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REVIEW: Waterlily by Ella Cara Deloria

Dear Readers,

Our recent discussion of multiculturalism brought this book to my mind. I first read it a few years ago, after reading some of Kathleen Eagle’s books, when I was trying to find more accurate information about Native Americans in the 19th Century. And I can honestly say that short of time traveling, this is probably as close to the real thing as we’re going to get.

Waterlily by Ella Cara DeloriaDeloria was born in 1888 to a prominent Yankton Dakota family. Her father was an Episcopal minister and she was partly raised on the Standing Rock Reservation. She spoke both the Yankton and Lakota dialects and spent much time recording oral histories while working in anthropology and ethnology. She got it, as it were, straight from the mouths of those who had lived the life.

“Waterlily” is her story of life on the plains during the 19th century just as the white man was beginning to enter Lakota life. It’s told mainly from the point of view of the women and not the warriors or holy men. It’s not told as a remembrance but rather shows the life of one young woman from birth to young adulthood. And through her story, we get a window into the complex social structure that undergirds Lakota life as well as the more day to day mundane tasks that filled her life.

Waterlily is born then raised in the tight social circle of her family unit or tiyospaye. There she learns the correct social kinship which was required among a people living in such close physical proximity. Manners were everything and without everyone knowing his or her place in the greater scheme of things, life would have been untenable.

As I read about how loving grandparents gently corrected and instructed their grandchildren, I couldn’t help but contrast it to behavior I see in public now. There’s a funny scene in which Waterlily’s family listens in horrified amazement as a relative and his wife tell them about how they’ve seen white parents interacting with their children in a newly built fort. Striking a child? Yelling at them? Such things would never be done in the camp circle.

We see how important the rituals of daily life were, how one brought honor to himself and his kinsfolk by giveaways, how everyone in the extended family worked together to make life pleasant and how the delicate kinship avoidance rules could alleviate any and all in-law jokes.

The Sundance is described in such a way that we can grasp how important it was in bringing the people together to support men who had made vows in support of their family and community. Modern eyes might view it as distasteful but to the Lakota it was something to be honored.

deloria_ella_caraDeloria avoids romanticizing anyone and presents Waterlily’s real father as something of a layabout before he acts like a total ass and divorces Blue Bird, her mother. But things work out for the family as shown by Blue Bird’s second husband and how he quietly supports his family. Lakota marriage is shown through Waterlily’s first marriage as well as her second which follows the beginnings of the scourge of diseases which were brought to the Plains people.

Though the book isn’t a romance per se, Waterlily does find love with someone. But it’s a quiet, dignified love which befits a people who didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves and emote about their “feelings” eight times a day. The slower, leisurely presentation might bore readers who want Action! on every page but if you’re looking for a book about this long gone lifestyle from someone who presents it with love and careful attention to detail, check out “Waterlily.”


This book can be purchased at Amazon in used format. It is an out of print title.

  • Publisher: Bison Books (August 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0803247397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0803265790

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. orannia
    Dec 07, 2009 @ 17:42:18

    Thank you Jayne! This definitely sounds like something I would like to read *makes careful note of the title*

  2. Sandy James
    Dec 07, 2009 @ 17:55:39

    If you like Native American stories, you should really check out some books by Judie Aitken. A Love Beyond Time, especially. Her stories are all beautiful romances written by someone who is a part of the Native American culture.

  3. Jayne
    Dec 07, 2009 @ 18:36:44

    @orannia: It’s a quiet, lovely little book and I hope you enjoy it.

  4. Jayne
    Dec 07, 2009 @ 18:39:41

    @Sandy James: Sandy, thanks for the info and link to Ms. Aitken. I’ve never read any of her books but will have to correct that when I can.

  5. Sandy James
    Dec 07, 2009 @ 18:55:16


    Sandy, thanks for the info and link to Ms. Aitken. I've never read any of her books but will have to correct that when I can.

    You’re quite welcome. She’s been a great mentor to me from the time I started writing four years ago. I credit her with giving me the tools I needed to become published. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed with any of her books. :-)

  6. Gayle
    Dec 08, 2009 @ 06:01:38

    I love these types of accounts of different cultures. Thanks for the recommend. I will try to find this book through my library network.

  7. EmilyW
    Dec 08, 2009 @ 07:52:09

    Great review; I shall have to check this one out. May I recommend another great book? Fools Crow by James Welch. Not categorized as romance but definitely has a strong romance thread.

  8. Denise
    Dec 08, 2009 @ 13:32:46

    Jayne, do you know if the author is related in any way to the more contemporary Lakota author, Vine Deloria? Vine Deloria’s writings were fiery. I read Custer Died for your Sins several years ago, and it pulled no punches when it came to an analysis of the negative impact of white encroachment into Lakota territory and the fall-out to the present day.

    This looks like an excellent read. Will have to check it out. Thanks for the heads-up.

    I also second the recommendation of books by Judie Aitken. Talented storyteller with a great voice.

  9. Jayne
    Dec 08, 2009 @ 13:40:45


    Jayne, do you know if the author is related in any way to the more contemporary Lakota author, Vine Deloria?

    They were aunt and nephew.

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