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Waterlily Panorphaeon Send a noteboard - 19/06/2011 07:21:20 AM
I have slacked off my reading terribly in the last month or so. Nevertheless I did manage to finish this charming little book as I am on a string of night shifts, and have excess time for that sort of thing.

For quite some time I have been interested in the American Indians, especially this year, as I've read mostly historical books about the frontier conflicts with plains cultures in the nineteenth century. Waterlily was an interesting aside to that subject, staying inside the general interest but honing in specifically on the family lives of Dakotas before the intrusion of white culture.

The 'story', if it may be called such, concerns the conception, birth, and growth of a young Dakota (Sioux) woman, Waterlily, but let me say straight away that this book defies easy categorization. Though it may be described as historical fiction, it is definitely not strictly historical, avoiding all but the most general references to place and time (i.e., the Missouri River, before the white men came), and there are principle characters but the narrative is loose and objective, straying this way and that as fits the needs of its ethnological duties. The real worth for the book, therefore, comes in its insight into culture which is bestowed on the reader with considerable ease and familiarity.

The author, Ella Cara Deloria, was in a distinct position to provide this point of view, having been raised on a Yankton Sioux reservation and being of that racial background herself. (Her father was apparently the first ordained Episcopalian priest of those people.) She was born just prior to the time of the Wounded Knee massacre (1890), and in her formative years on that and the Standing Rock reservation where she later lived she was able to experience the language and culture which she would later write to preserve in its fullness. She wrote to somebody once, and I am paraphrasing, that she felt that all the failures in policy and procedure with post-reservation Indians were due to a method of trying to orient the people to a Euro-centric culture which did not acknowledge the already rich, vibrant, carefully balanced society it was underwriting. In other words, whites behaved as if they were training people in civilization when, in Deloria's point of view, those people were already at the height of civilizaton because of the extent of their development of kinship values. This she apparently meant to prove in writing this story.

And that is really the worth of this book, though it falls into a bit of limbo so far as its style is concerned. Deloria was certainly no novelist, and she overexplains often, playing the omniscient narrator so as to fill in whatever details she deems necessary in her explanations of Dakota life. It is clear that the actions taking place across the 'story' are little more than functions which allow the author to explain the role of, for instance, a Sun Dance gathering, a Ghost Lodge ceremony, or an enemy raid. But these explanations are no less interesting for the fact that they arise as matters of convenience, and in any case, the events described did happen all the time. Deloria was a college graduate, and though she had no formal training in anthropology or ethnology, she did happen to establish a long-lasting partnership with the emininent Franz Boas, doing field work for him especially in the realm of linguistics, translation, and interpretation of folk tales and accounts of old warriors (in the early 1900's, this was still possible, as many old holy men and others from the pre-reservation period were still alive). In any case, she was familiar with the Sioux culture from the inside, by blood, and by decades of semi-formal study with them, working alongside prominent American ethnologists. Those were the conditions which produced Waterlily, which shows a clear comfort with the subject in a way that few people might have been entitled to affect.

The other distinctive worth of this book is that is told from the feminine point of view, which isn't noteworthy in the world of novels, but in the literature of plains Indians one is hard pressed to find any real penetrating insight into the lives of what were, really, some amazingly steadfast women. An old warrior George Sword broke it down once by saying that men in his society hunted and went to war, and women, well, did everything else. Literally. But this story does a fine job of casting its characters in a world where they live to keep their kinship circles intact through hard work, integrity, and affection, which considerably lessens the image of Indian women one may be forgiven for generating from other, more formal studies. Doubtlessly some of this was romanticization on Deloria's part, but being a woman, and being Sioux, she certainly had enough insight and integrity to make their roles clearly understood and appreciated by a casual reader.

That's what really struck me about this book, and that's ostensibly what Deloria sought to establish: that there was a well developed culture in place when others came, and it was founded and sustained by mutual respect and honor of groups over individuals. Not that I didn't believe that before. . . but over and over again I thought as I read this that it would have been a nice justice to Deloria and her work if we could send this story back in time to the whites of the nineteenth century who conquered a culture which, in a way, they refused to acknowledge had even existed. In short, though flawed, I found this book to be a reasonable, pleasantly humanizing picture of that world of the Indians which has now been fascinating me for a couple of years.
This message last edited by Panorphaeon on 19/06/2011 at 07:23:18 AM
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Waterlily - 19/06/2011 07:21:20 AM 5953 Views
That sounds interesting - 26/06/2011 10:39:40 PM 727 Views
There are a number of interesting women who contributed to this subject. - 27/06/2011 01:34:05 AM 748 Views

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