[A wonderful photo of Ella Cara Deloria, found on the website for the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center]
Ella Cara Deloria (Anpetu Wastéwin “Beautiful Day Woman”) was born in 1889 on the Standing Rock Reservation in what is known as the state of South Dakota, USA. Deloria was born to a prominent Christian Dakota family, with famous Dakota activist academics such as Vine Deloria Jr. (her nephew) and Philip J. Deloria (Vine Deloria Jr.’s son) making up part of her familial relations.
In 1915, Deloria received a Bachelor’s degree from Columbia Teacher’s College. During her time at Columbia, she met the famous anthropologist Franz Boaz with whom she began to collaborate with. Her knowledge of both Dakota and Lakota Sioux dialects became an asset within the early twentieth century world of anthropology, a discipline which was born of colonial, exploitative inquiry into the lives of Indigenous peoples by mostly white men. With her introduction to Boaz, Deloria began to become involved in anthropological work as a key translator and critical analyzer of Sioux texts.
Her work in the academy demonstrates some of the ways marginalized people navigated early twentieth century academia, and specifically how Indigenous women were intrinsic in the development of anthropology as a field of academic inquiry. While anthropology is embedded within a colonial history of exploitation, figures like Ella Deloria complicate what can often be painted as a one-dimensional narrative of academics exploiting Indigenous communities. Deloria demonstrates, quite literally, how Indigenous peoples spoke back with and against anthropologists during the twentieth century, often making space for themselves to work in helping their own people.
Outside of her work as an anthropologist, linguist, and ethnographer, Deloria was also a novelist and – interestingly – an advisor to the Camp Fire Girls, an early version of a settler girls “back to nature” style camp. Although camps such as the Camp Fire Girls utilized stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as “noble savages,” people like Deloria hoped to change these harmful stereotypes by working from within. From 1929 to 1931, Deloria taught Camp Fire Girls about different Indigenous philosophies, songs, and dances, advancing what Philip J. Deloria has referred to as “her own cultural mission – constructing positive images of Indians around the primitivist foundation laid by the Camp Fire Girls. Just as the Camp Fire Girls used a universal Indianness to reproduce specific ideals of middle-class womanhood, so too did Deloria seek access to American cultural institutions in order to reshape popular conceptions of Indianness” (122).
Deloria’s work spanned not only the academy, but everyday middle-class settler contexts such as summer camps for children. She worked tirelessly within institutions that were not meant to accommodate the voices of Indigenous people in general, and specifically not Indigenous women. Ella Deloria was of a generation of middle-class Indigenous activists who gained entry into settler academic institutions, albeit in often marginal forms, and attempted to work towards change from the inside out. Deloria, like many other members of her family, paved the way for later generations of Indigenous activists. As the recent and ongoing defense of Indigenous land, water, and treaty rights at Standing Rock demonstrates, the fight for justice continues. We here at the HHBlog tip our proverbial hats to Indigenous women such as Ella Deloria who fought – and continue to fight – in myriad ways for their respective peoples.
Deloria, Philip J. Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
“Ella Cara Deloria, Anpetu Wastéwin (Beautiful Day Woman).” Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. Accessed December 9, 2016. http://aktalakota.stjo.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=9006