Deloria, Ella Cara

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DELORIA, ELLA CARA . (18891971). Ella Cara Deloria was born January 31, 1889, on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in southeastern South Dakota. She was the daughter of the Reverend Philip Deloria, an Episcopal priest, and Mary Sully Bordeaux. Her parents were enrolled members of the Yankton Sioux tribe, and both were descended from Dakota (Sioux) and Euro-American ancestors. The year after Ella's birth, her father was given charge of St. Elizabeth's Mission in north-central South Dakota, on the Standing Rock Reservation. Because his parishioners and the children attending the mission school were primarily Hunkpapa and Blackfoot Tetons (Lakotas), the Deloria family adopted the dialect of the Tetons in place of the d dialect of the Yanktons. Therefore, Deloria, although a Yankton, grew up speaking the Lakota dialect of the Sioux language.

Deloria's primary schooling was at St. Elizabeth's until 1902, when she attended All Saints, an Episcopal boarding school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In 1910 she entered Oberlin College, then transferred to Columbia Teachers College in 1913, where, two years later, she earned her bachelor of science degree. During her senior year at Columbia Teachers she met Franz Boas, professor of anthropology at Columbia University, who introduced her to the formal study of American Indian languages and cultures, thereby setting in motion the course of much of the rest of her life.

For the next thirteen years Deloria was involved in Indian education. She taught at All Saints from 1915 to 1919, worked for the YMCA supervising health education in Indian schools from 1919 to 1923, then taught dance and physical education at Haskell Indian school in Lawrence, Kansas. In 1927 Boas, finally learning Deloria's whereabouts, visited her to propose that she resume the Lakota language studies that she had begun with him in New York. She readily agreed. He proposed that she record "all the details of everyday life as well as of religious attitudes and habits of thought of the people" (Boas quoted in Deloria, 1988, pp. 235236). From 1928 until 1938, with support from Columbia University, Deloria studied the language, recorded stories and ethnographic material from Lakota elders throughout South Dakota, and translated historical texts written by tribal members. From 1939 until 1948 she continued to work as time allowed on the materials she had collected.

Deloria's collaboration with Boas himself culminated in a grammar of Lakota (Boas and Deloria, 1941). However, most of her studies were carried out under the supervision of Ruth Benedict, a cultural anthropologist who was Boas's assistant and colleague. After Boas's death in 1942, Deloria continued to collaborate with Benedict until the latter's death in 1948.

One of the first projects Deloria undertook for Boas was the translation of a native language text on the Sun Dance, the most important traditional Lakota religious ceremony. A long and detailed account, it had been written in the early 1900s by George Sword, a religious leader among the Oglala Lakotas on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Deloria read the text aloud to an Oglala elder and with his guidance edited and retranscribed it. The text, printed in both Lakota and English, was her first professional publication (Deloria, 1929).

As a member of a prominent Episcopal family, Deloria had little familiarity with traditional Lakota religion, but she became very interested in it. She recorded a large number of myths and sacred stories, many of which have been published in Lakota and English (Deloria, 1932; Rice, 1992, 1993, 1994). While recording autobiographical texts from elders she learned a good deal about the individual's role in religious ceremonies, visions and other supernatural experiences, and conflicts between traditional religion and Christianity. Benedict pressed her to interview medicine men and record their visions, but this forced Deloria into a personal dilemma. Her father was a prominent missionary, and her younger brother, Vine V. Deloria, had followed in his footsteps and begun his career as a missionary at Pine Ridge. Showing undue interest in traditional religion jeopardized the family's reputation, and, in any case, traditional religious leaders were not comfortable sharing their sacred knowledge with a devout Christian, who might ridicule them. Deloria focused instead on the forms of ceremonies, starting with the Sun Dance. She hypothesized that all the Sioux groups shared common ceremonies but that each performed them in different ways. She worked for years on a study that would document the variations from group to group, but failed to complete it.

Deloria's Speaking of Indians (1944) was intended to introduce American Indians to a broad popular audience. In it, with great insight and empathy, she succinctly summarized her understanding of traditional religion. She considered the Lakotas before they had learned of Christian teachings to be naturally religious, "always subconsciously aware of the Supernatural Power. Before it they felt helpless and humble" (Deloria, 1944, p. 51). She exemplified this with an account of the Sun Dance, making the esoteric ritual comprehensible to the general public.

The concern with communicating to the public motivated Deloria to write an ethnographic novel, Waterlily, that told the story of three generations of women before the reservation period. It masterfully summarizes the important themes of her study of Lakota culture and is the only written source that explores the religious life of Lakota women. When she completed the book in 1948 she could not find a publisher; it was published posthumously (Deloria, 1988) and rapidly became the most widely read of her works.

After Benedict's death in 1948 Deloria struggled to continue her work and received a number of grants for studies of religion and social life. From 1955 to 1958 she returned to St. Elizabeth's Mission to run the school she had attended as a girl. A grant for work on a Lakota dictionary provided her a position at the University of South Dakota from 1962 to 1966. After retiring, she continued to live in Vermillion, South Dakota, until her death on February 12, 1971.

Deloria was the most prolific native scholar of the Lakotas, and the results of her work (much of which is still unpublished, archived in the American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia, and the Dakota Indian Foundation, Chamberlain, South Dakota) are an essential source for the study of Lakota religion.

See Also

Lakota Religious Traditions; North American Indians, article on Indians of the Plains.


Boas, Franz, and Ella C. Deloria. "Dakota Grammar." Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 23, no. 2. Washington, D.C., 1941. The standard reference grammar of Lakota.

Deloria, Ella C. "Dakota Texts." Publications of the American Ethnological Society, vol. 14. New York, 1932. Comprises sixty-three Lakota stories (and one in Dakota) printed in the original as recorded by Deloria with word-by-word and free English translations.

Deloria, Ella C. Speaking of Indians. New York, 1944. Deloria's popular introduction to American Indians, including a succinct and insightful summary of Lakota culture.

Deloria, Ella C. Waterlily. Lincoln, Neb., 1988. An ethnographic novel focusing on three generations of Lakota women. Contains a biographical sketch of the author by Agnes Picotte

Murray, Janette K. "Ella Deloria: A Biographical Sketch and Literary Analysis." Ph.D. diss., University of North Dakota, 1974.

Rice, Julian. Deer Women and Elk Men: The Lakota Narratives of Ella Deloria. Albuquerque, 1992. A literary analysis of Deloria's Lakota stories and other writings.

Rice, Julian. Ella Deloria's Iron Hawk. Albuquerque, 1993. A bilingual presentation and literary analysis of a long, previously unpublished sacred story recorded by Deloria.

Rice, Julian. Ella Deloria's The Buffalo People. Albuquerque, 1994. A bilingual presentation and literary analysis of five previously unpublished stories recorded by Deloria.

Raymond J. DeMallie (2005)

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Deloria, Ella Cara

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