January 31st: Jackie Robinson & Ella Cara Deloria

Today’s Google Doodle honors what would have been the 94th birthday of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American Major League Baseball player. That small summary of his life and career doesn’t do him justice, so I would absolutely encourage you to read more about him. While Speaking Up focuses on gender representation, Doodles also lack diversity in many other dimensions, so I’m very pleased to see them recognize Robinson’s place in our history. As always, our focus on historical women here at Speaking Up is not at all to denigrate the contributions or achievements of the men honored in Doodles, but to elevate and tell the stories of those who are not getting their proper due.

Today we’ll be learning more about Sioux ethnographer, linguist, anthropologist and novelist (and more!) Ella Cara Deloria, born January 31, 1889.

Ella Deloria, photographer unknown.

Ella Deloria, photographer unknown.

Deloria started her career as an educator on the reservation where she grew up, pursuing degrees at Oberlin College and Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Deloria is best known, though, for her second career: ethnographic work exploring the cultural, ceremonial, oral and literary tradition of Native American communities. She recorded and compiled collections of folktales, as well as translations of Sioux texts that allowed other researchers to further their own work, and carried out anthropological research studies of various communities, focusing on language and the interaction of culture and environment. Deloria also made fundamental contributions to the linguistic study of the Dakota language’s syntax and grammar.

She concentrated mainly on the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Sioux nations, and her own background was Yankton Dakota. As Deloria had a linguistic background in English, Latin, and several Sioux dialects, and a cultural background in both traditional and “modernized” Sioux life, she was able to bridge the anthropologist’s gap, standing both inside and outside of the cultures that her work explored. This gave her unprecedented access to storytellers and a unique ability to generate knowledge of the Sioux for the outside world, but also put her in the socially precarious position of standing somewhat outside her own home and people. Deloria was also hired and funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which gained her more recognition and allowed her to help Native American groups, including the Lumbee of North Carolina, to pursue recognition by the U.S. government.

Deloria was also on the faculty of the University of South Dakota in the late 1960s, and passed away in South Dakota in February 1971. For her work, Deloria was honored with the 1943 Indian Achievement Award. In the 1940s, she wrote a novel, Waterlily, which was not published until two decades after her death. The novel focuses on the Sioux kinship tradition, particularly between women, and is considered one of the most important pieces of modern Native American fiction.

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