A Brief Ethnographic Commentary: Waterlily

Waterlily is a captivating story of a young Dakota girl growing up in the Sioux culture of beliefs, social conventions and ceremonies. We learn, alongside Waterlily, the concept of kinship: “achieving civility, good manners, and a sense of responsibility toward every individual dealt with.” These kinship rules are the crux of the Sioux culture, as they “held the people together, impelling them to sacrifice for one another”. Within the tiyospaye, Waterlily learned to navigate the relative obligations that are at the core of kinship rules. In doing so, she was to become a child beloved and an exemplary woman, all by means of that careful observation of kinship rules and her joyful and selfless execution of gift-giving rituals.

One of the most interesting concepts in the code of communication observed in Waterlily was that of the voluntarily bonded friends as “kona”. This bond was entered into carefully as a most serious commitment, and from my interpretation, even more than that of marriage. Once bonded as “kona” the best that you have to offer is that of your “brothers”. Your family’s become related, and kinship obligations take in the new expanse of family. In the story we see how the “kona” relationship of her little brother ‘saved’ her from loneliness when she found herself isolated in her new husband’s tribe. After having successfully identified all in her kinship relationships she was now left to relax and had time to realize how alone she was – but alas, her brother’s “kona” was of the tribe, and suddenly she had a mother, father and extended family with which she could relax and be herself without the confines of the respect required for those outside your immediate family relations.

This brings me to the thought of how a marriage is entered into with respect, and I think back to the conversation that Waterlily’s husband had with his uncle. He was worried for his new wife’s reserve. She was acting as would be respected by her husband, however he longed for true personality to shine. Wisely his uncle noted that adapting to a new marriage is easier done when the woman does not have to adapt to both the new husband and the new family (and the burden of learning all the kinship obligations and observing of the rules that must be done while acclimating).

Here I stop to reflect on the principles I myself was taught as a child. My family was Christian and many of the concepts I learned are reminiscent of that of the Sioux tribe. However, I cannot help but see what is practiced in abstract and in a distant way by the red face truly comes to life in that of the tribal life. I learned of ancient Israelites’ who knew that the greater joy was in that of giving. Of men who carried for their brothers wives if widowed. Of respect shown for members of family, diffidence for father and mother-in-law, joking relationships with brother-in-law and cousins, respect for the conversation of men. Seeing these principles enacted by the Sioux tribe so completely allows me to fully realize the import they hold and just how a society would be benefited by such a code. However, it is the unfortunate reality that so few cultures are able to follow the code in all its intricacy’s in order to be able to realize the fulfillment of its promises.

Continuing in the use of ‘compare and contrast’ method, I was very interested in the account of the teaching of the white man’s children as compared to that of the tribal children. The white man was noted as yelling at his children and striking them. Their method appeared to be relatively ineffective and was foreign to the understanding of the Dakota tribe observing from a distance. On the other hand, Waterlily and the other children of the tribe were brought up by subtle references to the behavior expected of adults, the true essence of a code of honor. “No one does that.” With a indirect statement rebuking a child’s behavior a request is made of their personal honor. They could act in accord with the set of rules governing their society which constitutes honorable behavior, or they could act against it. Without direct accusation the child is compelled to be honorable. It is with acquiescence to the implied rules of communication and the code of honor that she was honored to be able to say “All my relatives are noble.” Conversely when we look at the description of the wild children that were encountered in the plains we see the effect of living without a code of honor, and a society with rules of communication. Without others to let them know that their behavior was inappropriate, how could they be expected to understand their plight and adjust their behavior to comply with social norms?

The gift giving rituals supplies honor and respect regardless of class within the community. It need not matter how much it is that you have to give, but that you honor by giving of what you have, and even better, the best of what you have. In return you may be honored by another and therefore should never be left in need. This Dakotan principle again reminds me of biblical principles I learned as a child – in particular of the woman of little possession. She, standing among the rich Pharisee’s, gave a small coin of little value. It was said that her coin was of more value than all that the others had given, because while it was of little monetary value it was of all she had, rather than of her surplus.

In conclusion, I am honored to know more about this society and the codes and rules of communication which govern them. With the close similarities to that of the Christian views I can’t help but wonder if there are codes innate within each and every one of us as humans, written upon our souls if you will, and that we each have a choice whether to honor them without suppression, or to ignore them and go the way of a selfish society. I realize that Christianity could have influenced the ways of the Indians; however, I believe these codes predated any such influence. I highly esteem the Sioux for faithfully following and persevering in passing down such honorable codes from generation to generation.

Reflection on Bea Medicine’s Essay

“Morality, ethical behaviour, and the unifying theme of reciprocity are manifested from a feminine perspective. The articulation of male and female relationships is significant. It may be the emphasis on gender complementarity that causes some modern feminists to object to the novel.”

I feel vindication in learning how heavily influenced Ella was by her Christianity… I had feared that perhaps my upbringing was forcing me to see what was not truly there in the writing. Now I am simply left to wonder how much this novel example of ethnography was skewed to Ella’s personal interpretation, though I feel as heralded as it is, it must have a ring of truth that resonates with many of the Indian nation. Often in the past, I have defended the views of the complementary relationship of man and woman as presented in the Bible; I feel like the account of Waterlily exemplifies why such a relationship is mutually beneficial and I find the description of that relationship personally appealing, though it is offensive to feminists.

Waterlily on


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