Excerpt: The Dakota Way of Life

Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971), a member of a prominent Yankton Sioux family, was born on the Yankton Reservation and lived as a child on the Standing Rock Reservation. She studied at Columbia University and is the author of three other books, including Waterlily, Speaking of Indians, and Dakota Texts, all available in Bison Books editions. Her newest book, The Dakota Way of Life (Bison Books, 2022), was published this month. Raymond J. DeMallie (1946–2021) was Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and former director of the American Indian Studies Research Institute. Thierry Veyrié is a research associate at the American Indian Studies Research Institute.

Presentation of Ella Cara Deloria

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 on January 31, 1889, on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in southeastern South Dakota, near the present town of Lake Andes. She was the firstborn child of the reverend Philip Joseph Deloria and Mary Sully Deloria and was named Ąpétu Wašté-wį́ ‘Beautiful Day Woman’ 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 Tʿípi Sápa ‘Black Lodge’; her father’s father was François des Lauriers (known as Saswé, the Dakota pronunciation of François), a Yankton chief who was the son of a Frenchman and a Yankton woman. Deloria’s mother, Mary Sully Bordeaux, the granddaughter of the artist Thomas Sully, was also of mixed heritage, being of Irish and Yankton descent. Both of Deloria’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, near Wakpala, South Dakota, on the Standing Rock Reservation. There Ella Deloria was raised with her younger sister and brother, Susan and Vine. Her childhood memories of the big tipi her mother would put up during the summers, which served as the children’s playhouse, and of the families of Chief Gall and other local Hunkpapa and Blackfeet Lakotas, are warmly recalled in her writings.

None of this made for a carefree childhood. Ella Deloria wrote that she and her siblings were not completely at home in Indian society, where social restrictions of gender and respect circumscribed the children’s play, and, in the context of the mission they were the minister’s children, always called on to “set an example.” Being the eldest of her siblings, she started acting as caretaker early in her childhood and was called upon for farm work. At twelve she was driving a team of horses that accidentally got scared, tipped the wagon, and caused the loss of her right thumb, handicapping her for life (Deloria 1998, xi). Then they were sent to boarding school at All Saints in Sioux Falls, where Deloria studied from 1902 to 1910. That year she entered Oberlin College, after which, in 1913, she enrolled at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City, where she received her bachelor of science degree in 1915. During her last semester in New York, she was introduced to pioneer of American anthropology Franz Boas, who was pursuing a study of the Dakota language. Boas hired her—Deloria’s first paying job—to come to his class and work with him and his students on translating portions of the texts written by Lakota scholar George Bushotter in 1887. It was her first realization that her skill in her Native language was valued outside Sioux Country. 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. After graduation Deloria returned to All Saints, where she taught for four years. In 1919 she took a job with the YWCA as health education secretary for Indian schools. In 1923 she returned to teaching, this time as a physical education instructor at Haskell Institute, an Indian boarding school in Lawrence, Kansas.

Her letters from Haskell reveal Ella Deloria’s strong identity as a Dakota and as an Indian—an identity fostered by a network of educated Indian friends and acquaintances. While at Haskell she was particularly proud of her accomplishments in writing and staging pageants, modeled in part after tableaux performed by the students at All Saints. In 1928 she copyrighted “The Wohpe Festival,” a day-long celebration of traditional Dakota religion for schools and summer camps that celebrates Indians as children of nature: “The great lesson is taught that life in any form is precious. . . all children, regardless of race, need to learn it at some time during their lives.” Based on the Sun Dance, the directions for the festival give invocations, prayers, dances, and ritual movements.

In 1927 Boas’s student Martha Warren Beckwith happened to meet Philip Deloria while 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 Dakota-language studies she had begun with him in New York. That June, in Lawrence, they continued their work on the Bushotter translations and finalized the writing system for the Dakota language, Boas reinforcing in Deloria’s mind the necessity of distinguishing aspirated, unaspirated, and glottalized consonants. Before leaving Boas drew up a formal agreement to pay her to continue work during the summer. She readily agreed and spent the summer translating written texts, including those by George Sword, a reservation policeman who wrote for Lakota newspapers. She also recorded texts on her own. In a letter to Deloria in January 1928, Boas referred to the writing system they developed in the summer of 1927 as “the alphabet as we designed it.”

Ella Deloria continued translating the Bushotter texts that Franz Boas mailed to her at Haskell. Writing to Bishop Hugh L. Burleson, her spiritual advisor and temporal benefactor, in August 1928, she explained it this way:

Dr. Boas of Columbia, with whom I did some work in recording Dakota phonetically, when I was in school, came to see me and we worked out some more material. He is most interested in getting the language recorded accurately for future reference in comparative languages of primitive peoples, and wants me to work with him . . . I am finishing up now some revision of the Bushotter Dakota texts from the Smithsonian Institute. Also I am writing a course of study in physical education for the Indian schools. . . .

I always have the feeling that this (whatever I am doing) is temporary—that ideally I would be doing church work. I feel a constant pull towards that. I wish there were a position in the Church in South Dakota involving traveling for the woman’s auxiliary. I don’t brag, but I know that I have been fortunate enough to have the natural ability of getting people to do things, and that with my Dakota, and knowledge of Church affairs, and of changing customs among the white people, I can make a success of such work, helping women to take their place in the Church and also interpreting white people to them, so they can adjust themselves better than they have till now. I am very thoroughly convinced that you can not really get at the heart of a people without knowing their language. I think my knowledge of Dakota is a big asset there. And then, pageantry. I have been putting on things [pageants] down here, and made each one better than the previous one.

Deloria so enjoyed the linguistic work that at the end of the fall semester she precipitously resigned her teaching position in Haskell, even before Boas could guarantee her full-time employment. At age thirty-nine, she found teaching physical education to be too exhausting and was looking for another line of work. In November 1927 she wrote to Boas by hand in an exhilarated tone:

[I] am considering resigning . . . I have in view two things,—a position in a book company, or church work at home. But of course that is in case you have nothing for me. I am wondering—you once said that for a time you might have me come to live in your home and do work on the Dakota. Would you care to offer me such a thing at this time? I could come the first part of January . . . I should have to have a salary, and whenever an opportunity came from a high school or organization, to tell Indian customs and demonstrate dances, as used to come when I was in New York, I would like to be able to go. The rest of the time I could give to any work you would want me to do. . . .

P.S. You spoke of a possible fellowship. If that should materialize, I could come back to the Sioux Country in June. I would like that better than teaching gym work any more.

Boas was guardedly optimistic about being able to provide support for Deloria and proposed a salary of $100 per month, with Ella to live with his family. She preferred a higher salary that would allow her independence in New York. On Christmas Day, 1927, she wrote to Boas again, assuring him that there was nothing she wanted to do more than work with him on the Dakota language. The following month, on January 18, 1928, Boas wrote her that he had obtained funds for her to revise the Riggs dictionary of Santee (1890), recording the equivalent forms in Teton Dakota, or Lakota. Finally, on January 28, Boas was able to guarantee her regular employment for eighteen months, which began a decade of collaboration supported by Columbia University.

Her funding permitted to employ her under Otto Klineberg, a friend of Boas’s, to work on a project to study Dakota psychology, “the habits of action and thought” of children and adults. However, Boas used this as an opportunity to further their collaboration on Dakota language and culture. When, in January 1928, he asked her to write the Dakota forms in the Riggs dictionary, he noted that, “from an ethnological point of view, the whole study will, of course, have to know all the details of everyday life as well as of religious attitudes and habits of thought of the people.”

Boas asked Deloria to come to New York to receive directions and assist in the classroom, but she delayed her trip until February, when her brother could come to South Dakota to stay with their father and assist him, as his health was precarious. Philip had retired from missionary work and moved back to the Yankton Reservation. The $200 a month Boas now provided allowed her to rent her own lodgings and to bring her sister to live with her; as neither Ella nor Susan Deloria ever married, the two would be lifelong companions. At the end of April 1928 she wrote to her bishop that she had completed the work on the Riggs dictionary, having written the Lakota forms in the margins. Boas’s objective was to reorganize the dictionary according to verb stems. Deloria was also teaching two classes: one on her own (presumably devoted to Dakota culture and society), and the other a linguistics methods class, “where I do not teach but answer questions put to me by the students who are trying to learn methods of getting at a new, primitive language.”

During the summer Deloria returned to South Dakota to continue field study. Upon her departure Boas provided directions about the comparative psychology project to Deloria in a letter:

The principal object of your trip is to supplement your knowledge of the general culture background of the Dakota for the purpose of assisting in the preparation of psychological tests that will fit their culture. . . . If you should find any kind of games among children that train activities, with which our own children in the cities are not familiar, these will be of particular value. . . . At the same time, you will obtain as much information as possible on the ethnography and language of the Sioux. (Whitten and Zimmerman 1982)

Deloria was to develop a comparative performance test. Two years later the test, which was based on beadwork, proved adequate for showing that Lakota children performed better than children from the city in an activity with which they were familiar, unlike the tests that were commonly imposed on them.

In addition to collaborating with Boas and Klineberg, Ella Deloria was to collect song texts for ethnomusicologist George Herzog. He recorded 192 songs, which she translated, and Deloria herself collected an additional 240 Dakota song texts. Her ethnographic studies were carried out under the supervision of Ruth Benedict, a cultural anthropologist who was Boas’s assistant and colleague.

The second project Deloria undertook for Boas in the summer of 1928 was the translation of a Native-language text on the Sun Dance, the most important traditional Lakota spiritual ceremony. A long and detailed account, it had been written in the early 1900s by Sword, who was a religious leader among the Oglala Lakotas on Pine Ridge Reservation, in southwestern South Dakota. Deloria read the text aloud to several Oglala elders and, with their guidance, edited and retranscribed it. The text, printed in both Lakota and English, was her first professional publication (Deloria 1929).

This first experience with anthropological fieldwork was not without difficulties in working with language consultants. In a letter to Boas, written from Rosebud in August 1928, she expressed frustration: “I am getting along all right. There are some discouraging features—one of them, the temperament of some of my informants. It is the old man or woman who is most valuable, but unfortunately is apt to be vague and indefinite. I do not see how non-Dakota-speaking workers get along as well as they do.”

Searching for someone who would talk about traditional spiritual beliefs and practices, Deloria was led to an old medicine man, a diviner, said to be the only man capable of providing the kinds of information she needed. As a half-brother to her father, he was also father to her, but “he hates my father because he considers him disloyal to the teachings and practices of their father.” Another old man was a possibility, but his son was married to one of Ella Deloria’s half-sisters, making her his daughter-in-law, and kinship custom forbade direct communication between them. In short Deloria’s status as an insider seemed a mixed blessing.

Deloria intended to be back in New York by fall, but her father suffered a stroke, and she went to be with him. She continued working for Boas by writing texts, doing interviews, and correcting dictionary cards as he sent them to her, but she stayed with her father on the Yankton reservation. Klineberg also sent her questions for investigation. Most comfortable working with the people at Wakpala, Deloria decided to move her ailing father back to Standing Rock, over the bishop’s protest, to facilitate her work. She made three trips there during the summer, then moved her father in the fall.

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