Published on March 29, 2014 by Amy
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin’s, or Zitkala-Sa – Red Bird, writings and work as an Indian rights activist are a vital link between the oral cultures of tribal America and the literate culture of contemporary American Indians.
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Born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Red Bird was the third child of Ellen Tate Iyohiwin Simmons, a full-blood Dakota Sioux. Little is known of her father, a white man.
Her mother brought up the children in traditional Indian ways.
At the age of eight, Zitkala-Sa left the reservation to attend a Quaker missionary school in Wabash, Indiana.
She returned to the reservation but was culturally unhinged, “neither a wild Indian nor a tame one,” as she described herself later in The Schooldays of an Indian Girl.
After four unhappy years, she returned to her school, graduated, and at age 19 enrolled — against her mother’s wishes — at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.
She later taught at Carlisle Indian School. Having become an accomplished violinist, she also studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music.
Meanwhile, the estrangement from her mother and the old ways of the reservation had grown, as had her resentment over the treatment of American Indians by the state, church and population at large.
Around 1900, she began to express her feelings publicly in writing.
Zitkala-Sa struggled with the issues of cultural dislocation and injustice – which brought suffering to her people. But her authorial voice was not merely critical.
She was earnestly committed to being a bridge builder between cultures, for example, by writing Old Indian Legends, published in 1901.
“I have tried,” she says in the introduction to that work, “to transplant the Native spirit of these tales into the English language, since America in the last few centuries has acquired a second tongue.”
In the following decades, Zitkala-Sa‘s writing efforts were increasingly part of -and finally succeed by – her work as an Indian rights activist.
She had accepted a clerkship at the Standing Rock Reservation, where she met and married Raymond T. Bonnin, another Sioux employee of the Indian service.
The Bonnins then transferred to a reservation in Utah, where they became affiliated with the Society of American Indians.
Zitkala-Sa was elected secretary of the Society in 1916, and the Bonnins moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked with the Society and edited the American Indian Magazine.
In 1926, she founded the National Council of American Indians and continued to pursue reforms through public speaking and lobbying efforts.
She was instrumental in the passage of the Indian Citizenship Bill and secured powerful outside interests in Indian reform.
Zitkala-Sa died in Washington, D.C. in 1938 and was buried in Arlington Cemetery. Her autobiographical work makes her perhaps the first American Indian woman to write her own story without the aid of an editor, interpreter or ethnographer.