Ella Deloria: A Biographical Sketch

Ella Cara Deloria, who devoted much of her life to the study of the language and culture of the Sioux (Dakota and Lakota), was born January 31, 1889, on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in southeastern South Dakota, near the present town of Lake Andes. She was the first-born child of the Reverend Philip Joseph Deloria and Mary Sully Deloria and was named Beautiful Day Woman (Anpetu Washte-win) in commemoration of the blizzard that raged the day of her birth. Her parents, members of the Yankton Sioux tribe, were both descended from Yankton Dakota (Sioux) and Euro-American ancestors. Her father's Dakota name was Black Lodge (Tipi Sapa); her father's father was François des Lauriers (known as Saswe, the Dakota pronunciation of François), a Yankton chief who was the son of a Frenchman and a Yankton woman. Ella's mother, Mary Sully Bordeaux, was of mixed Irish and Yankton descent; she was the granddaughter of the artist Thomas Sully. Both of Ella's parents had had children by previous marriages. As a young man Philip Deloria had converted to Christianity and renounced his claim to chieftainship; ultimately he became one of the first two Sioux to be ordained priests in the Episcopal Church. In 1890 he was placed in charge of St. Elizabeth's Church and boarding school, at Wakpala, South Dakota, on Standing Rock Reservation.

Ella Deloria was brought up at St. Elizabeth's. Because the community members were primarily Hunkpapa and Blackfoot Tetons (Lakotas), the Deloria family adopted the l dialect of the Tetons in place of the d dialect of the Yanktons. Therefore Deloria, a Yankton, grew up speaking the Lakota dialect of the Sioux language. However, she did speak in the Yankton dialect with her father.

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. After winning a college scholarship, she entered Oberlin College in 1910, then transferred in 1913 to Columbia Teachers College, where she earned her bachelor of science degree in 1915. During her senior year at Columbia Teachers she met Franz Boas, professor of anthropology at Columbia University, who hired her for her ability to speak Lakota to work with his students in a course on linguistics. This experience 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's student Martha Warren Beckwith, happened to meet Philip Deloria while she was recording Sioux folklore in South Dakota. From him she learned of Ella Deloria's whereabouts and wrote to tell Boas. Anxious to continue their collaboration, Boas visited her in Oklahoma to propose that she resume the Lakota language studies that she had begun with him in New York. She readily agreed and spent the summer translating written texts and recording some on her own. She so enjoyed the work that at the end of the fall semester she precipitously resigned her teaching position, even before Boas could guarantee her full-time employment.

Boas proposed that Deloria record "all the details of everyday life as well as of religious attitudes and habits of thought of the people" (Boas quoted in Deloria 1988:235-36). From 1928 until 1938, with support from Columbia University, Deloria studied the language, recorded stories and ethnographic material from Lakota and Dakota elders throughout South Dakota and in Minnesota. She also translated historical texts written by tribal members. Periodically, she returned to New York to consult in person and to prepare her manuscripts. Deloria's collaboration with Boas culminated in a grammar of Lakota (Boas and Deloria 1941), now a classic of American Indian language description. Her ethnographic 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 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, about visions and other supernatural experiences, and about 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 they feared 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. For years she collected material for a study that would document the variations from group to group, but failed to complete it.

Deloria's finances were always precarious. She was supported by small research grants, the proceeds from speaking engagements, writing and consulting work, and the generosity of friends. Her correspondence with Boas reveals a continuing conflict between her commitment to her work and her deeply felt sense of obligation to her family. She cared for her father during a long illness, and helped to support her sister, Mary Susan, with whom she lived for much of her life. Mary Susan, an artist known professionally as Mary Sully, did the artwork for Deloria's Speaking of Indians (1944), which was intended to introduce American Indians to a broad popular audience. In this book, with great insight and empathy, Deloria 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 language, religion, and social life. From 1955 to 1958 she returned to St. Elizabeth's to run the school she had attended as a girl. Later she worked briefly for the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, S. Dak., and served as assistant director of the W. H. Over Museum at the University of South Dakota. There, as a member of the new Institute for Indian Studies, Deloria received a National Science Foundation grant that supported work on a Lakota dictionary from 1962-1966.

During her later years Deloria worked under many disadvantages. Her constant traveling had taken its toll in lost notes and manuscripts. The material she had prepared under Boas and Benedict had been transferred from Columbia University to the Library of the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia, together with Boas's personal papers. She used a microfilm copy of the Lakota dictionary material she had prepared many years before under Boas's direction, but she lacked the support that would have been necessary to complete her dictionary.

After retiring, Deloria continued to live in Vermillion, South Dakota. She suffered a stroke in summer, 1970, and died on February 12, 1971, in Tripp, S. Dak, of a pulmonary embolus.

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 and the Dakota Indian Foundation, Chamberlain, South Dakota) comprise an essential source for the study of Lakota culture and language. Her studies provide some of the best material ever recorded on Sioux culture and are the fullest accounts in the native language. Her work is also unique in emphasizing an understanding of the culture from women's perspectives, which is lacking in most studies of American Indian cultures. Her research had three main goals: first, to edit and translate linguistic texts that had been written or dictated by Sioux people in the various dialects of the native language; second, to record a detailed description of traditional Sioux social and religious life; and third, to compile the data for a thorough grammar and comprehensive dictionary of the Lakota dialect of the Sioux language. Deloria was a perfectionist who worked slowly and cautiously, rewriting many times and attempting to be as objective as possible. As a result, she published relatively little, but her work is invaluable.

Ella Deloria was a scholar through and through, yet she never let her dedication to scholarship overwhelm her sense of responsibility as a Dakota woman, with family concerns taking precedence over her work. Nor did she ever lose her deep faith in Christianity. She was a warm and gracious individual, whose kindness and personality were inspirational. Her constant goal was to be an interpreter of an American Indian reality to other peoples. Her studies of the Sioux are a monument to her talent and industry.


     Boas, Franz, and Ella C. Deloria. "Dakota Grammar." Memoirs of the National
Academy of Sciences, vol. 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: G. E. Stechert & Co., 1932. Comprises sixty-three
Lakota stories (and one in Dakota) printed in the original as recorded by
Deloria with word-by-word and fee English translations.
     Deloria, Ella C. Speaking of Indians. New York: Friendship Press, 1944.
Deloria's popular introduction to American Indians, including a succinct and
insightful summary of Lakota culture.
     Deloria, Ella C. Waterlily. Biographical Sketch of the Author by Agnes
Picotte, Afterword by Raymond J. DeMallie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press, 1988. An ethnographic novel focusing on three generations of Lakota
     Gardner, Susan. "Though It Broke My Heart to Cut Some Bits I Fancied": Ella
Deloria's Original Design for Waterlily. American Indian Quarterly 27(3)
(2003):667-96. An insightful study of the creation of Deloria's novel.
     Murray, Janette K. "Ella Deloria: A Biographical Sketch and Literary
Analysis." Ph. D. dissertation, University of North Dakota, 1974. The fullest
biographical source.
     Rice, Julian. Deer Women and Elk Men: The Lakota Narratives of Ella Deloria.
Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992. A literary analysis of
Deloria's Lakota stories and other writings.
     Rice, Julian. Ella Deloria's Iron Hawk. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico
Press, 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: University of
New Mexico Press, 1994. A bilingual presentation and literary analysis of five
previously unpublished stories recorded by Deloria.

This biographical sketch was written by Raymond J. DeMallie, American Indian Studies Research Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

July 2006

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