An American Critique of Religion

On September 9, 1974, the weekly news magazine Time reported that a survey of religious leaders and scholars had produced a list of eleven “shapers and shakers of the Christian faith,” including Vine Deloria, Jr. It remains one of the most unusual honors Deloria has received in his long and distinguished career as activist, author, and educator. Interchurch Features, a New York-based consortium of Christian periodicals published in the United States and Canada, sponsored the poll; they asked survey participants to identify the most promising religious figures in the modern world, the “Theological Superstars of the Future.” Named to the list along with Deloria were five Roman Catholics and five Protestants including theologians Hans Küng and Jürgen Moltmann and evangelist Billy Graham. Time identified Deloria only as a “Sioux Indian Lawyer” who “says flatly that he is no longer a Christian at all,” though he offered evidence that his sense of humor had not wavered when, in another context, he described his religious affiliation as “Seven Day Absentist.”

Why would influential representatives of North America’s Christian establishment choose such an iconoclast–and an apostate one at that–for their roster of religious luminaries? Writing in The Christian Century, one of the periodicals that sponsored the Interchurch Features survey, columnist Martin Marty suggested that some degree of liberal tokenism was involved in the process; the list also included one Latin American, one African, and one woman, three demographic strongholds of modern Christianity that are still under-represented in ecclesiastical leadership and theological scholarship. American Indians have always occupied a special place in the colonial psychology of European immigrants, though many Indians have been less than enthusiastic about their involvement with those immigrants’ religious communities. As a seminary graduate and one of the most prominent Indian leaders since the mid-sixties, Deloria likely seemed an obvious and convenient choice. Even more important, however, were his critical writings on the contemporary American predicament, which had not gone unnoticed in the nation’s pulpits and pews. Five books published in as many years, including his provocatively titled works Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) and God Is Red (1973), aimed to disrupt the self-serving laziness of any tokenistic gestures. Apparently anticipating the objections of their more conservative readers, the Interchurch Features editors justified Deloria’s inclusion on the list by pointing out that he “offers North Americans a stirring call for society’s repentance and reform.”

If Deloria’s selection as a “Theological Superstar of the Future” seemed an appropriate recognition at the time, it was not a particularly good predictor of his subsequent impact as a “shaper and shaker of the Christian faith.” All of his fellow luminaries went on to distinguish themselves as religious leaders and scholars and today are among the most influential figures in their particular corners of the Christian world. Yet Deloria has never been listed in Who’s Who in Religion (through four editions, 1975-92) or among the 550 individuals included in the Dictionary of American Religious Biography, and the Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience and The Encyclopedia of American Religious History also contain no reference to Deloria or his writings. Mircea Eliade’s definitive, sixteen-volume Encyclopedia of Religion includes only two brief mentions of Deloria’s work: a quote from his introduction to the 1979 edition of Black Elk Speaks, and a bibliographic reference to God Is Red. And although many American Indian leaders and American Indian studies scholars regard Deloria to be one of the most influential Indian figures of the twentieth century, he is best known today for his contributions in political and legal affairs, not for his critical insights on religious matters. How should we account for this turn of events? Was Deloria a theological superstar or only a meteor, a charismatic streak of light in the religious firmament?

Like several of his fellow luminaries, Deloria’s intellectual energies have been divided between religious affairs and other pressing concerns for much of his professional career. His continuing involvement in the persistent political struggles facing American Indians has precluded the kinds of theological contributions made by prolific European scholars such as Küng and Moltmann. And unlike all of the other ten superstars, Deloria has dissented from the Western religious mainstream by maintaining a non-Christian stance, not relying on any Christian institutions for bureaucratic legitimation. His writings have elicited very little critical response from scholars of religion, perhaps because his ideas are simply too far outside the bounds of prevailing academic sentiment, which is still burdened by an unfortunate intellectual parochialism. Only a few scholars of religion have responded in print to the criticisms and proposals contained in God Is Red and Deloria’s other early writings. Many have been put off by his polemical style or his incisive approach to contemporary conflicts.

The essays collected in this volume demonstrate that despite the demands of his political involvements, and despite a lack of critical response to his religious publications, Deloria has not stopped thinking and writing about religion. In dozens of occasional pieces published during the last three decades, he has offered substantive and persistent contributions to understanding the complexity of religion in America. Some of his provocative essays have been written for scholarly journals or religious periodicals, while others have suggested perceptive interpretations of contemporary religious affairs aimed at a more general audience. Many readers assume that Deloria has offered a definitive statement of his views on religion in God Is Red, but this supposition overlooks a wide-ranging body of work articulating insightful perspectives on controversial religious issues. These occasional writings document an abiding concern for the religious dimensions and implications of human existence. Deloria’s intellectual sensibilities developed out of his family background and organizational commitments; these essays are best understood in the context of his personal and professional experiences, which have framed his discursive intentions.

An American Life

Vine Deloria, Jr., was born in Martin, South Dakota, on March 26, 1933; he entered the world at the edge of the Pine Ridge Reservation and on the brink of a new era in Indian affairs. He seemed destined for a life spent straddling other kinds of frontiers as well, the first child of a prominent Dakota Episcopal missionary priest and his Anglo-American wife. Deloria inherited a number of important dispositions from his forebears including an appreciation for disciplined education, a commitment to community life, a healthy suspicion toward colonial institutions, a preference for reformist activism, a sense of religious purpose, and the articulate voice of a prophet. These and other personal qualities have made him an effective advocate in a variety of contexts, sustaining a family tradition of leadership.

The family name Deloria is an anglicized form of the name of Phillippe des Lauriers, a French fur trader who settled in a Yankton community and married the daughter of a Yankton headman. Their grandson Francoise (whose Christian name the Yanktons transformed into Saswe) had a visionary experience at the age of eighteen that paradoxically granted him powers as a medicine man, predicted he would kill four Sioux men, and committed his descendants to serve as mediators with the dominant society. He went on to become a respected healer and leader of the White Swan community on the Yankton Reservation, where he settled in 1858. Saswe welcomed Presbyterian and Episcopal missionaries when they arrived, sending some of his children to day schools and having all of his children and grandchildren baptized. He attended church regularly himself but was not allowed to make any formal affiliation because he was married to three Sioux women. After one wife died and another returned to her home reservation, Saswe finally received Christian baptism in 1871, and disturbing visitations by his four victims ceased.

Saswe and his first wife Siha Sapewin, who was from the Standing Rock Reservation, had their first son in 1854. Saswe favored him and symbolically bequeathed to him his spiritual powers by giving him the name Tipi Sapa (Black Lodge), which had appeared as an important element in his original vision. Tipi Sapa assisted Saswe in his work as a medicine man and was his father’s apparent successor as leader of the White Swan community. But at the age of sixteen he decided–with his father’s encouragement–to pursue an academic education and to fulfill his religious vocation by becoming an Episcopal priest, in hopes of helping his people adjust to the changing circumstances of reservation life. He was baptized Philip Joseph Deloria on Christmas Day and left home soon thereafter to attend an Episcopal mission school in Nebraska and, later, a military academy in Minnesota. Committed to religious leadership but dismayed by denominational competition among Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic missionaries, Philip was one of three young Dakota leaders who in 1873 foundedWojo Okolakiciye (The Planting Society), an organization promoting ecumenical fellowship that later became known as the Brotherhood of Christian Unity. After completing his education, he served as a lay reader and was ordained as deacon in 1883 and as priest in 1892, then appointed to supervise all Episcopal mission work on the Standing Rock Reservation. He held this position until his retirement in 1925, by which time he had secured a national reputation as one of the most devoted and respected priests in the history of Episcopal missions to Indians. His cultural reminiscences were collected in a 1918 book titled The People of Tipi Sapa, and he is one of only three Americans included in the ninety-eight “Saints of the Ages” carved behind the altar of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Philip married Mary Sully Bordeaux and together they raised a family of six children as adopted members of the Hunkpapas living at Standing Rock. Their only son Vine Victor, whose Dakota name was Ohiya (Champion), was born in 1901. Mary died when Vine was fifteen and he was sent to a military academy in Nebraska to complete his secondary education. He excelled on the playing field, attending college in New York on an athletic scholarship and envisioning a career as a professional athlete, but instead agreed to follow his ailing father’s footsteps into the Christian ministry. In 1931 Vine graduated from an Episcopal seminary in New York City and was assigned to St. Katherine’s Mission and other parishes on the Pine Ridge Reservation. He served there for seventeen years, then spent three years at the Sisseton Mission and three years at an Anglo parish in Iowa. In 1954 he was appointed to the National Council of the Episcopal Church as Assistant Secretary for Indian Missions, the first Indian to serve as a denominational executive. He later recalled his time on national staff as the most frustrating experience of his career. Church leaders were unwilling to take his ideas and suggestions seriously, and he left after four years and returned to another Anglo parish in Iowa. He was soon appointed to be archdeacon of the Indian parishes in South Dakota and occupied that post until his retirement in 1968. Vine admitted to growing more critical of the institutional church in his later years, and the seeds of his eldest son’s radicalism are evident in the fierce cultural pride and acute sense of justice Vine occasionally allowed to surface.

Vine and his wife Barbara had their first child in 1933 and bound him to his forebears by naming him Vine Victor Deloria, Jr. The junior Deloria attended off-reservation schools in Martin and occasionally traveled to tribal dances, held openly once again after the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. He once described a visit to the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre as the most memorable event of his early childhood, and his father often pointed out survivors still living on the reservation. As a child he also participated in the rich communal and ceremonial life that has long characterized the Sioux Episcopal Church, which reaches its fullest expression in the annual Niobrara Convocation, now in its 126th year. Deloria left home in 1949 and finished his high school diploma during two years at the Kent School, a private college-preparatory school in Connecticut. He spent the next five years exploring technology, first spending his University of Colorado freshman tuition money on a used car, later studying geology for two years at the Colorado School of Mines, and eventually enlisting in the Marine Corps Reserve where he was certified in telephone repair. In 1956 he enrolled at Iowa State University, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in general science and met his future wife, Barbara Jeanne Nystrom.

They were married in the summer of 1958 and a year later moved to Illinois so Deloria could attend a Lutheran seminary in Rock Island. He had considered pursuing the ministry in his younger days but had also watched his father struggle with the denominational bureaucracy in more recent years. Instead of training for a Christian vocation, Deloria spent the next four years studying theology and philosophy by day and earning a living as a welder by night. He later wrote that “seminary, in spite of its avowed goals and tangible struggle with good intentions, provided an incredible variety of food for thought but a glaring lack of solutions or patterns of conceivable action which might be useful in facing a world in which the factors affecting human life change daily.” In 1963 he received a graduate degree in theology and accepted a staff position with the United Scholarship Service, a church-supported educational philanthropy based in Denver, Colorado.

An American Reformer

Deloria directed a new program that placed Indian students in elite private schools on the East Coast, a position he had been offered on the basis of his own successful experience at the Kent School. He insisted that students qualify for the program on the basis of academic credentials and quickly found scholarships for some thirty young people. But the denominational leaders who were funding the program wanted a more paternalistic approach that would coddle Indians as token minorities, and they accused Deloria of elitism for his emphasis on excellence and hard work. In 1964 he drove to Sheridan, Wyoming, to promote his program at the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians. The preeminent intertribal organization was conflicted, deeply indebted, and dwindling in membership, and by the end of the week Deloria had been elected to be its executive director. Until then a relatively anonymous young administrator known primarily in church circles, he was soon to become one of the most prominent national leaders in Indian affairs. Stan Steiner’s landmark bookThe New Indians, a journalistic report on the growing Red Power movement published only four years later, quotes or refers to Deloria more often than any other single individual.

Resigning from his position with the United Scholarship Service, Deloria devoted considerable energy to reviving the NCAI as a political force. “I learned more about life in the NCAI in three years than I had in the previous thirty,” he later recalled; during his tenure he experienced both the frustrations of tribal politics and the persistence of white liberal paternalism. He began to see the importance of building a national power base through grassroots organizing at the local level, and he also came to appreciate the need for trained Indian lawyers who could defend tribal sovereignty and treaty rights within the American legal system. By the fall of 1967, Deloria was convinced that the rising popularity of certain outspoken traditionalists signaled the beginning of a revolutionary era in Indian affairs. He stepped down as the leader of the NCAI and enrolled in law school at the University of Colorado, setting an example many other young Indian activists soon followed, in much the same way that N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn (1968) would come to inspire a generation of Indian writers. Deloria continued working with the NCAI as a consultant, and during this period he also served on the boards of several national organizations including the Citizens’ Crusade Against Poverty, the Board of Inquiry into Hunger and Malnutrition in the USA, and the National Office for the Rights of the Indigent.

Deloria’s administrative responsibilities with the NCAI included a quarterly newsletter, the Sentinel, which provided a forum for what would be his first published writings. In regular editorial columns, he turned out short pieces of social and political commentary laced with tribal nationalism and a sarcastic sense of humor, and he was not reluctant to poke fun at other Indian organizations as well. These commentaries tapped into a renewed sense of vitality and purpose developing in Indian country and were occasionally reprinted in tribal and denominational periodicals. Deloria also found himself speaking out against popular discourse perpetuating racial stereotypes, such as a whiskey advertisement invoking firewater and old squaws. One of his earliest unpublished essays, “The Missionary in a Cultural Trap,” was an elaborate parody written in response to a 1965 article by a Jesuit missionary (see appendix). He also remained involved in a few denominational activities during this period, and in 1968 Deloria was elected to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. He chaired the denomination’s Ad-Hoc Committee on Indian Work and used this platform to propose sweeping changes in the institutional bureaucracy, circulating a document titled “More Real Involvement” in which he called for a series of reforms that would facilitate self-determination among Indian churches.

Despite the demands of law school classes, various organizational commitments, several trips to Alcatraz Island, and a growing family, Deloria also found time to write two books. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto was published in 1969 and We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf followed a year later. Both books were informed by his recent experiences with religious and political organizations, critiquing the “unrealities” of American society with a militant edge that caught many readers by surprise, and both also received national literary awards. He originally used the memorable title of his first book as a satirical slogan at a 1966 event in Washington; the phrase was immediately picked up by the National Council of Churches and also spread throughout Indian country within weeks. Custer Died for Your Sinswas a remarkable feat of energy, breadth, insight, wit, and timing, securing Deloria’s reputation as a leading commentator on Indian affairs. It remains his best-selling book and has been translated into Spanish, Swedish, and French. He had several motives and as many audiences in mind while writing the book, foremost among them the Christian missionaries still disrupting tribal communities. “Above all,” he concluded in an autobiographical afterword, “I am hopeful that the churches will give up this passionate desire to steal sheep from each other’s folds and get down to the business of helping Indian people. If, as they claim, Christianity is for all people, why not let Indian people worship God after their own conceptions of Him?” We Talk, You Listen continues in this line of thought by moving to a more theoretical exploration of tribalism in its modern manifestations. The book closes by examining the collective existential crisis confronting the mainline denominations, concluding that “the real issue to be faced today” in America is about religion.

Deloria was awarded a law degree in 1970 and for the next eight years earned a living from a variety of lectureships, administrative positions, consultancies, legal cases, and publishing contracts. He taught in the College of Ethnic Studies at Western Washington University for a year and a half and at UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center for four quarters, and later held brief visiting appointments at the Pacific School of Religion, the New School of Religion, and Colorado College. He founded the Institute for the Development of Indian Law in 1971 (with the support of four denominational Indian caucuses), assisted several tribes on political conflicts, and participated in the Wounded Knee trials as both defense attorney and expert witness. He also worked with various national organizations promoting social reform including Christian groups such as the National Council of Churches, the American Lutheran Church, the United Presbyterian Church, and the Committee of Southern Churchmen.

Deloria’s major writings during this period reflect his broad range of concerns and involvements. In 1971 he edited two books aimed at documenting Indian political history and reformulating the contemporary legal status of tribal nations in the United States. The Red Man in the New World Drama was originally published forty years earlier, written by Jennings C. Wise in the tradition of the historical grand narrative. Deloria took the trouble to revise, update, and republish Wise’s work because it interprets the colonization of the Americas as “part of a world drama of conflicting religions,” and Deloria considered this book an “opening wedge” in the effort to “shake people out of their traditional way of looking at the world.” Of Utmost Good Faith is an anthology of congressional acts, judicial rulings, and other legal documents that have circumscribed the rights of tribal people in American society. Unlike other popular anthologies that commemorate the Indian past in tragic terms, Deloria’s forthright editorial bias here advances an optimistic outlook toward the future. Having outlined the historical basis for contemporary political and legal disputes in these two volumes, he proposed a systematic reformulation of tribal sovereignty in Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence, published in 1974. This collaborative study grew out of the protest activism leading up to the Wounded Knee confrontation; it argues that Congress should address Indian claims by reopening the treaty-making process. Deloria explored these questions again three years later in Indians of the Pacific Northwest, a case study in tribal political and legal history on a regional scale.

Deloria summarized his ideas for a Christian audience in The Indian Affair. Published by a National Council of Churches press in 1974, the same year Interchurch Features named him a theological superstar, this short book on contemporary issues is more moderate in tone than many of his other writings on Christianity, in part because it emphasizes pragmatic considerations. His intentions were clearly more theoretical a year earlier in God Is Red, his most influential publication after Custer Died for Your Sins and the book that brought him special notoriety among church people. God Is Red addresses the profound spiritual malaise in American society by deconstructing the Western religious worldview, which many have read as an attack on diverse Christian communities. Dismayed by the early response to his book, Deloria told a group of church leaders that “a substantial number of reviewers seem to think that I’m mad at Christianity or that I’m appalled by Christian excesses a hundred years ago, and therefore wrote the book in an attempt to get even. And that’s not it all.” He was more concerned about the institutional churches’ “credibility gap,” a symptom of “religious breakdown” and the “spiritual desperation” it has generated in the contemporary situation. The questions he really wanted to raise were: “What are religions? How do they originate? And what can you anticipate [experiencing] in an ongoing religious life?” He concludes in God Is Red that religion “is a force in and of itself” that “calls for the integration of lands and peoples in harmonious unity.”

In 1975 Christianity and Crisis published a perceptive interview with Deloria by contributing editor James R. McGraw, who posed his own response to the book in the form of a question: “Would it be fair to say reconciliation is what Christians must be about, not reconciling souls to Christ but reconciling themselves to the land?” Deloria assented, hoping for “an emergence of white theology which would be derived not from the European tradition but from an American tradition,” a sense of identity “steeped in American history. . . . I don’t think we’ve confronted the American experience in any profound way at all. So nobody understands who we are or where we’re going. And that’s whiteand Indian.” Deloria examined these questions more closely in his second major philosophical work, The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, published in 1979. Again eschewing public expectation that he write only as Indian informant, he surveyed Western philosophy and its social implications, identifying various trends that indicate a new vision of reality–one more compatible with tribal worldviews–may be emerging in American culture. In this book he “tried to develop the thesis that real knowledge of reality must be primarily a matter of perception and a careful handling of the process of deriving concepts of knowledge from those perceptions,” but few critics perceived the usefulness of Deloria’s generalist approach.

In 1978 Deloria accepted a tenured appointment as professor of law and political science at the University of Arizona, where he developed a master’s degree program as chair of American Indian studies. His decision to move into a full-time academic position did not mean an end to his extensive involvement in organizational activism, though he did develop a more rigorous focus in his research and writing over the next decade. During the eighties he published several books and numerous articles on tribal political and legal history, most notably two volumes co-authored with colleague Clifford Lytle, American Indians, American Justice (1983) and The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty (1984). Lytle later characterized Deloria’s approach to social change as both energetic and inconspicuous: “He has been connected with most of the major movements in Indian politics” since the sixties but has “adopted a style of action that seeks to minimize public presence,” since fame often undermines effectiveness. “But it is a rare issue that does not have his footprints somewhere in the background.” Custer Died for Your Sins was reprinted in 1988 with a new preface, in which Deloria marveled at the changes two decades had wrought in Indian country. He reminded his readers that “the Indian task of keeping an informed public available to assist the tribes in their efforts to survive is never ending,” and he asserted that “the central message of this book, that Indians are alive, have certain dreams of their own, and are being overrun by the ignorance and the mistaken, misdirected efforts of those who would help them, can never be repeated too often.”

Deloria left Arizona for the University of Colorado in 1990, accepting an appointment as professor of American Indian studies and history with adjunct appointments in law, political science, and religious studies. These varied departmental affiliations reflect the range of his interests and scholarly contributions and are also a measure of his stature as a respected leader in Indian affairs. The move was a homecoming of sorts, recalling childhood visits to Denver’s cathedral with his father, several adventurous years as a college student, his first professional position out of seminary, the publication of his first two books while in law school, and intense organizational activism throughout the seventies.

During the nineties Deloria has continued to provide leadership for a variety of local, regional, and national organizations, addressing specifically Indian issues but also working with groups such as the Friends of the Denver Public Library, the Institute of the North American West, and the Disabilities Rights Education and Defense Fund. He also has been the recipient of many awards and honors including several citations for lifetime achievement. He demonstrated his expertise in yet another field by writing a number of articles on education for Winds of Change magazine, the quarterly periodical of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, which published eight of these essays in 1991 as a collection titled Indian Education in America. He also cooperated with that organization in sponsoring a series of conferences on traditional tribal knowledge about astronomy, animal and plant life, and creation and migration accounts.

Deloria marked the Columbus Quincentenary in 1992 by publishing a second edition of his classic work God Is Red. Now subtitled A Native View of Religion as if to make his theoretical intentions more explicit, it is the only one of his seventeen books he has revised for republication. The second edition underscores the impending “ecological meltdown” by raising “additional questions about our species and our ultimate fate.” Convinced that relentless exploitation of nature will soon produce an “earthly wasteland,” Deloria asserted that “clearly the struggle is between a religious view of life and the secularization that science and industry have brought.” These concerns and long-standing doubts about the integrity of Western science led him to the subject of his latest book, Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact, published in 1995. Framing the philosophy and methodology of Western science as a type of religious theory and practice, he argued that the institutionalization of science has led it to take on the form and function of religion in an increasingly secularized society. This has allowed scientists to “act like priests and defer to doctrine and dogma when determining what truths would be admitted, how they would be phrased, and how scientists themselves would be protected from the questions of the mass of people whose lives were becoming increasing dependent on them.”

Deloria’s lifelong contributions to religious affairs and in the field of religious studies were recognized by the scholarly community in 1996, when he was invited to deliver one of three plenary addresses at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. He applied his legendary sense of humor to the task and his address, titled “Origins: Physical Reality and Religious Beliefs,” was one of the most entertaining conference presentations in recent memory. The message he brought, however, was of a very serious nature. He prefaced his comments by saying that he had worked most of the year trying to build a “centered intellectual structure” somewhere between religion and science, an epistemology that will allow us to interpret those anomalous human experiences neither approach can account for. But over the course of the year, he “kept getting dragged in backwards” to work on various legal conflicts involving issues of religious freedom. He went on to remind his audience that the analytical categories used in the study of religion are largely derived from Christianity, then described the ways in which these intellectual biases enter into legal proceedings. Calling on religion scholars to apply their expertise to these struggles, he asked them to get involved and help “straighten out religion.”

To what degree do we do violence to non-Western religious traditions when we try and force them into pre-existing categories? When are we going to free ourselves up and just look at these things?

I have been in ceremonies. I have talked to spirits. I’m an educated man, I have three degrees, . . . I’m no damn fool. And I go through experiences like that and I have to find a way to integrate those kinds of experiences with what I already know and believe. And I can’t deny those experiences. They’re as real to me as anything in the world.

I think a lot of the material we have on American Indians is real material. And if we give it credence, then we expand the area in which we can examine religious phenomena. I don’t believe that people having spiritual experiences are necessarily deluded. . . . People have experiences. They may misinterpret what an experience means. But the experience, as related in a narrative straightaway, is a valid experience. We should gather more data into the study of religion.

An American Critique of Religion

During the early days of his public career, Deloria was dubbed “the Rousseau of the new Indians” and “the red man’s Ralph Nader”; three decades later he is widely respected as one of the most important living Indian figures, a quiet leader with the familiar yet enigmatic face of a tribal elder. The foregoing intellectual biography has briefly highlighted his lifelong involvement in religious affairs and his abiding interest in exploring the religious dimensions and implications of human existence. Deloria’s family background, educational experiences, professional accomplishments, and published writings evince a certain consistency in a life marked by pragmatic eclecticism. His many books and articles have engaged a remarkable range of disciplines–history, anthropology, politics, law, theology, philosophy, science, education, and literary criticism–and together demonstrate his broad vision of intellectual activism. He is an impassioned advocate when addressing specific issues, but there is always something more to his polemic than can be expressed in a political slogan; writing as a religious intellectual, he is quick to see the wider ramifications behind immediate dilemmas. He is the consummate American generalist, with religion serving as the overarching motif that unifies his varied writings.

Some critics have attempted to systematize these diverse texts into a theoretical or ideological unity, a project Deloria wants to debunk. There are, however, a number of recurring features in his books and articles that suggest a consistent approach to written discourse. He is an interdisciplinary scholar who relies on painstaking documentary research to ground his arguments. His historical accounts are synthetic interpretations in the tradition of the grand narrative, although he is motivated by a holistic vision of human experience rather than a craving for intellectual hegemony. He has frequently collaborated with other scholars as co-author, editor, or contributor, though always as a popular writer speaking to the general public and not just to others in the academy. It is also worth noting that Deloria hasn’t engaged in conventional ethnographic scholarship; the seemingly essentialist arguments in God Is Red and elsewhere implicate social theories, not ethnic identities.

At the heart of his distinctly American critique of religion is the land itself, the physical place called “America” by many of its current inhabitants. God Is Red ends with a prophetic challenge to “the invaders of the North American continent,” whom Deloria predicts will soon discover that “for this land, God is red.” The American earth functions as the source of human existence and the norm of religious insight in this place. It is not merely the premise for some ambiguous notion of sacred geography or a socially constructed devotion to landscape; it is the stuff of reality itself. As a stalwart defender of the rights of humans and their earthmates, Deloria is for this land–grounded, particular, engaged–and whatever he proposes in the way of a theoretical system is rooted in a physical, not ideological, space. His writings on religion in America give voice to this intellectual passion by calling into question our conventional religious institutions, commitments, worldviews, freedoms, and experiences.

The essays that follow originally appeared in various religious periodicals and other publications during the last three decades, though not all of Deloria’s occasional writings on religion could be included here. They have been arranged in five thematic sections, ordered in a loosely chronological fashion to reflect the development of his thought over time. Interpretive headnotes at the beginning of each section introduce the essays and suggest how these unifying themes reflect his discursive practices. “My intent is to plant seeds of ideas and raise doubts about what we believe,” Deloria wrote in a recent forum of public intellectuals. “Many of our beliefs are inherited, not opinions that we have thought through.” Asked to identify “the greatest urgencies facing writers and critics” today, he responded:

We are actually in the midst of a “Dark Age” of intellectual activity. The Darwinian-Freudian-Marxist synthesis that has dominated the century has long since come apart but Americans refuse to admit it. We have a duty to move beyond it–ethical demands of personal integrity require it–but I see almost no one willing to undertake such a task or even nibble at the edges of the current synthesis to begin a critique. All this hesitancy while the hard sciences are returning study after study that contradicts this synthesis.

This volume of Deloria’s collected writings on religion in America concludes with a retrospective afterword that appears here for the first time. “Why,” he asks, “do we do what we do, why do we believe what we believe, and why do our practices seem to fall so short of what is possible for us?”