organization in the United States. Its mission is to act as an advocate for the tribes to the public and federal government on a wide range of issues including tribal self-government, treaty rights, and federal policy issues that affect tribal government. (
  • Native American Rights Fund: The Native American Rights Fund works to preserve tribal existence, protect tribal resources, promote human rights, uphold government accountability, and develop Indian law. This organization was founded in 1970 and is the oldest and largest non-profit law firm focused on defending and asserting Indian rights. (
  • National Museum of the American Indian: The National Museum of the American Indian is the sixteenth museum of the Smithsonian Institute. It was established by an act of Congress in 1989 and is dedicated to the study, preservation and exhibition of the culture, history, literature and art of the American Indian. (

  • National Indian Youth Council, Inc.: Founded in 1961, the National Indian Youth Council works to make sure that every Native American person is allowed the opportunity to excel in his or her community. It is the second oldest national Indian organization and its conception, ownership and operation have Indian origin. (




Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Adams, Jim. “‘Inspiration for a Generation’ Passes after a Life of Revolutionary Work.” Indian Country Today 
  • Adams, Jim. “Vine Deloria Jr., American Indian Visionary 2005,” Indian Country Today Vol. 24, Issue 31 (12 January 2005): A1.
  • Auerbach, Susan. Encyclopedia of Multiculturalism. Vol. 2 New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1994.
  • Indian Country Today. “Salute to Vine Deloria Jr.; American Indian Visionary” Indian Country Today Vol. 24, Issue 31 (12 January 2005): A3.
  • Johnson, Kirk. “Vine Deloria Jr., Champion of Indian Rights, Dies at 72,” New York Times 
  • Schultz, Jeffery D., and others. Encyclopedia of Minorities in American Politics Vol. 2 Hispanic Americans and Native Americans. Phoenix: The Oryx Press, 2000.
  • Wildcat, Daniel. “An Educator’s Tribute to Vine Deloria Jr.” Indian Country Today Vol. 24, Issue 31 (12 January 2005): A5.