When he returned to Yale after taking a year off from college, Sam Deloria ’64 was shocked to see Joseph Lieberman ’64 sitting at the dinner table during a gathering of the Yale Pundits.
“Joe Lieberman, you’re not funny,” he said.
To this day, whenever Deloria, a former Pundit, sees the Connecticut senator, he repeats these same words.
Although his days of “drinking champagne, eating lobster and being witty” on the steps of Sterling Memorial Library — the old meeting place of the Pundits — are over, Deloria revisited his alma mater last week. During Saturday’s celebration commemorating the centennial anniversary of the first Native American matriculation at Yale, Deloria was presented with the first Henry Roe Cloud medal ever awarded. The medal, which celebrates the enrollment of Henry Roe Cloud 1910, recognizes Native Americans’ contributions to the community, state and nation.
As director of the American Indian Law Center, Deloria worked to ensure that Native American tribes, which technically operate as governments, receive the same federal grants state and local governments are eligible to receive. Deloria has also served as the U.S. representative and as secretary general of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples.
A member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Deloria said he has known he wanted to be an advocate for Native Americans for as long as he can remember.
“It was sort of the family business,” he said.
Amanda De Zutter ’01 SOM ’06, co-chair of Native American Yale Alumni, serves on the advisory board of the Native American cultural center, which was in charge of choosing the award winner from among the nominations made by Native American alumni. The board chose Deloria unanimously, De Zutter said.
“He is one of the most important living Indian human and legal rights people,” De Zutter said. “He’s not into getting accolades. He does what he does because it needs to be done.”
Some of Deloria’s classmates said they remember that as a student at Yale, he tried to advocate for Native Americans. As the only Native American in his class, and one of only a handful of students of color at Yale College, Deloria sought out other people who shared his background, colleague Tom Trowbridge ’64 said.
“When he was in New Haven as an undergraduate, he scoured the state looking for other Native Americans,” Trowbridge said. “Even then, he was very committed to Native Americans and wanted to get groups going.”
At the “white-bred and homogeneous” Yale of the early 1960s, Deloria’s intelligence and role as an outsider allowed him to be more self-aware than most of his classmates, Washington Post editor Bob Kaiser ’64 said.
“He was one of the smartest people in our class,” he said.
Although Deloria faced the daunting reality of being one of few minorities at Yale in the early 1960s, he was well known and well liked by his peers, Kaiser said.
Deloria was such a memorable character to his classmates that Kaiser and Jethro Lieberman ’64 decided that the title of the Class of 1964 25th reunion book should be taken from one of Deloria’s most memorable graduation day quotes: “See ya later in life.”
After graduating from Yale in 1964, Deloria worked for the organization that would later become the American Indian Law Center, which at that point trained Native Americans for careers in law.
But in 1968, Deloria decided to leave the center and pursue a law degree at Yale. After completing almost all three years at the school, Deloria made the decision to stop his studies, just because of one paper he did not want to write.
He left the Law School in 1971 without a degree and still owes law professor Jan Deutsch ’55, a specialist in securities regulation and corporation, a 20-page paper. Deloria said he considers writing the paper every year, but continues to put it off.
Although he had no law degree in hand, Deloria returned to the American Indian Law Center and became its director in 1972. The center operates out of the University of New Mexico Law School. Its primary functions are to advise tribes on legal issues, help Native Americans prepare for law school and analyze national policy regarding Native American interests.
Stephen Greenblatt ’64 said Deloria’s personality suits his chosen profession.
“Sam Deloria is a famously funny and witty person,” he said. “He was something of a clown, but in the Shakespearian sense, because he was someone who was so smart and so deep that he could see through and play with everyday situations.”
Deloria has not been deterred from Yale because of one unfinished paper. After a Pierson College Master’s Tea last Friday, Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt asked Deloria on the spot to become a Pierson fellow, and Deloria immediately accepted.