When I met and drew Vine Deloria, Jr., I had already read his book entitled We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf. His topic and his style had caught my attention. His introduction begins, “Every now and then I am impressed with the thinking of the non-Indian. I was in Cleveland last year and got to talking with a non-Indian about American history. He said that he was really sorry about what had happened to Indians, but that there was good reason for it. The continent had to be developed and he felt that Indians had stood in the way and thus had had to be removed. ‘After all,’ he remarked, ‘what did you do with the land when you had it?’ I didn’t understand him until later when I discovered that the Cuyahoga River running through Cleveland is inflammable. So many combustible pollutants are dumped into the river that the inhabitants have to take special precautions during the summer to avoid accidentally setting it on fire. After reviewing the argument of my non-Indian friend I decided that he was probably correct. Whites had made better use of the land. How many Indians could have thought of creating an inflammable river?”
I had studied the many assertions in his book, including the need to cross the boundaries dividing fields of expertise so that issues can be seen clearly in all their dimensions, the way the country has often relied on a “war economy” so as to forestall “wholesale collapse of the social structure,” the fact that people have not yet understood “how groups relate to each other,” how membership in a tribe is similar to membership in a cooperative, ways of harnessing the tension between wisdom and new ideas, and what sovereignty really means and why it is so important. I knew that Deloria was a Hunkpapa Sioux with a law degree and that he championed the liberty of permitting Indians to pursue their own lifestyles and to interpret their own identities without cultural intervention.
With all my study, you would have thought I would have been smarter. I felt I was so in tune with Deloria’s book in particular and with Indians in general that I was not really an heir to the Indians’ enemies. Also, Deloria’s tone was so often imbued with sardonic humor that I thought he might say, “Alright. Enough is enough. Now that I’ve insulted you—which you royally deserved—let’s slap each other on the back and say what a good joke it was.”
Deloria stood at a podium before a large audience. I sat in the row directly in front of him, and I began to sketch his portrait. Meanwhile, I was listening to his speech. He said that non-Indians ruled through—and were ruled by—expensive technologies, one-sided commerce, and unfair control by banks and government offices. He talked at length about “otherness,” both real and imagined. The longer he spoke, the more uncomfortable I became.
I began to realize that, when he looked at me, he saw a non-Indian. I began to sense that he was not welcoming of what non-Indians had done and that he was under no obligation to be welcoming toward me. It began to dawn on me that he meant what he said.
|My Portrait of Vine Deloria|
As the themes of his presentation deepened, I found my portrait changing. My lines became harder and blacker. I added more and more lines. Usually when creating a portrait of a well-known figure, I tried to improve on the facial features, but, with Deloria, I became aware that I was drawing him exactly as he was: glasses slightly bent, hair unruly, collar askew, eyes seeing me as the non-Indian I am. It dawned on me that I was seeing him—Well, what do you know?—as the Indian he was.
There was to be no back slapping, no fraternity laugh, no college camaraderie. Deloria’s speech was an Indian speech. It was not another artificial lecture on a university campus. It was a significant, timely address with a real point of view and an important purpose.
The Deloria talk was the first time that I understood—on a gut level—cultural differences and just how patronizing I had been.
Only now, many years later, am I beginning to catch up with Deloria’s mind. Back when I drew him, he was light years beyond me. My portrait of him remains one of my favorites because I put on paper the man I saw before me, not the person I wanted him to be.