Ella Cara Deloria, also known as Anpetu Waste Win (Beautiful Day Woman), was a noted Yankton Dakota (Sioux) anthropologist, linguist, educator, and novelist. With her intimate knowledge of the Lakota and Dakota dialects combined with an understanding and interest in her own culture as well as the world around her, she worked to preserve the riches of Native culture while representing those riches to outsiders in a dignified manner.
Ella Deloria’s mother was Mary Sully Bordeau Deloria. Her father, Philip Deloria, grew up in the traditional camp circle and was educated in seminary. He became one of the first Dakota ordained an Episcopal priest. The family’s roots were Yankton (central) Dakota, as well as Irish and French. Ella was born in the White Swan district of the Yankton reservation in eastern South Dakota. Both parents were previously married; each had two daughters, making Ella their first child in a family of five girls. The couple’s other children were Philip, who tragically died at 10; Mary Susan, who became an artist; and Vine, who also became an ordained Episcopal priest.
Ella was raised at Wakpala on the Standing Rock Reservation, where she attended school at the mission founded by her father. Growing up, she spoke the Yankton dialect of Dakota at home and learned the Lakota dialect from her playmates on the Standing Rock Reservation. She also mastered the eastern dialect of Dakota, English, and later, Latin. She grew up immersed in traditional and Christian Lakota culture.
Ella continued her schooling in 1902 at All Saints Boarding School in Sioux Falls, another Episcopal institution. She attended the University of Chicago for a short time, won a scholarship to Oberlin College, in Ohio, where she attended for 2 years, and then transferred to Teacher’s College, Colombia University, in New York City, where she earned her bachelor of science degree in 1915. There, Deloria met the eminent anthropologist Franz Boas and began a fruitful though sometimes difficult collaboration, also working with Boas’s students, anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.
Ella Deloria saw the enactment of kinship roles as key to the integrity and continuation of Dakota society—an understanding that was not simply an intellectual construct, but a lived reality for her. After graduating from college, she returned to care for her aging parents and for her sister Mary Susan, who suffered from brain tumors. Committed to education, Deloria taught at All Saints beginning in 1915 until she went to Haskell Indian School in 1923, where she taught dance and physical education. In 1916, her mother died, and Ella took over the care of her sister Mary Susan and of her brother Vine, as well as her aging father.
Deloria began conducting formal research on Dakota language and culture in 1927. Sponsored by Franz Boas, she traveled between South Dakota and New York, making both geographical and cultural transitions as she had done from her earliest years. At Boas’s request, she checked the work of James Walker, an early ethnographer of the Lakota, with contemporary Lakota people knowledgeable in the culture from 1896 to 1914. She translated the Lakota language texts of George Bushotter, a Lakota who moved from South Dakota to Washington, D.C., and worked at the Bureau of American Ethnology under James Owen Dorsey in 1887 and 1888. She also translated the Santee Dakota texts of missionary linguists Gideon and Samuel Pond and checked the accuracy of missionary linguist Stephen Return Rigg’s Dakota dictionary. Deloria’s collaboration with Boas lasted until his death in 1942.
At the same time, Ella Deloria had her own interests in studying language and culture and actively pursued them. Never formally trained as an anthropologist, as she was not able to muster the considerable financial resources and free time required to complete an advanced degree; most of her personal and financial resources were committed to the support of her family, a factor that sometimes brought her into conflict with Boas, who felt she should have been more available for research. Nevertheless, Deloria had a deep commitment to scholarship and to the documentation and continuity of her own culture and carried on an extensive correspondence with Boas, Benedict, and Mead. These documents are particularly interesting to anthropologists, as they transcend Deloria’s writings about Lakota and Dakota culture and give vital insights into her own personal history, her understanding of her two worlds, as well as depicting her personal and scholarly struggles.
In addition to her anthropological research and to caring for her family, Ella Deloria worked at a wide variety of occupations. In addition to early teaching positions, she worked for the Campfire Girls and the Young Women’s Christian Association and gave various lectures and demonstrations on Native culture. She collaborated on a study of the Navajo sponsored by the Phelps-Stokes Fund and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She consulted with the Lumbee Indians in Pembroke, North Carolina, writing a pageant in consultation with them. She won the Indian Achievement Award in 1943, the highest honor at the time, from the Indian Council Fire in Chicago. She returned to St. Elizabeth’s in Wakpala as an administrator from 1955 to 1958, and later became an instructor for the Nebraska Teachers Corps and St. Mary’s Indian School for Girls in Springfield, South Dakota, with positions at the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, South Dakota, and as assistant director of the W. H. Over Museum, in Yankton, South Dakota. At the end of her life, she was compiling a Siouan dictionary. In recognition of her considerable intellectual ability as well as meticulous scholarship, she received grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in 1948 and from the National Science Foundation in the 1960s. Ella Deloria suffered a stroke in 1970 and died the next year of pneumonia.
Today, her importance has grown, not only in her legacy of anthropological interpretation from a female Dakota perspective, but in the interpretation and translation of her own life and scholarly production generated by other scholars interested in Native and women’s studies, marginality, postcolonial studies, literary criticism, cultural resistance and accommodation, and the contested ground between traditional and Christian beliefs. She is important not only for what she recorded, translated, and interpreted but also for who she herself was: a Yankton Dakota, a woman, and a member of an extended kinship group who both assisted and inspired her relatives (and was in turn inspired by them) and whose members include her artist sister Mary Susan; her Episcopal priest brother, Vine Deloria Sr.; her scholar/activist nephews Philip S. Deloria and Vine Deloria Jr.; and her historian grand-nephew Philip J. Deloria.
Ella Deloria’s published works included linguistics Dakota Grammar (published with Franz Boas), Native language folk stories, Dakota texts, ethnographies such as The Sun Dance of the Oglala Sioux, a popularized portrait of Dakota history and culture entitled Speaking of Indians (1944), and her novel Waterlily, published posthumously in 1988. The majority of her research and correspondence, yet unpublished, is archived in places such as the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia; Vassar College Special Collections, Poughkeepsie, New York; and the Dakota Indian Foundation in Chamberlain, South Dakota. Beatrice Medicine, herself a Lakota ethnographer, knew Ella personally and has written on her life, as did Raymond J. DeMallie and her nephew Vine Deloria Jr. The most extensive biography of her life was written by Janette Murray. The written scholarship on Ella Deloria herself and her scholarly output continues to grow.
- Deloria, E. (1998). Speaking of Indians (Introduction by V. Deloria Jr). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. (Original work published 1944)
- DeMallie, R. (1980). Ella Cara Deloria. In B. Sicherman (Ed.), Notable American women, the modern period: A bibliographical dictionary (pp. 183-185). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Medicine, B. (1988). Ella Cara Deloria. In U. Gacs, A. Khan, J. McIntyre, & R. Weinberg (Eds.), Women anthropologists: A biographical dictionary (pp. 45-50). New York: Greenwood Press.
- Murray, J. K. (1974). Ella Deloria: A biographical sketch and literary analysis. Doctoral dissertation, University of North Dakota.