Book Review: Waterlily by Ella Cara Deloria

Waterlily by Ella Cara Deloria
Published by U of Nebraska Press on 1990
Genres: Ethnic Studies, Fiction, Historical, Literary, Native American Studies, Social Science
Pages: 244
Format: Paperback

This novel of the Dakota Sioux written by Sioux ethnologist Deloria takes protagonist Waterlilyøthrough the everyday and the extraordinary events of a Sioux woman’s life.

Ella Deloria is part of a family of storytellers, thinkers, and activists. Even if the reader knows little of this going into Waterlily, it quickly becomes apparent that this is not just the simple story of a young woman named Waterlily; rather, this is a story framed around the life of that young woman that is intended to teach the uneducated reader the sophisticated, complicated, and beautiful way of living through kinship bonds.

Deloria wrote the story of Waterlily with the intention of deliberately avoiding any overt discussion of colonial contact, and for good reason. While it is still apparent in her vocabulary that she has been educated in Euro-American influenced schools (for example – she regularly uses Judeo-Christian terminology to refer to the behavior of the women in the camp) the essence of the story is more in the descriptions of what kinship is and how the every day activities of the camps were centered on the nurturing of those bonds. In Waterlily’s story we are presented with values and ideals that, while not unfamiliar to the Euro-American, are still largely unused by today’s society. That society is rooted in individualism, in capitalism, and the need for personal gain over the needs of others. Waterlily’s story presents the other side quite well. The generosity shown by her family, the respect she shows to her husbands family, her need for her own “blood” still to be able to be carefree when she desires, and so much more are all indicative of a lifestyle and way of thinking that continues to thrive today, in spite of the colonialist attitude of “our way is best.”

Deloria’s work with students at Haskell, and other Native residential schools was vital to the perpetuation of stories like Waterlily. And, as I said earlier, while she did not escape the influence of the Euro-American educational system, I think Waterlily is a standing testament to how the big ideas continue to persevere through the horrific intent of cultural and physical genocide that was going on through the medium of those schools.


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