Published on January 7, 2013 by Amy
Ella Cara Deloria is best known for her linguistic and ethnographic work on the Sioux Nation. Though not formally trained as anthropologist, she gained a reputation in the field. She brought a new perspective on her work, as she was born on the Yankton Sioux Reservation and part of a traditional Dakota Sioux family.
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Deloria grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation in the northern part of South Dakota. She was born into a prominent family. Her grandfather was a tribal leader and her father was an influential Episcopal Minister. Her nephew, Vine Deloria Jr., was an attorney and well-known author.
The Delorias spoke both the Dakota and Lakota dialects of the Sioux Language. It was through the understanding of the Dakota and Lakota that Deloria would find her place in history.The Deloria family members were devout Christians, but also followed the traditional ways of the Dakota people.
In 1915, Deloria received her bachelor degree from Columbia Teacher’s College. While at Columbia, she met and worked with Franz Boas, a highly regarded anthropologist. Deloria worked as a translator of Dakota Sioux texts. (DeMallie, 1988)
It was thought this early exposure brought Deloria to the field of anthropology. Deloria and Boas enjoyed a lengthy working relationship. He often contacted her to translate and analyize texts. In 1926, Boas arranged for Deloria to come to New York to begin further collaborations. (DeMallie, 1988) It was in New York that Deloria came to know Ruth Benedict.
Benedict and Deloria began correspondence that would last until Benedict’s death. Many of the letters between Deloria and Benedict were not opened until 1998 (Gardner, 2000), and as such are not widely as recognized as the Boas connection.
It was Benedict’s advice that helped Deloria focus on kinship, tribal structure, and the role of women. (Biography Resource Center). In her efforts to research traditional culture of the Lakota and Dakota Sioux, Deloria interviewed elders and tribal historians.
Many of her interviews are the last remaining accounts of cultural aspects. These interviews were largely in danger of being lost, until recent efforts began to catalog them. (Gardner, 2000)
One of Deloria’s highest achievements was the novel, Waterlily, which set about to use the work Deloria had collected.
“Readers will appreciate Waterlily as a novel that guides them into the mental as well as the historical world of the nineteenth century Sioux.” (DeMallie, 1988)
Ella Deloria’s work provides a rich understanding of traditional Dakota and Lakota culture. One source called her an, “insider anthropologist.” (Hoefel, 2001)
Because she was an insider, it also put her in some awkward positions.For one, Deloria knew more about her culture than a young, unmarried woman would traditionally know. As Gardner points out, “She felt she would lose her standing at home if she published some of what she knew in Waterlily.”
In the 1940s, Deloria was recognized as the authority on the Dakota and Lakota Sioux. (Picotte, 1988) She spent 1962-1966 working at the University of South Dakota, where she did her research, lectured, consulted and continued writing. (Picotte, 1988)
Ella Cara Deloria died February 12, 1971 in Vermillion, South Dakota. She left a great archive of Siouan language notes, ethnological observations, and legacy of devotion to her people. Her legacy was formalized as the Ella C. Deloria Project at the University of South Dakota. The project is an ongoing effort to preserve the culture of the Dakota people.
Books by Ella C. Deloria: