In her 1947 novel Waterlily, Ella Cara Deloria, also Anpétu Wašté Win, one of her Dakota names which means Beautiful Day, allows us into the daily lives of 19th century Teton Sioux women. Before they were relocated, before the whites had made it too difficult to maintain the lifestyle they had created and been living for over 3000 years.

The whites are already there on the Great Plains in this novel and talked about peripherally, their presence more apparent toward the end of the book when a smallpox epidemic is delivered via blankets. But mostly, in the setting and timespan of the novel, the Tetons freely move camp when it is determined the time is right, relocate for winter, and travel around and interact with neighboring tribes of Lakota and Dakota that make up the Great Sioux Nation or “Seven Council Fires,” for kinship reasons or big rituals like the Sun Dance.

The reader is immersed in this culture from inside the tipi, introduced to the social customs, the way of life, the rituals and beliefs. What Deloria focuses on most in this novel is how in the culture of the Lakota or Teton Sioux, kinship roles determine everything.

Kinship in this context is based on who you are related to through blood or other social contracts, what your place is within that kinship hierarchy, what is expected of you to maintain that position, and what you may expect from others. The kinship pattern of the Teton Sioux in the novel Waterlily is first and foremost based around giving.

One is constantly giving to others in the community as a way of keeping the peace, maintaining a balance, and offering all a feeling of being held in safety. You give with the understanding that others will give to you. Unlike giving to get, one gives to maintain balance and to show care. The level of giving can raise your status in the tribe. Giving freely from the heart, making an exceptionally beautiful pair of moccasins for a neighbor’s daughter, bringing food to a family in need, inviting those who have less to share a meal, gifting your best and most prized horses at important ceremonial times, offering up what you most value as a way to show respect and love.

The primary value of generosity that is revealed in the Teton culture through this book is humbling. I could feel my own lack of it as I read the book, my own greed. I am not a greedy person but I never experience the amount of openheartedness, complete willingness to offer and give that the characters do in this book. I am not judging myself or my own culture by saying this. I am only noticing.  I was made to notice by Deloria’s writing and her own observations, because at her core woman writer Ella Deloria is an anthropologist. It is her years of ethnographical and anthropological work that she brings to this narrative making it so rich and compelling. And absolutely beautiful.

The novel Waterlily

The novel Waterlily traces the lives of Waterlily, her mother and grandmother, and the larger extended families and groups with whom they are in relationship. Everything is about relationship for this culture. Relationship to each other, the family, the extended family, the extended families in the camp circle, the neighboring tribes, the landscape, the weather, the animals, the legends and mythology, the various roles they hold within their culture, the plants and the spirits, including Great Spirit. Most of all it is their relationship to giving that provides the Teton meaning and defines them to themselves and each other.

The novel opens with Blue Bird, Waterlily’s mother, giving birth to her as they move camp from one location to another. She has to leave the line and run into the forest to birth her baby alone. Once she does, she rejoins the line. Unfortunately for Blue Bird, her parents and most of her immediate family were killed while out on a hunting trip. Only she and her grandmother remain and are adopted by the tribe that finds them. They are taken in and made kin.

Blue Bird has made an unfortunate match with an abusive husband and now she has his child, Waterlily. One day soon after the child is born, he “throws her away” publicly. When Waterlily becomes seriously ill after this, Blue Bird sneaks away and prays in the only way she knows how. Her prayers are answered. Her child lives and when she returns to camp there is word that her extended family of origin has heard where she and her grandmother are and they are coming to take them home to their original kin.

“A family could maintain itself adequately as long as a father was a good hunter and the mother an industrious woman. But socially that was not enough; ideally it must be part of a larger family, constituted of related households, call a tiyospaye (“group of tipis”). In the camp circle such groups placed their tipis side by side where they would be within easy reach for cooperative living. In their closeness lay such strength and social importance as no single family, however able, could or wished to achieve entirely by its own effort.

In the atmosphere of that larger group, all adults were responsible for the safety and happiness of their collective children. The effect on the growing child was a feeling of security and self-assurance, and that was all to the good. Almost from the beginning everyone could declare, “I am not afraid; I have relatives.” To be cast out from one’s own relatives was literally to be lost. To return to them was to recover one’s rightful haven”(20).

Blue Bird returns to her tiyospaye of origin and eventually remarries, to a noble man this time, named Rainbow. Her new mother-in-law, Gloku is a powerful person with supreme command of the kinship ways. She models this for Blue Bird who also learns and models the ways for Waterlily, who chooses to carry them on as well. In Blue Bird’s new kinship relation:

“Particularly she was sure of Rainbow’s mother. It was her kinship duty to devote herself to a son’s wife. She would even scold her own son if she thought him remiss in his care of his wife—no matter who his wife was, no matter how inadequate she might be. That was the role cut out for mothers-in-law, and few women would neglect it, at least in the open, for fear of censure. But as it happened, Gloku was truly fond of Blue Bird”(59).

Gloku keeps the family and tiyospaye harmonious with her “herding” of the young, verbal suggestions to the elder children, and mild corrections offered with kind concern to all. She demonstrates work ethic by carrying out the chores required of the female lead with joy and efficiency.

Kinship roles are not romanticized. It is sometimes difficult to maintain them, as Waterlily discovers when it is time for her to decide whether or not to say yes to a marriage proposal. One sacrifices and sometimes makes choices they may not prefer in order to maintain this often rigid structure. But it is fascinating to be able to witness it in such close detail as Deloria decides to reveal it. It does however serve as a glue that holds this community together and creates a firm membrane of support and belonging.

Deloria is intentional is emphasizing how the kinship patterns keep everyone neatly knitted together and trusting one another. Throughout the novel Deloria finds opportunities to allow the reader to learn about many of the important rituals of the Tetons. When Gloku dies, the family is not ready to let her go so they keep her as a “ghost” for one year. The depiction of this fascinating ritual was one of the highlights of the book for me.

“Gloku, the beloved grandmother, died after a short illness and was mourned by the entire community. Surely it would not be enough simply to lay her body away and distribute her belongings and give away some horses in her name. She deserved something more, for she had been a potent personality, known for her good works through which she won everyone’s heart. She had comforted the bereaved regardless of their station, and many had come to her for advice. Now that she was gone, hardly anyone but could remember that at some time or other she had reached him by her hospitality. Such a public benefactor left a void. Realizing this, the family could not let her go so completely and irrevocably at once. They must hold her back a while longer. They would keep her ghost.

Ghostkeeping was a long, sustained, laborious ceremony. Until the family was ready to give the ghost feast, accompanied by the redistribution of property at the close of the period, the ghost bundle must be guarded with relentless care in accordance with a ritual that must not be neglected even once”(141).

The ghost dreamer is called in to prepare a ghost bundle out of some of the Gloku’s hair which will need to be tended to every day for as long as they keep her ghost. One of Gloku’s granddaughters volunteers to be custodian for this job. While she keeps this constant tending, others come and visit the ghost and bring her gifts. Gifts arrive from all corners of the camp circle of the ghost which are collected into a large pile that will be redistributed once the ghost feast happens and Gloku’s ghost is allowed to go.

The family and community are given all the time they need to say goodbye to Gloku. At the final feast, close to a year after Gloku’s death, four young women are chosen to begin the ceremony:

“At the right instant, a woman who had herself kept a ghost (which fact qualified her) came for the girls, bearing in her hand a bowl of powdered incense. They followed  her out and stopped at the outer end of the “Path of Beauty,” which extended about twenty paces from the ceremonial tipi. It had been made earlier, a carpeting of white deer and calf skins, with a symbolic painting, laid end to end. Along either side, in matched patterns to please the eye, were placed such things as decorated pipes, awls, knives, tobacco bags, and moccasins, examples of the best in all-over work with quills of bright hues. The Path of Beauty was all new and very colorful”(156).

At the end of the feast is the vast giveaway and redistribution of all the gifts to once again show proper respect and honor to Gloku.

Ella Deloria the anthropologist

From the founders of the Anthropology Department at Columbia University, Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, Deloria had learned to study a culture from the inside, including her own. She had been taught to look for patterns that made the culture one that had meaning to those inside it. What is the outstanding feature, what guides the members of the culture in their individual identities and their participation in the culture at large? What gives it meaning?

Franz Boas was a German American who promoted a philosophy that all societies have a distinct culture: a set of rules and beliefs they live by. No one culture is better or more advanced than another. They are all equally valid cultures with equally valuable cosmologies. Cultures are systems created by members’ agreements to terms of engagement and primary values. All cultures include people who are indoctrinated into that culture and that indoctrination blinds them to their own bias. They tend to look at other cultures through that lens, the bias of their culture of origin. Boas gathered students and others around him who he encouraged to lose that lens, go out into the field to immerse themselves into other cultures and see them for what they truly are. Only then can one notice patterns, beliefs, taboos, values without bias and report on them objectively.

Boas detested the current worldview permeating anthropological studies and anthropology in general which was based on belief in the superiority of whites and Northern European culture. Also, at the time eugenics was the rage, an unproven belief being promoted as scientific fact.

He also rejected the common assumption that so-called “advanced” cultures of the West or modern world were the pinnacle to which all cultures aspired. The belief was that if a culture was still in what they called a “primitive” state, they were simply behind the more advanced cultures, that there is a trajectory that cultures follow and that, eventually, the primitive (indigenous) cultures would be “lifted up” to the same beliefs and lifestyles of the advanced modern cultures. Boas and his circle, students and others, were fighting this. Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kroeber, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Deloria were in this circle.

Read Nasty Women Writers posts on Zora Neale Hurston:

Zora Neale Hurston: The Real Deal, American Woman Writer (1891-1960)

Zora Neale Hurston: Hiding Places

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston: Nasty Women Writers Who Were Good Friends

Zora Neale Hurston to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: “You Are My Sister”

Dakota born Woman Writer Ella Deloria, Anpétu Wašté Win

Born in 1889 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in Southeastern South Dakota, Ella Cara Deloria grew up on Standing Rock Reservation. Although born Dakota, the novel Waterlily is about the Tetons because she was raised among them at Standing Rock and she did her research there.

Deloria spoke English and Dakota in all three dialects. She went to college at Oberlin transferring to Columbia University’s teacher training institute in New York City in 1912.

“She was one of a small army of women and men who were meant to realize the college’s mission in remote postings: back in Indian reservations and in community schools that catered to indigenous populations”(King 234).

There she met and began working for Boas in his classes about the Dakota. Later, while she was teaching in Kansas, Boas came through on a trip west and asked her to return to New York to work with him.

“Boas had plenty for Deloria to do. He set her to work checking the research of nineteenth-century linguists and travelers on the Plains. The annual reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology and the many publications of the American Museum of Natural History were brimming with details of vocabulary, ritual, and belief systems. But little of it had ever been corroborated by an Indian, with any discrepancies properly cleaned up in a new scientific publication Boas soon realized the remarkable opportunity Deloria provided”(King 236).

Then she began her life work of traveling around the Standing Rock Reservation collecting stories, and information, double-checking other research and scholarly accounts, compiling many pages and books worth of information that she would then return to New York to organize and write up. Her first manuscript was published in the Journal of American Folklore. Ruth Benedict was the editor at the time, beginning a  friendship that proved to be a lasting means of support.

Much of Deloria’s research disproved information collected from previous anthropologists. When Boas resisted this, she pushed back telling him that many of the anthropologists were probably purposely given inaccurate information. You can’t just go into a people’s world and demand they give you their stories, their beliefs, their traditions and expect they will do so without knowing or trusting you, she responded.

“I cannot tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some other food each time I go to an informant,” Deloria wrote to Boas one summer. “The moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders.” You had to know precisely how to make a gift, how to make the right kind, how to eat properly with people, how to call them by the correct kinship terms—uncles, brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and the many variants of each that existed in Sioux languages. Only then could you go back, another time, and hope to get stories or information about a long-ago ceremony. But, “to go at it like a white man, for me, an Indian, is to throw up an immediate barrier between myself and my people”(King 238).

She was extremely committed to her people and was dedicated to preserving their history and also communicating to the white people a different image and story of them, one that showed them for who they really were, not the cartoon characters they had been portrayed as, nor the dead, previous inhabitants of the land the whites now lived on. She wanted to make the point that they are very much alive and have a thriving culture. Cultures change and evolve for many reasons and it is important to observe the cultures as they are as well as how they were.

In her 2009 introduction to the paperback edition of Waterlily, Susan Gardner writes:

“Like any other American Indian writer one can think of, she was writing for her people’s survival, not composing their obituary. She became her people’s biographer. Always, she was speaking with her informants, many of whom she also regarded as kin”(xi).

Though she was not formally enrolled in the anthropology department at Columbia, she may as well have been as she was doing the same fieldwork as those who were and she was able to sit in on lectures and department meetings. She was also being privately tutored by Boas and Benedict.

“In all his work with American Indians,” Benedict later wrote, “Professor Boas never found another woman of her caliber”(King 241).

All of this work led to many books, one of which became the novel Waterlily.

Speaking of Indians, also known as The Dakota Way of Life, was published in 1944. Her work with Boas resulted in several published books among them Dakota Texts (1932) and Dakota Grammar (1942).

Waterlily was not published in Deloria’s lifetime though she and Benedict spent a lot of time readying it for publication and had it completed in 1947. For many reasons, it was not published until 1988 by the University of Nebraska Press. Since that publication it has finally reached the audience and scope that Deloria had hoped for.

Ella Cara Deloria, Anpétu Wašté Win, is a Nasty Woman Writer.

© Theresa C. Dintino 2024

Works Cited

Deloria, Ella Cara. Waterlily. University of Nebraska Press. 1988. 2009.

King, Charles. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex and Gender in the Twentieth Century. Doubleday, 2019.