Published on January 24, 2011 by Amy
As a Dakota Sioux, Ella Cara Deloria was one of America’s truly bilingual, bicultural anthropologists. She is best remembered as an author, linguist, and ethnologist.
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Ella Deloria was born on January 31, 1889, at White Swan, South Dakota, on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation, into a prominent Sioux family. Her Indian name is Apetu Waste Win, which means “Beautiful Day Woman”. Her grandfather was Chief Francois Des Lauriers, a medicine man and tribal leader, while her father, Philip Deloria (Black Lodge), was an ordained Episcopal priest and church deacon. Her mother, Mary Sully Bordeux, a devout Christian woman, was only one-quarter Native American, but had been raised in the traditional Dakota manner. Both her father and mother had children from previous marriages, and a total of four children were born to Philip and Mary, of which Ella was the oldest. Ella’s brother, Vine Deloria, Sr., was a prominent minister and community leader, and her nephew, Vine Deloria Jr., is a lawyer and well-known author.
Ella was raised in a home that adhered to Christian principals as well as traditional Sioux cultural values. Ella grew up speaking all three of the Sioux language dialects, Dakota, Lakota and Nakota, as well as fluent English. She was an apt student and began her schooling at the St. Elizabeth Mission School at Wakpala, on the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. Starting in 1902, at the age of 14, she attended All Saint’s School Episcopal High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
She began her college education at the University of Chicago in 1910, she then transferred to Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1911, and completed her B.S. degree in education in 1915 at Columbia University in New York. While attending Columbia, Ella gave public lectures on Indian lore and dancing, and worked to promote a greater appreciation of Native American culture.
As a student at Columbia, Ella became acquainted with Dr. Franz Boaz, the famous anthropologist, a man who ultimately had a great influence on Ella’s life and career. When Boaz learned that Ella could speak the Sioux language, he asked her to begin the translation of a collection of stories by George Bushotter. George was a Lakota Sioux, who had left over 1000 pages of manuscripts written in the Lakota dialect to the Smithsonian Institute.
Following her graduation from Columbia University, Ella taught for several years at her former school, All Saint’s Episcopal High School in Sioux Falls. She also worked for several years with the YWCA organization, promoting the benefits of physical education for Native American girls. From 1923-1927 Ella taught physical education and dance at Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. Dr. Boaz contacted Ella in 1927 and asked her to continue the translation of the Bushotter materials and teach Dakota dialects to anthropology students at Columbia University. Ella returned to New York in 1928 to continue her work with Boaz. It was during this time that the study of her people became her primary concern. Ella became acquainted with another Boaz student, Ruth Benedict, who encouraged her to focus her study on the issues of native kinship, tribal structure and the roles in women in native society.
Ella worked closely with Boaz and Benedict over the next twenty years and completed work that greatly increased the body of knowledge in the field of Native American ethnography. She completed the Bushotter translations and as well as the translation of other manuscripts, and authored several books, including Dakota Texts (1932), Dakota Grammar (1941 with Franz Boaz), and Speaking of Indians (1944). These books documented Native American myths, stories and accounts of Dakota life. She also assembled a critically acclaimed Sioux-English dictionary. In 1947 Ella finished writing the historical novel, Waterlily, a book that focused on native life from a woman’s point of view. She was unable to find a publisher, however, so it did not reach the public until 1988, seventeen years after her death. In 1943 Ella Deloria was awarded the Indian Achievement Medal and was considered to be the foremost authority on Sioux language and culture.
From 1955-1958 Ella served as the director of her former elementary school, St. Elizabeth’s in Wakpala, South Dakota. In her later years, she maintained close ties to friends and family, and continued her work as a lecturer, researcher and consultant. She died on February 12, 1971 at the age of 82 in Vermillion, South Dakota. Ella’s life long mission was “to make the Dakota people understandable, as human beings, to the white people who dealt with them,” and she succeeded admirably in this effort.