Vine Deloria, Jr. – Evolution, Spirit, and Indigenous Mind
Living Dialogues
Duncan Campbell

Episode 27 - Vine Deloria, Jr. – Evolution, Spirit, and Indigenous Mind

This dialogue is one of a three-part series Vine Deloria, Jr. and I did on the occasion of the last of his books to be published during his lifetime, Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths -- released at approximately the same time Vine received the prestigious Wallace Stegner award from the Center for the American West in Boulder, Colorado. As stated in the attached Episode Page to this dialogue in the highly informative biographical summary entitled: "In Honor of Vine DeLoria, Jr. (1913-2005)": "Vine Deloria, Jr. was one of the foremost authors, scholars, intellectuals, and civil rights leaders of our time...He was to the Native people a social reformer who was in every way the equal of a Cesar Chavez or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." Vine was named by TIME magazine as "one of the eleven greatest religious thinkers of the 20th century". In our conversation, many of the aspects of the rich and co-creative interplay possible between the indigenous and modern minds that can - and, in my view, must - take place in our evolutionary development are illuminated with a kind and original brilliance and humor. This was and is a truly rare opportunity to "see into the evolutionary spiral" from a deep inter-cultural and elder perspective, supporting each of us in generating an ever more holistic vision. More details on this episode go to



Vine Deloria, Jr. – Evolution, Spirit, and Indigenous Mind

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Duncan Campbell:  From time immemorial, beginning with indigenous councils and ancient wisdom traditions through the work of Western visionaries such as Plato, Galileo and quantum physicist David Bohm, mutually participatory dialogue has been seen as the key to evolving and transforming consciousness.

Evoking a flow of meaning, a dia flow of logos meaning beyond what any one individual can bring through alone.  So join us now as together with you, the active deep listener, we evoke and engage in Living Dialogues.

Welcome once again to Living Dialogues.  I’m your host Duncan Campbell and with me for this particular dialogue I am again delighted to have as my guest Vine DeLoria Jr.  Vine DeLoria Jr. is a leading native American scholar.  His research, writings and teachings have encompassed many fields including history, law, religious studies and political science.

He was named by ATime magazine as 1 of the 11 greatest religious thinkers of the 20th century and is the author of numerous acclaimed books including AGod is Red, ACuster Died for Your Sins, ABehind the Trail of Broken Treaties, APower in Place, ARed Earth, White Lies, and most recently AEvolution, Creationism and Other Modern Myths - A Critical Inquiry.

He lives in Golden, Colorado with his wife Barbara.  So, Vine, it’s a real pleasure to have you back again on Living Dialogues.

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   Well, pleasure to be back.

Duncan Campbell: And for this particular dialogue, I thought we might concentrate on the fact that you have been named by ATime magazine as 1 of the 11 greatest religious figures of the 20th century and take that route into your most recent book, AEvolution, Creationism and Other Modern Myths.

And talk about the role of indigenous traditions and the religious vision, if you will, or the spiritual vision, that emerges from these cultures and how it differs from the religious vision that has emerged from the modern cultures.  And put that in the context ultimately of where we’re going as a species, all of us humans, on this planet.

As Bucky Fuller said, ASpaceship earth, we’re all in it together and we’ve got these differing ways of understanding the nature of the universe that have led us into a period of great crisis and conflict at this time.  AWe have to get it together as Rabbi Zalman Schachter [sp] said if we’re going to make it through this evolutionary challenge.

And so let’s begin with your own discussion and insights into the difference between these different understandings of what is real and what is spiritual and what is matter and so on.

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   Well, it’s kind of hard to get into that area through a number of avenues.  I think the distinguishing thing is that Indian religionBI’m making a generalization because I depend more on Plains’ experiences than othersBIndian religions stress the religious experience.  But it’s stressed in a communal format or tribal format.

So what you have are really cumulative experiences that gradually form themselves into I would say insights rather than doctrines.  You don’t have to believe anything but a great body of knowledge can be passed down about instructing you if you’re going to go the religious path in a tribal tradition, that there’s certain things that you do.

This is the way that we’ve always done them.  Vision quests and sweat lodge and you  weepies  and others.  And the phenomenon is, it’s very much nature-based and gives other forms of life equal status with humans as to not only things that can be accomplished but the meaning of things.

So that if you go on a vision quest, you approach--they call it Athe great mysterious.  I think Fred Alan Wolf among others equated this with the physics of quantum, intelligent fields or whatever.  So you open yourself up to the larger powers of the universe and then they manifest themselves and I think everybody always talks in the plural here.

Manifest themselves in specific animals establishing a specific relationship with you and then their role from there on is to simply enhance the talents you already have.  If you’re a healer they give you additional powers to heal.  Also, the knowledge of looking at illness of whether you can heal it or not.  So, it’s not faith healing by any means.

But I trace it back and find a very strange connection of quantum theory, near-death experiences and Indian statements about what the world is.  And all seem to agree that it is mind or mind stuff.  It’s some kind of intelligent thing.

So then, you look at what the Indians are saying, they’re saying Aour creation stories, if there really are any that could be put parallel to other cultures, say that we were the last created or we’re the last on the scene.  So we don’t have as many talents or knowledge as any other living being but we’re put here to help interpret their knowledge of the universe to other species and to ourselves.

So you would never find an Indian medicine man that didn’t have some kind of spirit helper that was manifested in a current neighborhood animal.  It’s a very localized, a very specialized type of religion.  And I think to talk to other religious traditions then we have to emphasize the respect for life, which is all life, and the recognition that we really don’t know what we’re doing.

Our job in life may be simply to gather information until our lives make sense.  And an old Navaho medicine man at a consultation we were holding, I asked him what life meant and he said, AWell, I don’t know what life is but in a long life you finally know the true meaning of prayer.  And so he said, Athat’s all I can tell you.

And you reflect on that and you think, Ayes, [laughs] that’s about all we really need to know. [laughs] Trying to live our lives to find out what prayer really is.  What is a relationship.

Duncan Campbell: Well, I think in your book, you’ve really made this wonderful exposition as you’ve just done here and illuminated the mistaken view that somehow the understanding of the universe by tribal peoples or the original indigenous inhabitants of the earth is somehow a Aprimitive or Amagical animistic view of the world.

And you talk about how Paul Tillich [sp], the great Protestant theologian, spent considerable time outlining the features of animism to make sure that the primitive label was affixed firmly to it.

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   [laughs or coughs]

Duncan Campbell: And you go on to say that when Tillich speaks like this, that he is linking the word Amagical with the sacrimental [sp] in a way that’s objectionable because it has certain pejorative connotations and it represents a misunderstanding of rituals and ceremonies.

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   Well, I think you trace that to social science which adopted cultural evolution and then required somebody at the high end of the scale and somebody at the low end of the scale.  And the thrust of social science, whether they’re measuring skulls or they’re trying to trace kinship or whatever, is to support that particular paradigm so that people accept it.

If you look at the actual rituals that are taking place, they’re an invitation by humans for helpful spirits to come and resolve a particular problem.  And so it’s a cooperative venture.  And there’s no effort to distinguish a vision or a dream from everyday reality.

Although you get medicine men who will say, AThis is where I got my power to do such and such.  And I was out hunting and this thing came to me.  And I know it wasn’t a night-time dream.  I know it was something I experienced in the daytime.

So, if you live your life so that you understand those things can happen, then it seems to me you’ve got a leg up in terms of understanding what you’re dealing with that other religious traditions simply don’t have.  They will take some of the hard problems and credit them to the action of God or the intervention of God.  So, I think that’s a major difference there.

Duncan Campbell: And one of the other things I think that’s also associated with this is that people think that the native view or the indigenous view is to worship nature in some as we said Amagical way, but in fact what’s being worshiped is not nature but the power that’s behind or within nature.

And one of the incantations we might say or one of the prayers, AOh Great Spirit, You are within me and all around me is not worshiping in some idolizing way, some objective animal or tree or manifestation but really the power and the spirit that’s within all manifestation including ourselves.

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   Yes.  If the universe is a large intelligible and personal energy, then your relationship with a coyote or an eagle or whatever is simply that power manifesting itself in the specific.  It can’t possibly with all its power manifest itself spiritually.  It’d blow you apart.  So, what you’re dealing with is kind of temporary conveyance [sp] with people and animals and behind the animal is this mysterious power.

I could tell you a very short anecdote that would raise all kinds of questions.  This man has a dream about the elks.  And they lead him into this teepee and he says all the teepee suddenly expands, its space expanded.  Then all the elks in the world were there.  They said we’ve noticed what a good friend you are to the buffalo and we want to be your friend, so you sing this song with us and we will help you perform various feats.

He learns the song, goes back to the camp and one day he comes out, has them take this level ground and soak it completely with water and he dances around three times and the fourth time that he’s dancing around this plot, he dances right across this muddy plain and when the people look, those are elk prints.  And they’re not human foot prints.

So, you say, AWell, OK.  That’s superstitious.  What does it mean?  And I think what it means is that the elk spirit being very powerful comes into the man.  And the universe, according to quantum being mind rather than matter, it imprints itself on the matter.

Now, what you find in all these Indian traditions, if you have a vision or a hunch or any kind of song or dream, you have to go out and perform it in front of the community.  And that’s the difference between Indian religions and a lot of other religions.

In the other religions, you have a sudden insight but you don’t necessarily have to demonstrate that you have thereby gained access to the great mysterious energy and have powers to do new things.  You just say, AI had a revelation and this is what the thing is.

So, I think there’s a little bit of Indian tradition, you could put with the Hebrew prophets, that when they got the message they went out and acted.  And that’s how people knew they’d gotten the message.  So there’s a verification process in that tradition that we badly need in the other traditions.

Duncan Campbell: In which the exercise of what is sometimes called Atemporal power can be exercised from behind closed doors or walled monasteries and without any verification or proof and just coming down in a hierarchal manner that is based on fear-mongering, often.

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   Yes.

Duncan Campbell: That if you don’t do this you’re not going to be saved.

Vine DeLoria Jr.: That’s right.

Duncan Campbell: So give us the money or you’re going to hell, or other formulations that have come...

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   Or give it to Oral Roberts or God’ll kill him.  Right? [laughs]

Duncan Campbell: That’s right.  Exactly.

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   [laughs]

Duncan Campbell: You know, a way of manipulating the masses, rather than actually a mutually empowering kind of communication and sharing of the wisdom that comes from connecting to this larger power.

And I was quite taken with your statement that the power that is in everything has to manifest in a certain specificity or in a certain costume, if you will, a certain way of communicating with you.  Whether it’s an animal or a stone or a landscape or a fellow human or a star.

And the reason being that, if that were not the case, if it just showed itself in all its power, it would, as you put it, ABlow you away.

And that’s precisely what happens in Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad‑Gita, the great Vedic document, the great Indian document called literally ASong of God in which Arjuna is in discourse with Krishna.  And Krishna, as his mentor, is actually the Abig self or the spirit completely realized, manifested in human form, and Arjuna is the aspirant the human who is desirous of understanding and acting his true nature.

And at one point Arjuna asks Krishna to manifest who he really is to him and he does so in this way that is so terrifying, and so ...

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   [laughs]

Duncan Campbell:   ... all encompassing that he begs him to once again resume his human form because he needs to have that huge power, we might call it that huge energy, literally stepped down as through a transformer you know in order to be able to receive it.  And I think that’s the function of many shamans or yogis or medicine men is to act as transformers.

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   Right.

Duncan Campbell: That they have cultivated, through their discipline, through their actions, the ability to take on a larger, and let’s call it a more direct, current of Athe great mystery, the great power, and they’ve been able to step it down and distribute it out in a healing way or in an instructive way ...

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Right.

Duncan Campbell: ... to the collective.  And one example of that would be Black Elk.  Who in his great vision said, AI have seen more than I can say.

Vine DeLoria Jr.:   Yeah.

Duncan Campbell: And yet he made the effort.  He made the action of speaking even part of what he saw in order to benefit the collective.  And that was his understanding of how the gift of the visionary experience is meant to be used.  Not to be hoarded or used as a secretive magical wielding of personal power, but as a sharing with the collective for the benefit of all.

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Yeah.  Power misused will come back on you.  You’ll find that the medicine menByou know, to put it in a religious/physics way, a little bit of power in specific places is good.  A lot of power that can’t be controlled is evil.  Or demonic. 

Duncan Campbell: Destructive.

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Destructive.  You get too much of a good thing.

Duncan Campbell: One of the things I was taken with also with Black Elk’s vision is a story recounted by Joseph Campbell in conversations he had with a man named Frasier Boa.  And it’s entitled AThe Way of Myth.

And in it he said that, this is Joe Campbell talking, AThere are only two ways that a human being can misunderstand the nature of story or revelation of the divine and that is to make the historical mistake or the geographical mistake.  And the historical mistake, the mistake of time, is to think that the divine only manifests once in history.

And this would be the single prophet theory of religion like Jesus or Christ-consciousness only came in ...

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Right.

Duncan Campbell: ... once and maybe it’ll come in again at the Day of Judgment.  Or that the prophet Mohammed was a one-off person who got the story and the only one that got it right and it was never meant to be shared by anyone else so we all have to read the Koran and believe in it or whatever.  That would be the historical mistake of time.

And then the geographical mistake, Joe Campbell said, is to believe that the sacred land exists only in one specific place. 

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Yeah.

Duncan Campbell: Such as Jerusalem.  So all three of the great monotheistic religions are now fighting over a very small piece of land as if it’s the only sacred place.  And he said, the problem with those two mistakes is that in the first case you can’t understand yourself as innately divine.  That you yourself are meant to manifest either Buddha mind, Christ consciousness, the manifestation of the great self as Krishna or the Great Spirit.

AAnd the second mistake is that if you believe that sacred land is only in a certain place, it means you cannot sacrilize [sp] your own land where you live.  You cannot make a sacred relationship to space where you are.

And so finally, having said that, he comes back around to Black Elk’s vision and Black Elk said that, I saw all the world as a great hoop and in the middle was the sacred mountain and the sacred mountain was Mount Hadley--which happens to be the mountain in the geographical area where his tribe was.  And yet, he then goes on to say. ABut the sacred mountain is everywhere.

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Yeah.

Duncan Campbell: And then Joe Campbell said, that’s the essence; that’s the key there.  It shows that he really, truly, understood and communicated with the Great Spirit because he did not come out with an exclusivist, either-or, polarized kind of vision.

And I think that’s what the visions of indigenous cultures have to offer the world if they don’t themselves get overly attached to their own specificity.

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Well, it’s a problem we have currently in practical politics.  And the question is, is this particular location sacred only to us or could it be sacred to other people or whatever?  And I argue that the place is sacred in itself and it’s up to people to apprehend that that’s the nature of the place.  And then consequently almost anyone could have the experience.

Indians just happen to be there more often.  But if you say something’s sacred to us, then you’re opening the door for all kinds of people to choose all of their specificities as if it were a matter of intellectual assent to a belief and you’ve destroyed the whole idea of what is sacred or what is not.

When AGod is Red came out and I advocated looking at the sacredness of places, I had a theologian debate with me about that.  And I said, well, your own tradition has Jerusalem, Notre Dame, Lourdes, you have all these sacred places.

And I said, AI would like if we could raise some money for us to go spend one night sleeping at Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation and one night up at Bear Butte where the Sioux regard the thing as holy and a night at Onondaga [sp] where their traditions are.

AAnd I would like to know if we would have different emotional experiences in each place, because it would seem to me that its power manifesting itself to whoever is there and, if that’s true, then you don’t fight over those places.  Everyone respects them.  And so you can have that sacredness and you can experience it but so can other people.

Duncan Campbell: And that’s really a very interesting way of looking at it.  Because one of the things that’s happening now in some traditions is that there is an attempt on the part of some indigenous people to really open up and share not only their visions, as Black Elk did when he talked to John Neihardt in ABlack Elk Speaks, the book, but also to share their sacred sites and to Aactivate the sacred sights.

And there is one such project I’m aware of in the Polynesian Islands right now where one of the kahunas or shamans or medicine men is going around the various islands and reactivating sacred sights that were not entirely destroyed when the modern colonizing culture came in.  And then ...

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Right.

Duncan Campbell: ... making that energy available again.  And it also reminds me of a book I read some time ago about a Norwegian explorer, I believe, somewhere from Scandinavia, was in Mongolia and talking with a Nomad back in the 30s.

And the Nomad said, AWe are here for the planet, keeping the flame alive of vitality.  We are surrounded by highly materialistic culturesBin those days, that was Russia or the Soviet Union and the Chinese even before MaoBAwho do not understand the true nature of things.  So it is our job in the universe to keep this flame ...

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Right.

Duncan Campbell:   ... of vitality alive and people will come to us over time to light their candle of awareness at this flame.  And so there was this sense of keeping active that channel of communication ...

Vine DeLoria Jr.: Right.

For full transcript, please contact Duncan Campbell