Ella Clara Deloria

Ella Clara Deloria (1889-1971) was a well-known linguist, ethnologist, and novelist whose work is only recently being appreciated for its depth and volume of detail, as well as for its artistry. Her contributions to the field of Native American ethnography is vast, encompassing translations of primary sources, linguistic texts on Sioux grammar, and even a Sioux-English dictionary. These accomplishments earned her a reputation as the leading authority on Sioux culture by the 1940s.

Ella Clara Deloria was born into the prominent Deloria family on January 31, 1889, at White Swan, South Dakota, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. Her brother Vine Deloria, Sr., like her own father, was a prominent minister and leader in the community. Her nephew Vine Deloria, Jr., is a well-known writer and lawyer. The Deloria family's involvement in the leadership of their community goes back a long way. In 1869, Ella's grandfather, Chief Francois Des Laurias (medicine man and leader of the White Swan band), called for the establishment of an Episcopal mission among his people. Her father, Phillip Deloria, was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1891. His first two wives died. In 1888, he married Mary Sully Bordeaux, a widow who also had children from a previous marriage. Mary, Ella's mother, was a devout Christian and, though only one-quarter Indian, had been raised as a traditional Dakota. Thus Ella was raised in a home that valued Christian principles balanced with adherence to traditional Sioux ways; Dakota was more often than not the language spoken at home.

Deloria's first schooling took place at St. Elizabeth's school, attached to her father's church, St. Elizabeth's, on the Standing Rock Reservation. In 1902 she attended All Saints, a boarding school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In 1910 she matriculated at Oberlin College. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from New York's Columbia Teacher's College in 1915. In the same year she returned to All Saints as a teacher and stayed until 1919, when she took a job that afforded her the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the western United States. Her position as a YWCA health education secretary for Indian schools and reservations also brought her into contact with many Indian groups. In 1923 she became a physical education and dance instructor at the Haskell Institute, an Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas.

Affiliation with Franz Boas and Ethnography

Deloria is held in high esteem as an ethnologist, but in fact she never studied anthropology in an institutional setting. In a 1935 letter to anthropologist Franz Boas, published in Raymond DeMallie's afterword to Waterlily, she addressed the question of whether she should have gotten a degree and become an academic anthropologist: "I certainly do not consider myself as such." It was her knowledge of the Lakota language, as well as her general scholarly abilities that attracted the attention of Boas, who taught at Columbia University from 1899 to 1942. Deloria was a student at Columbia Teachers College in 1915, when Boas hired her to work on a collection of Lakota texts that had been assembled in 1887 by George Bushotter, a Sioux, under the supervision of Smithsonian ethnologist James Owen Dorsey. She found the job of translation and linguistic analysis rewarding. Twelve years later, when Deloria was at Haskell Institute, Boas contacted her again, and work on the texts resumed. She translated some additional texts as well, and in 1929 published her first work, an article on the Sun Dance in the Journal of American Folk-Lore.

In 1928, Deloria moved to New York to work for Boas. It was in this year that the anthropological study of her people became her primary occupation. While in New York, she met Ruth Benedict, who encouraged her to focus on kinship, tribal structure, and the roles of women—issues that are deftly and comprehensively treated in her novel. Over the next 20 years, she worked closely with Boas and Benedict (until Boas' death in 1942 and Benedict's in 1948) and completed a body of work that added greatly to the field of Native American ethnography. She finished translation of the Bushotter collection and translated manuscripts of Oglala Sioux George Sword written around 1908, plus an 1840 text by Santee Sioux Jack Frazier. During this time, she published several books, including Dakota Texts, Dakota Grammar, and Speaking of Indians, which she wrote during the 1940s. She also assembled a Sioux-English dictionary and amassed such a wide array of Lakota and Dakota texts (conversations, autobiographies, stump speeches, jokes) that no comparable body of written work exists for any other Plains tribe. In 1943 she was awarded the Indian Achievement Medal and was esteemed the foremost authority on Sioux culture.

After Boas' death, Deloria began approaching her compiled data from an analytical standpoint. A manuscript, which she sometimes called "Camp Circle Society" and sometimes "Dakota Family Life," would later serve as the germ for her novel, Waterlily. The manuscript, which was never published, attempts to describe ancestral Sioux culture in all its aspects. In this sense it is impressionistic and idealistic, making the novel format a well-suited way to present the diverse and voluminous ethnographic material. In a 1952 letter to H. E. Beebe, she described her motivation for preparing such a work: "I feel that one of the reasons for the lagging advancement of the Dakotas has been that those who came out among them to teach and preach, went on the assumption that the Dakotas had nothing, no rules of life, no social organization, no ideals. And so they tried to pour white culture into, as it were, a vacuum. And when that did not work out, because it was not a vacuum after all, they concluded that the Indians were impossible to change and train. What they should have done first, before daring to start their program, was to study everything possible of Dakota life, to see what made it go, in the old days, and what was still so deeply rooted that it could not be rudely displaced without some hurt. I feel that I have this work cut out for me." Deloria's sense of mission and her personal stake in the material she collected undoubtedly made it difficult for her to be the detached and objective observer that was expected of serious academic anthropology in the 1940s. She always favored a more subjective approach.

From the time when she was a student at Columbia Teacher's College onward, Deloria gave informal lectures and presentations of Sioux songs and dances at churches, schools, and civic organizations. She wished to bridge the gap of misunderstanding and ignorance between Indian and white on a directly personal level that could not be obtained through scientific monographs. In the letter quoted above, she also wrote, "This may sound a little naive, Mr. Beebe, but I actually feel that I have a mission: To make the Dakota people understandable, as human beings, to the white people who have to deal with them." Her non-technical description of American Indian culture of the past and present, Speaking of Indians, was assembled with this goal in mind, and was published by one of the organizations that invited her to speak, the YMCA.

Published Novel

Boas' circle of colleagues tended to search for nontechnical media, perhaps even fiction, to get an anthropological point across to a wider audience. Zora Neale Hurston was a Boasian anthropologist who did just this to paint a picture of the life of African American women in the South. Similarly, Elsie Clews Parsons was a student and colleague of Boas who edited a book of fictional sketches of the Native Americans of the past entitled American Indian Life in 1922. Boas and Benedict believed that Deloria was eminently qualified for this kind of work and suggested that she write a novel about the life of a nineteenth-century traditional Sioux woman. That idea would become Deloria's best known work today, Waterlily.

In Waterlily Deloria synthesized diverse aspects of her collected data and life experience. This included the texts of George Bushotter and George Sword, interviews with living elders, and the stories and values of her own family. It is in many ways a book that defies categorization. It is a work of ethnographic description, dense with cultural details. It is an historical novel firmly grounded in its geographical and chronological setting. It is a monograph on the social organization of a highly complex society. Finally, it is a work of narrative fiction with an intricate plot and finely tuned characterizations. Like Hurston's 1937 Their Eyes Were Watching God, Waterlily does not focus on the tragedy of an embattled and degraded people, but chooses instead to celebrate a rich, vibrant, and healthy culture. References to the impending doom faced by Waterlily's people are oblique and subtle, such as the happy chanting of the children: "While the buffalo live we shall not die!" The book did not achieve publication during the author's lifetime: Macmillan turned it down, as did the University of Oklahoma Press; both houses admired the book's depth of detail, but feared the reading public would not buy it. It was not until 1988 that the book was published by the University of Nebraska Press.

In 1955 Deloria returned to her grade school alma mater, St. Elizabeth's, to serve as director. She held that post until 1958. From 1962 to 1966 she continued her work at the University of South Dakota. Deloria died in Vermillion, South Dakota in 1971. Her work remains invaluable, both to academic linguists and anthropologists for her translations and researches, and to the general reading public for her rich and polished novel, Waterlily.


Native American Women, edited by Gretchen M. Bataille, Garland Publishing, 1993.

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