SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
The value of Ella Deloria’s Waterlily derives not only from its thoughtful and lucid analysis of kinship relationships among the Dakota Sioux, but also from the fundamental ethical lessons it imparts. We should read this book as a primer in the ethical life, taking its place alongside classic works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Immanuel Kant,
John Stuart Mill, and others. Waterlily remains an enduring masterpiece of the real
Dakota life—especially the elaborately textured layers of the all-important and allencompassing kinship relationships.
Waterlily presents an extraordinarily practical idea that, if implemented, could help end perpetual cycles of violence: the concept of “kinship appeal.” The violating outsider is required to become a member of the harmed clan—to “replace” the member of the tribe that he killed: “Though he has harmed us, we shall make him something to us (a relative) in place of the one who is not here. Was the dead your brother? Then this man shall be your brother. Or your uncle? Or your cousin? As for me, the dead man was my nephew. Therefore his slayer shall be my nephew. And from now on he shall be one of us. We shall regard him as though he were our dead kinsman returned to us.”
Ella Cara Deloria led a remarkable life. We can share part of that life by conducting a careful and purposeful analysis of her classic work, Waterlily. One of the most exciting and profoundly important aspects of this text is Deloria’s ability to lucidly present a comprehensive picture of the traditional life and times of Dakota Sioux prior to the disruption and dissolution of their society that resulted from contact with European cultures. Because of her training at Columbia University by distinguished anthropologist
Franz Boas, Deloria is able to provide us with a detached, objective, scientific analysis of the culture of the Dakota Sioux—one that provides penetrating analyses of the anthropological foundations of the Dakota society. At the same time, Ms. Deloria, because of her linguistic and creative abilities, weaves a compelling narrative replete with strong characters, a flowing plot, and instructive lessons.
Waterlily is a magnificent story that teaches us how to respect one another and all of the life on earth. Its value derives not only from its thoughtful and lucid analysis of kinship relationships among the Dakota Sioux but also from the lessons it delivers for respectful living. Curiously and largely unknown to us, the Dakota Sioux in the early nineteenth century lived a life of great balance, reverence, respect, and harmony with nature. The events portrayed in Waterlily, fundamental to living an ordered and honorable life, provide lessons that all people should seriously consider. This is a text rich in ethical analysis; by observing the kinship relationships and way of life of the
Dakota Sioux, we are provided with a superb primer in the ethical life.
Waterlily describes the life of a Dakota woman (Waterlily) carrying her from birth to marriage, to the death of her first husband, and then to her marriage to a second virtuous Dakota man. The story flows full circle. At the end of the novel, the young mother, Waterlily, gives birth to her daughter—Mitawa (“My Own”). All along the way, we learn about the finely attuned, purposeful, and virtually perfectly ordered life of the
Dakota because of one major institution—elaborate, powerful, and appropriate kinship rules and relationships. The Dakota life may not be perfect, but the order and appropriateness of their lives and the ways in which their lives are conducted certainly seem to be about as optimal as it gets. Again, the sine qua non, the foundation of all of this revolves around elaborate kinship relationships, which create unity, solidarity, and
common goals among the people of the kinship circle. There are profound…