Vine and Bob: Their Contributions to WSSA’s American Indian Studies Section
By Richard M. Wheelock
NAIS Faculty Emeritus
Fort Lewis College

For Presentation In the American Indian Studies Section April 10, 2015
Western Social Science Association 57 th Annual Conference Portland, Oregon April 8 – 11, 2015

I wish I could be with you for this panel, but my quadriceps tendon still needs time to heal. In a few more months, I hope to be fully mobile and able to get around again, so I can be at the next session of the American Indian Studies section in April, 2016 in Reno, NV. Maybe people will still be interested in this panel’s discussions then.

For those of us who aren’t really intellectuals, considering the legacy of Robert K. Thomas and Vine Deloria, Jr. gives us a chance to hear some really smart people talk about some pretty engaging ideas.

Dan Wildcat’s invitation to be a part of this panel sent me scurrying to my old notes on the AIS program at the U of AZ and to the other records of 1980’s experiences I was having as a student in that program at the time. My present injury has made it difficult to really dig through my files for pithy anecdotes; instead, I’ll try to provide a personal, historical perspective as my contribution.  I think there is a lot to be learned by looking back to those times in the 1980’s, a time when people of my generation felt called upon to help with the intellectual work that is needed to build effective Native self-determination. 

While we as panelists are asked to comment about the dynamics these two individuals helped create in this one section of the annual conference of the Western Social Sciences Association, it is important to acknowledge the much broader scholarly and practical arenas they helped open for us scholars, teachers, professionals and students of AIS in their many endeavors. I believe it is crucial to continue to build upon their efforts to build intellectual capacity among people so that Native communities can control their own destiny into the future. 

I’d like to consider the social atmosphere in Indian country as this AIS Section of WSSA emerged in 1981.  Native activism, federal policy and legislation, and concurrent social and political developments created a confusing landscape of opportunities and hazards as people like Bob and Vine pushed for new directions in higher education for Native peoples. Amid the chaos of those times, a number of Native people in higher education circles realized the necessity of relying upon Native perspectives in research, communications and policy-making so that “Indian self-determination” in its broadest sense could become a reality.  I think it was clear to Vine and Bob that Native people and their friends would be needed in greater numbers in new degree programs, new publishing and media ventures, and in academic debate.  Creating and maintaining a Native intellectual crucible is an intergenerational, ever-present challenge, as we all know. After all, “peoples” live beyond the individuals of any one time. I think Vine and Bob saw the Native pathway in higher education as many of us continue to see it today. And, in their efforts to build the AIS program at the University of Arizona and this AIS section in the WSSA annual conference, they applied their own scholarship, their heart-felt commitment and their political savvy to the task. I think Vine and Bob’s legacy sets a high bar for success “doing what can be done” in one’s times.  

As the other panelists will tell you today, Vine Deloria, Jr. and Robert K. Thomas initiated the creation of the AIS section within the WSSA annual conference back in 1981, asking some of us students in the AIS MA program at the University of Arizona to do parts of the organizing, especially setting up the panels for the San Diego conference that year.  Bob and Vine were part of a crucible at the U of AZ that included other distinguished writers, teachers, visionaries and scholars like N. Scott Momaday, Tom Holm, Emory Sekaquaptewa and Ofelia Zepeda, and a number of others who were at the University at the time. Of course, their network of thinkers extended far beyond the University, as you all know. The AIS Section of WSSA became part of a much larger movement in a number of universities and colleges that had gone on for years, one that continues dramatically today. You are probably all aware of higher education initiatives that began in North Dakota, California; and in Canada and elsewhere years before the AIS Section was created. Meanwhile, the tribal college movement took on the challenge of bringing the movement in higher education much nearer to tribal people across the country. Several other annual conferences and many higher education programs were already emerging.  The process of empowerment among Indian people and their communities was moving forward rapidly at the time, going from a near stand-still created by Termination Policies and other past social disruption in Indian country. It was an especially appropriate time for the creation of the AIS Section of the WSSA Conference. 

I could spend a lot of time here discussing the 1980’s experiences I and my generation of scholars (some of us cringed at the term, since we came from pretty non-scholarly backgrounds) were having. I saw the AIS section as a chance to timidly present my own ideas among supportive fellow students and to some top-flight Native scholars. I was fresh from Oneida in Wisconsin where I had taught for a year in our brand new tribal school, then had been editor of our tribal newspaper, the Kalihwisaks. Before that, I had been the coordinator for a five-district public school consortium on Indian Education in Jackson County, Oregon, where I was also active in helping get the Oregon Indian Education Association off the ground. My experiences had taught me a lot, mostly about the difficulties of starting new initiatives among Native people during the emerging Indian Self-Determination Policy in the 1970’s. To get over the “hump” of limited success people were having in taking on the challenges of Indian Self-Determination’s mixed promise, I and many like me needed the next step in our education and experience. Bob and Vine conspired to provide that stepping stone for many of us who had already had some experience in Indian country. 

They seemed determined to foster development among Indian people on both theoretical and practical levels in this time of empowerment. They clearly hoped to fill gaps in education, leadership, technical expertise in Native terms, and advisory positions in tribal communities. Both were driven in their commitment, as you all know. Bob and Vine affected an ethic of “getting something done” among us as they provided their own special intellectual understandings to the movement in higher education. In their scholarship and activism, they worked with people throughout the movement, the real Indian movement, striving for understandings that would help move the levels of Indian self-determination forward. 

In forming the AIS Section, I believe Vine and Bob quickly included as many of their own colleagues as was possible from throughout Indian country. A review of the original presenters and those asked to come but who could not make it to San Diego and other early session reveals attention to issues and perspectives that were intended to help build positive, supportive, good-natured dialogue on issues and ideas. Once the momentum was established, Vine and Bob seemed to step back a bit to allow the ripples they had helped create build into more substantial waves of effective scholarship. Though the University of Arizona students continued to set up panels for the annual conferences in the early years, others soon took on that crucial duty. Over the years, the success of the section has varied, but its potential for developing useful ideas and effective scholars in an intimate, supportive, inclusive atmosphere remains its greatest value today. We students were lucky to be there as it was founded. 

I’d say Vine and Bob were probably uncertain how their experiment would turn out, but confident that the high morale they detected among Native scholars and students justified any risks they took to get the section going. While I as a student was filled with uncertainty when I began to present my own research documenting communications issues facing Indian people, I don’t think they feared failure as they created the section.  Competent, confident scholars with positive, supportive attitudes toward Native conceptions were a great comfort to us budding students as we developed our own scholarship and our own career pathways in support of Indian Self-Determination. I believe this ethic of mutual support remains one of the greatest contributions Vine and Bob made to this section.

Of course, Vine’s and Bob’s own scholarship and teaching were crucial to the kinds of topics that have been developed in the AIS Section over the years since 1981. I believe their insights were crucial in keeping the discussions “cutting-edge” on many topics. Bob’s ideas about “peoplehood” and adaptive tribalism have spurred many scholars to consider how tribal heritage might be marshalled in community development. Vine’s focus on policy, philosophy and religion helped us all consider how our own methods of inquiry might build upon tribal conceptions of the cosmos. 

My colleagues on this panel will undoubtedly comment further on the dynamics of scholarship that have since emerged and on their own perceptions of Bob and Vine’s influences. For me, the chance to share ideas with such brilliant, empathetic and effective colleagues will always be the great value of the AIS Section. I will always be thankful that Vine and Bob and their team had the foresight and gumption to get this section established. It may seem a small initiative in the overall scheme of things in the development of Indian Self-Determination, but for many of us, it has provided a sustaining forum, a way to seek our own ways to contribute to the survival and development of our Peoples. Vine and Bob’s work, along with the efforts of many scholars over the years, makes this section something very special, even sacred, if you want to go that far.  Here we share our heart-felt ideas for the good of our peoples. With great good luck, we will continue to do so. With great good luck, we will follow on Vine’s and Bob’s legacy as we “do what we can do” in our uncertain times to meet the challenges of Indian Self-Determination into the future.