Published: Nov. 13, 2005

Former University of Colorado at Boulder Professor Vine Deloria. Jr., author of "Custer Died for Your Sins" and an extraordinarily influential American Indian leader, died Sunday, according to colleagues and friends. He was 72.

"Vine was a great leader and writer, probably the most influential American Indian of the past century -- one of the most influential Americans, period," said Distinguished Professor Charles Wilkinson of the CU-Boulder School of Law, a renowned expert on American Indian law. "He was also a wonderful human being, brilliant, bitingly funny and profoundly warm and compassionate, always willing to lend a hand or lift a spirit."

"Vine Deloria was the most important American Indian intellectual, writer, speaker and man of action," said CU-Boulder Professor Patricia Nelson Limerick, a nationally renowned historian of the American West. "If they gave a Nobel Prize for advocacy of indigenous people's rights, he would get it first."

Deloria earned a law degree at CU-Boulder in 1970 and taught at CU-Boulder from 1990 until 2000. He was affiliated with the departments of history, ethnic studies, religious studies, political science and the law school.

"He was a respected scholar, a fine gentleman and during the time he was in this department he contributed greatly to our development as a discipline," said Adjunct Associate Professor Albert Ramirez, chair of the ethnic studies department. "We will miss him greatly."

Limerick recalled bringing Deloria in as a guest speaker to a capstone course for CU-Boulder history majors on "Colonialism and Imperialism in Africa, the Middle East and the American West." She said the class, in which Deloria described to the students his involvement in the campaign to reclaim American Indian's rights, was "one of the best things to ever happen on this campus.

"Did I kick myself for not taping that class? Yes," said Limerick. "Am I kicking myself even more today? Yes.

"I know a lot of remarkably productive thinkers and writers, but the extended, productive achievement of Deloria was breathtaking. Writing for scholarly and popular audiences, seeking out the full scope of documents of Indian treaties and agreements, speaking in the most dynamic and engaging manner, and drawing on extraordinary skills in political negotiation and litigation: such a package of expertise and skills probably is not going to hit the planet again."

Deloria was the author of more than 20 books, including "God is Red," "We Talk, You Listen," "American Indian Policy in the Twentieth Century" and "Singing for a Spirit."

" 'Custer Died for Your Sins' is perhaps the single most influential book ever written on Indian affairs," Wilkinson said in 2002. "At once fiery and humorous, uplifting and sharply critical, 'Custer' received a broad readership nationally and lived up to its pointed subtitle, 'An Indian Manifesto.' "

Born into a distinguished Yankton Sioux family, Deloria served in the Marines and then graduated from Iowa State University and earned a master's degree in theology from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and a law degree from CU-Boulder. He taught at the University of Arizona from 1978 to 1990 before joining the CU-Boulder faculty.

In 1964 he became executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest intertribal organization. "This was a crucial era for Indian people," Wilkinson said. "They faced desperate economic conditions, political and religious repression on the reservations, and the infamous termination policy of Congress.

"Deloria plunged into his new job, writing op-ed articles, giving inspiration to Indian country, building coalitions, and, on Capitol Hill, fighting confiscatory bills and proposing reform measures. His leadership at NCAI and in the ensuing years marked a turning point in Indian policy."

In 2002, Deloria received the Wallace Stegner Award, the highest honor presented by the CU-Boulder Center of the American West. The inscription on Deloria's award, given to people who have made a sustained contribution to the cultural identity of the West, read as follows:

"Always grounded in the stories told by the plains and ridges of your Sioux homeland, and guided by your vision of a vibrant tribal sovereignty, you have become a hero for the ages in Indian country and far beyond, you have changed the West and the world through your activism during the termination crisis, your spirited leadership ever since, your vast and influential writings, and your encompassing mind and matchless courage."

Memorial arrangements were pending. Contributions, in lieu of flowers, are suggested to the Vine Deloria Scholarship Fund, c/o The American Indian Scholarship Fund, Attn: Rick Williams, 8333 Greenwood Blvd., Denver, CO 80221.