Giving thanks to an Indian leader

November 24, 2005|By MARY ANNETTE PEMBER

It is fitting that Vine Deloria Jr.'s spirit chose to pass on Nov. 13, so close to Thanksgiving.

Mr. Deloria, famous for his acerbic wit as he punched holes in American Indian stereotypes, would have appreciated the irony of dying days before a holiday that mythologizes the American Indian.

A Standing Rock Sioux, he was nearly as influential to contemporary American Indians as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was to blacks.

Mr. Deloria hit mainstream America's radar in 1969 with the publication of his book Custer Died for Your Sins, a scathing review of Indian and American relations. His New York Times obituary mentions how he once called the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn - when Sioux and Cheyenne warriors defeated Lt. Col. George Custer and his troops - a "sensitivity training session."

In his more than 20 subsequent books, he gave voice to the American Indian experience in the United States from a unique point of view, often using Indian humor, which always comes with a bite.

Not merely an angry young Indian man venting his rage, Mr. Deloria came to represent a growing cadre of Indian intelligentsia. His books gave articulate voice to the anger of young native people and created a milieu for discussing contemporary native issues.

As a young native woman coming to grips with my own sense of disenfranchisement with mainstream culture and education, I found inspiration and validation through his books. Reading his work shaped my desire to become a journalist and affirmed my dream of giving a true and genuine face to Indian people in the media. I was empowered by the notion that the white man's version of history, science and wisdom was simply that - one group's version.

Mr. Deloria's work offered an intellectual doorway through which young Indians could pass and find their own way and be taken seriously.

Mr. Deloria, born in 1933 near the Pine Ridge reservation, was the son of an Indian Episcopal clergyman. Like his father, Mr. Deloria was a seminarian, who attended law school. His deep appreciation and understanding of the power of spirituality was evident in his book God Is Red. It offers a look at native cosmology and describes the sophistication of Indian spirituality. It also questions the dominance of modern Christianity in American culture.

What's more, Mr. Deloria debunks the simplistic view of Indians as noble savages in harmony with nature. It should be required reading for white America, especially those looking to expropriate our spirituality and ceremonies.

Even after his passing, Mr. Deloria's words will surely continue to politicize, motivate and inspire countless future generations of young people.

On this Thanksgiving, I say, "Chi-megwitch" (thank you very much), Vine Deloria.

Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Ojibwe, is past president of the Native American Journalists Association.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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