Deloria, Ella (1888–1971)

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Deloria, Ella (1888–1971)

Yankton (Ihanktonwan) Sioux (Dakota) who was a linguist and ethnologist. Name variations: Anpetu Waste Win, meaning "Beautiful Day Woman," to commemorate the blizzard that raged on the day of her birth. Born Ella Carla Deloria on January 30, 1888, on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota; died on February 12, 1971, in South Dakota; first of four children of Philip Deloria (an Episcopal priest also known as Tipi Sapa or "Black Lodge" of Yankton-French descent) and Mary (Sully) Deloria of Yankton-Irish descent; aunt of the noted writer Vine Deloria, Jr., author of Custer Died for Your Sins; attended St. Elizabeth's Mission School, Wakpala, South Dakota, and All Saint's School, Sioux Falls, South Dakota; attended University of Chicago, 1910–11, Oberlin College, 1911–13, Columbia University, 1913–15, where she received her B.S., 1915.

Began association with noted anthropologist, Dr. Franz Boas, and worked with him until his death in 1942; awarded Indian Achievement Medal (1943).

Selected publications:

"Sun Dance of the Oglala Sioux" in Journal of American Folklore (1929); Dakota Texts (1932); (with Boas) Dakota Grammar (1941); Speaking of Indians, (1944). Waterlily, a novel about the life of a Teton Sioux woman, was written in the early 1940s and published posthumously (1988).

Ella Deloria's research is considered some of the best ever published on her native Sioux (Dakota) culture. Her linguistic translations, including a bilingual collection of Sioux tales, gives us a description of Dakota life unparalleled by any other anthropologist. Particularly important in Deloria's research is her accurate portrayal of native women, a subject most often misinterpreted by other scholars. As a tribal member and as a woman, she had a personal as well as intellectual interest in interpreting native life to white society.

Deloria was born on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, the eldest of four children. Her family moved to the Standing Rock Reservation when her father, Philip Deloria (Tipi Sapa), was assigned to St. Elizabeth's Mission as a deacon of the Episcopal Church. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1892. Though Deloria and her siblings were reared in the Christian faith, they were never expected to disregard their Sioux culture and language with which they lived.

An avid and serious student, Deloria graduated from New York's Columbia University with a B.S. in 1915. She returned to South Dakota and took a series of teaching assignments, none of which utilized her academic skills as much as she wished. But Deloria was dedicated to her family, in particular to her father who suffered from a long illness. A lifetime of correspondence reveals that she was often torn between her obligation to her family and her commitment to her work.

While attending Columbia, she had attracted the attention of Franz Boas, who was considered by academics as the dean of anthropologists and a leader in the study of Native American languages. In 1927, Boas asked her to translate and edit texts written in her native Sioux. Deloria was delighted with her new assignment for which she gathered additional stories and legends, and the resulting "Sun Dance of the Oglala Sioux" was published in Journal of American Folklore in 1929.

Deloria would continue her association with Boas until his death in 1942. Whenever possible, she devoted herself to field research, often traveling between the Dakota reservations to interview elders on traditional life. She sent the fieldwork, with translations, to Boas and, after his death, to Ruth Benedict , another noted anthropologist. In 1932, the material gathered from these research trips was published as Dakota Texts. Boas and Deloria collaborated on Dakota Grammar, published in 1941. Speaking of Indians, an intimate and accurate portrait of native culture, particularly Sioux, was published in 1944.

For the rest of her life, Deloria devoted herself to writing and lecturing, most often in efforts to insure that her native Dakota would not fade into oblivion as had many native languages. At the time of her death, she was working on a Dakota dictionary. Her notes exist as the "Ella C. Deloria Project" at the University of South Dakota.


Bataille, Gretchen, ed. Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. NY: Garland, 1993.

Murray, Janette K. Ella Deloria: A Biographical Sketch and Literary Analysis. Phd. dissertation: University of North Dakota, 1974.

Deborah Jones , freelance writer, Studio City, California