Published on February 4, 2013 by Amy
Zitkala-Ša (1876–1938) (Dakota: pronounced zitkála-ša, which translates to “Red Bird”), also known by the missionary-given name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was a Sioux writer, editor, musician, teacher and political activist.
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She wrote several works chronicling her struggles in her youth as she was pulled back and forth between the influences of dominant American culture and her own Native American heritage, as well as books in English that brought traditional Native American stories to a widespread white readership for one of the first times. With William F. Hanson, Bonnin co-composed the first American Indian opera, The Sun Dance (composed in romantic style based on Ute and Sioux themes), which premiered in 1913. She founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926 to lobby for the rights of Native Americans to American citizenship, on which she served as president until her death in 1938.
Zitkala-Ša was born on February 22, 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She was raised there by her mother, Ellen Simmons, whose Sioux name was Taté Iyòhiwin (Every Wind or Reaches for the Wind). Her father was a European-American man named Felker, who abandoned the family while Zitkala-Ša was still very young.
Until 1884 Zitkala-Ša lived on the reservation, describing those days as ones of freedom and happiness spent in the care of her tribe. In 1884, when Zitkala-Ša was eight, missionaries came to the Yankton Reservation and brought several of the Native American children, including Zitkala-Ša, to the White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, a manual training school founded by Quaker Josiah White for the education of “poor children, white, colored, and Indian”. She attended the school for three years until 1887, later detailing the experience in her work The School Days of an Indian Girl. In that later work she described both the deep misery of the experience of having her heritage stripped from her as she was forced to pray in the manner of the Quakers and cut her hair, and the joy she felt in learning to read, write, and play the violin.
In 1887 Zitkala-Ša returned to the Yankton Reservation to live with her mother. She spent three years there, dismayed to find that while she still longed for the native Sioux traditions she no longer fully belonged to them and that many around her were conforming to the influence of the dominant white culture. In 1891, desirous of continuing her education, Zitkala-Ša decided at the age of fifteen to return to White’s Manual Labor Institute, though this time with a plan for her education beyond that of becoming a house-keeper as the school prescribed for young girls. She furthered her study of the piano and violin, taking the place of the music teacher at White’s when the woman resigned. In 1895 she was awarded her first diploma and gave a speech on women’s inequality, a subject often lectured on by the Quakers at White’s, that received high praise from the local paper.
Though her mother wished her to return home after the completion of her education at White’s, Zitkala-Ša decided instead to continue on and attend Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana after receiving a scholarship in 1895. The decision was an unusual one, as higher education for women was yet a very new phenomenon at the time. Though initially feeling isolated and uncertain among her predominantly white peers, she soon proved her oratorical talents once more with a speech entitled “Side by Side” in 1896. During this time she began gathering Native American legends, translating them first to Latin and then to English for children to read. In 1897, however, six weeks before graduation, she was forced to leave Earlham College due to ill health.
From 1897 to 1899 Zitkala-Ša played violin with the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In 1899 she took a position at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where she taught music to the children and conducted debates on the treatment of Native Americans. In 1900 she played violin at the Paris Exposition with the school’s Carlisle Indian Band. In the same year she began writing articles on Native American life which were published in such popular periodicals as Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly. Also in 1900 Zitkala-Ša was sent by Carlisle’s founder, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, back to the Yankton Reservation for the first time in several years to collect students. She was greatly dismayed to find there that her mother’s house was in disrepair, her brother’s family had fallen into poverty, and that white settlers were beginning to occupy the land promised to the Yankton Dakota by the Dawes Act of 1877. Upon returning to the Carlisle School she came into conflict with its founder, resenting the rigid program of assimilation into dominant white culture that he advocated and the fact that the curriculum did not encourage Native American children to aspire to anything beyond lives spent in menial labor. In 1901 Zitkala-Ša was dismissed, likely for an article she had published in Harper’s Monthly describing the profound loss of identity felt by a Native American boy after being given an assimilationist education at the school.
Concerned with her mother’s advanced age and her family’s struggles with poverty, she returned to the Yankton Reservation in 1901.
In 1901 Zitkala-Ša began collecting stories from the Native Americans on the reservation to publish in Old Indian Legends, commissioned by the Boston publisher Ginn and Company. She took a job as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in New Mexico where in 1902 she met and married a mixed-race Nakota man, Captain Raymond Bonnin.
Soon after marrying Bonnin was assigned to the Uintah-Ouray reservation in Utah, where the couple was to live and work with the Ute people for the next fourteen years. During this period Zitkala-Ša gave birth to the couple’s only child, Ohiya.
Also during this period Zitkala-Ša met professor and composer William F. Hanson, who taught at Brigham Young University in Utah. Together in 1910 they started their collaboration on the music for The Sun Dance, an opera for which Zitkala-Sa wrote the libretto and songs. The opera was produced in Utah in 1913, performed by the Ute of the reservation and the first opera to be co-authored by a Native American. It debuted to high local praise.
Zitkala-Ša had a fruitful writing career that can be seen as falling into two chronologically separated periods. The first period was from 1900 to 1904 and was composed mainly of legends collected from Native American culture and autobiographical narratives. She continued to write during the following years, but she did not publish. These unpublished writings, along with others including the libretto of the Sun Dance Opera, were collected and published as Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and the Sun Dance Opera by P. Jane Hafen in 2001.
The second period was from 1916 to 1924. This period was almost exclusively made up of political writings. In this period, Zitkala-Ša moved with her husband to Washington, D.C. and published some of her most influential writings, including American Indian Stories in 1921 with the Hayworth Publishing House. She co-authored Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery (1923), an influential pamphlet, with Charles H. Fabens of the American Indian Defense Association and Matthew K. Sniffen of the Indian Rights Association. She also created the Indian Welfare Committee of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, working as a researcher for it through much of the 1920s.
Her articles in the Atlantic Monthly were published from 1900 to 1902. They included, “An Indian Teacher Among Indians” published in Volume 85 in 1900. Included in the same issue were “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” and “School Days of an Indian Girl”. All of these works were autobiographical in nature, describing in great detail her early experiences both on the reservation and her later conflict with dominant American culture and its assimilationist influences.
Zitkala-Sa‘s other articles ran in Harper’s Monthly. Two appeared in the October 1901 issue, Volume 103. They were titled, “Soft Hearted Sioux” and “The Trial Path”. She also wrote “A Warrior’s Daughter”, published in 1902 in Volume 4 of Everybody’s Magazine. These works also were largely autobiographical in nature, though there were some that told the stories of those she knew or taught in addition to her own personal story.
In 1902 she published another article in Atlantic Monthly, volume 90, entitled, “Why I Am a Pagan”. It was a treatise on her personal spiritual beliefs in which she countered the trend of the time towards showing Native Americans as readily conforming to the Christianity forced on them in schools and public life.
Much of her work is characterized by its liminal nature: tensions between tradition and assimilation and between literature and politics which are particularly clear in her autobiographical works. In her one of her most famous works, for example, American Indian Stories there is the obvious tension between her desire to provide a literary account of her life and to deliver a political message through the telling of the story. There is also the conflict which is the focus of the narrative itself between her desire to remain true to the traditions of the Yankton Dakota while as the same time being educated in an assimilationist manner. This tension, however, has been said to provide for much of the dynamism of her work.
American Indian Stories is a collection of childhood stories, allegorical fiction, and an essay, including several of Zitkala-Ša’s articles that were originally published in Harper’s Monthly and Atlantic Monthly. It was first published in 1921 and served as an account of the hardships which she and other Native Americans encountered when they were brought to missionary and manual labor schools designed to “civilize” them. The autobiographical writings described her early life on the Yankton Reservation, her years as a student at White’s Manual Labor Institute and Earlham College, and the time she spent teaching at Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Her autobiography contrasted the charm of her early life on the reservation with the “iron routine” which she found in the assimilation schools off the reservation. Zitkala-Ša wrote: “Perhaps my Indian nature is the moaning wind which stirs them [schoolteachers] now for their present record. But, however tempestuous this is within me, it comes out as the low voice of a curiously colored seashell, which is only for those ears that are bent with compassion to hear it.”
Commissioned by the Boston publisher Ginn and Company, Old Indian Legends was a collection of stories gathered from various tribes and published in 1901. Directed primarily at children, the collection was an attempt both to preserve Native American traditions and stories in print and to garner respect and recognition for those traditions among the dominant white culture.
Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes-Legalized Robbery
One of Zitkala-Ša’s most influential pieces of political writing, this article was published in 1923 by the Indian Rights Association. The article exposed several American corporations that had been working systematically through such extra-legal means as robbery and even murder to defraud Native American tribes to their rights to a plot of oil-rich land in Oklahoma. The work played a large role in moving the government to adopt the Indian Reorganization Act of 1924, which returned land management rights back into the hands of the Native Americans.
Zitkala-Ša was an active member of the Society of American Indians, whose magazine was the American Indian Magazine. From 1918 to 1919 Zitkala-Ša served as editor for the magazine, as well as contributing a great number of articles to it. These were her most explicitly political writings, covering topics such as the contribution of Native Americans to WWI, land allotment, and corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many of her political writings have since been criticized as being too assimilationist in nature, calling for recognition of Native American culture and traditions while at the same time advocating citizenship rights that would bring Native Americans further and further into mainstream America.
In 1910 Zitkala-Ša began collaborating with composer William F. Hanson, who taught at Brigham Young University. She wrote the libretto and songs. She played Sioux melodies on the violin and Hanson transcribed them into Western notes. On February 1913, the premiere performance of The Sun Dance Opera was presented at Orpheus Hall in Vernal, Utah. The production featured members of the Ute Nation living on the nearby Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. It was significant in its shift from Native American oral musical tradition to a written one. Its debut was met with critical acclaim and few works of Native American opera have dealt with Native American themes so exclusively since.
In 1938 the New York Light Opera Guild premiered The Sun Dance Opera at the Broadway Theatre. Publicity mentioned only William F. Hanson as composer.
Zitkala-Ša was highly politically active throughout most of her adult life, in addition to and often in conjunction with her literary career. During her time on the Uintah-Ouray reservation in Utah she joined the Society of American Indians, a progressive group formed in 1911 and dedicated to preserving the Native American way of life while lobbying for their right to full American citizenship. Zitkala-Ša served as the SAI’s secretary beginning in 1916 and edited its journal American Indian Magazine from 1918 to 1919. The SAI and Zitkala-Ša have since been criticized as misguided in their approach, their strong advocacy of citizenship and employment rights for Native Americans contributing to the further deterioration of cultural identity as Native Americans were brought more and more into mainstream American society.
Part of her duty as the secretary for the SAI was to correspond with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Increasingly, however, Zitkala-Ša began to criticize the corrupt practices of the BIA, such as their prohibition of the use of native languages and practices within the school systems set up for Native American children and reported incidences of abuse resulting from children’s refusal to pray in the Christian manner. Her sharp criticism of the BIA resulted in the dismissal of her husband from it in 1916, following which the couple relocated with their son to Washington D.C.
From Washington Zitkala-Ša began lecturing nation-wide on behalf of the SAI to promote the cultural and tribal identity of Native Americans. During the 1920s she devoted a great amount of effort to promoting a pan-Indian movement that would unite all of America’s tribes in the cause of lobbying for citizenship rights and in 1924 saw the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act which granted citizenship rights to many though not all indigenous peoples. In 1926 she and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians, dedicated to the cause of uniting the tribes throughout the U.S. in the cause of gaining full citizenship rights through suffrage. From 1926 until her death in 1938 Zitkala-Ša would serve as president, major fundraiser, and speaker for the NCAI, running the organization almost single-handedly, though her efforts were largely disregarded when the organization was revived in 1944 under male leadership.
Zitkala-Ša was also active in the 1920s in the movement for women’s rights, joining the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1921, a grassroots organization dedicated to diversity in its membership and to maintaining a public voice for women’s concerns. Through the GFWC she created the Indian Welfare Committee in 1924, launching a government investigation into the exploitation of Native Americans in Oklahoma and the attempts being made to defraud them of drilling rights to their oil-rich lands. This investigation led in to the publication of an article that Zitkala-Ša co-authored, entitled “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribe-Legalized Robbery”. The article exposed several corporations that had robbed and even murdered Native Americans in Oklahoma to gain access to their lands and was pivotal in moving the government in 1934 to adopt the Indian Reorganization Act, which returned the management of their lands to Native Americans.
In her work for the NCAI in 1924 Zitkala-Ša ran a voter-registration drive among Native Americans in order to raise their support for the Curtis Bill, which was subsequently passed by Congress. Though the bill granted Native Americans citizenship it did not grant them the right to vote and Zitkala-Ša continued to work for civil rights and better access to health care and education for Native Americans up until her death in 1938.
Zitkala-Ša died on January 26, 1938 in Washington, DC at the age of sixty-one. She is buried under the name of Gertrude Simmons Bonnin in Arlington National Cemetery. Since her death the University of Nebraska has reissued many of her writings on Native American culture.
She has been recognized by the naming of a Venusian crater “Bonnin” in her honor. In 1997 she was designated a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project.