Sorry for the delay in this.  I was sick, again, last weekend and spent most of the weekend asleep.  By Monday I was a bit better, but since I’d lost a few days, I didn’t have this ready then.   I like winter, but I’m over it this year.  I haven’t been sick this much in a while.

I found today’s topic somewhere on Pinterest.  I have a board for historical women, and Zitkala-Ša is on it.  The pin came from a “this day in history” thing and it’s for her birthday (February 22).  The caption just says “On this date in 1876, Zitkala Sa was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She would go on to write several books, including American Indian Stories, co-write the first Native American opera, and found the National Council of American Indians” (1).  Not a whole lot of information, but just enough to get me interested and wanting to know more.

Zitkala-SaZitkala-Ša was born Gertrude Simmons on February 22, 1876 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, Yankton Sioux Agency, or Yankton Indian Reservation – depending on the source – in South Dakota.  She was the third child of Ellen Simmons, also called Taté Iyòhiwin (Every Wind or Reaches for the Wind), a Yankton Nakota Sioux.  Zitkala-Ša’s father was a European-American by the name of Felker, but he abandoned the family when Zitkala-Ša was young.

Zitkala-Ša lived on the reservation until she was eight in “freedom and happiness” (2).  In 1884, missionaries arrived at the reservation and Zitkala-Ša was taken to White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana.  White’s was a Quaker school set up to educate the poor and unfortunate so they could do better in life.

While Zitkala-Ša was only at White’s for three years, it was hugely important in her life.  In The School Days of an Indian Girl, published in 1921, Zitkala-Ša wrote of the “deep misery of having her heritage stripped away, when she was forced to pray as a Quaker and cut her traditionally long hair, and the contrasting joy of learning to read and write, and to play the violin” (3).

In 1887, when Zitkala-Ša returned to the reservation, she didn’t feel like she belonged anymore, and so, in 1891, she returned to White’s, wanting more education.  White’s taught girls enough to become house-keepers, but Zitkala-Ša wanted more than that.  She learned piano and violin, and became the music teacher when the previous teacher resigned.  It was around this time that Gertrude Simmons adopted the name Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird) as a way of “asserting both her independence from and her ties to Sioux culture” (4).  Zitkala-Ša is a Lakota name, though she grew up speaking Nakota.  One source posits that choosing a Lakota name “might indicate a profound dislocation from her family origins, as well as a conscious choice” (5).

In 1895, Zitkala-Ša received her diploma and her mother wanted her to come back home, but Zitkala-Ša went on to Earlham College in Indiana on a scholarship.  At Earlham, though, Zitkala-Ša felt isolated from her white fellow students.  The students only paid attention to her after she gave a speech, “Side by Side”, and won the Indiana State Oratorical Contest in 1896.  Zitkala-Ša did well at Earlham, but unfortunately had to leave just over a month before graduation due to illness.

Around this same time Zitkala-Ša began compiling Native American legends.  She would translate them into Latin and then English, in the hopes of getting children to read them.  Compiling legends would become one of the focuses of Zitkala-Ša’s life.

Zitkala-Sa,_1898For her violin playing, Zitkala-Ša received a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she attended from 1897 to 1899.  In 1899, she took a position at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.  Zitkala-Ša taught music to the children, and “conducted debates on the treatment of Native Americans” (6).

While employed by Carlisle, Zitkala-Ša played at the 1900 Paris Exposition with the school’s Indian Band.  At this time she also began writing about Native American life, getting published in Harper’s Monthly, Atlantic Monthly, and others.  These articles upset the higher-ups at Carlisle and so she was sent out West, ostensibly to recruit students, but more likely to remove her from the publishing centers in the United States.

When Zitkala-Ša arrived back out West, she found her mother’s home in an awful state and her brother’s family living in poverty.  Additionally, there were white settlers on the lands that the Yankton Dakota had been given in 1877 through the Dawes Act (7).

Zitkala-Ša returned to Carlisle after a while, but upon her return her conflicts with the founder of the school intensified.  She didn’t like that the school focused on assimilating Native students into white culture, and only trained its students for low-level jobs; the school assumed its students would return to where they had come from and that they wouldn’t need more than a basic education.  Carlisle also didn’t like her stories, calling them “worse than pagan” and “trash” (8).

Due to her continued conflicts with Carlisle, Zitkala-Ša was dismissed from her position in 1901.  She had had an article published in Harper’s Monthly that year that told of a boy at the school who felt a loss of identity after his education.  After being dismissed, Zitkala-Ša returned home to Yankton, worried for her family.  Also at this time, the Native American stories and legends she had been compiling were collected and published in Old Indian Legends, commissioned by a Boston company.  Old Indian Legends was published to high acclaim; in 1919 she received a letter of praise for the book from Helen Keller.

Upon returning to Yankton, Zitkala-Ša took a position as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.  In 1902, Zitkala-Ša met Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin; they married later that year.  Bonnin was raised Yankton Dakota as well, but was only one quarter to one half Dakota.  Shortly after marrying, Bonnin was transferred to Utah; they moved to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation where they lived for fourteen years, and where their only child, Raymond Ohiya Bonnin, was born.

While in Utah, Zitkala-Ša met William F. Hanson, a professor at Brigham Young University.  Hanson was also a composer, and the two began a musical collaboration in 1910.  Based on a sacred Sioux ritual that the U.S. government had prohibited from being done on the Utah reservations, The Sun Dance Opera premiered in Vernal, Utah in 1913.  Zitkala-Ša wrote the libretto and the songs for the opera, the first opera co-written by a Native American.  In performances, Ute performers danced and played some parts, but all of the lead singing was done by white people.  The opera received much praise upon its premiere.  It was performed periodically by rural troupes over the years before premiering in New York in 1938.  The advertisements in New York only mentioned Hanson.

While in Utah, Zitkala-Ša joined the Society of American Indians, which was formed in 1911.  She served as its secretary until 1916, and edited its journal, American Indian Magazine, from 1918 to 1919.  SAI members had to have Indian blood.  They were assimilationist, but also promoted Native American self-determination.  A main goal was to get full American citizenship for Native Americans.  (Towards the end of the twentieth century, SAI was criticized “as misguided in their strong advocacy of citizenship and employment rights for Native Americans.  Such critics believe that Native Americans have lost cultural identity as they have become more part of mainstream American society.” [9])

portraitZitkala-Ša criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs for prohibiting Native American children’s use of their native languages and cultural practices.  In the 1920s, Zitkala-Ša helped promote a pan-Indian movement to help get citizenship rights.  In 1924 the Indian Citizenship Act was passed, but it did not secure citizenship for all Native Americans.

In 1926, Zitkala-Ša and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians.  This group, too, worked to unite all Native Americans in a hopes to get full citizenship rights through suffrage.  Zitkala-Ša served as NCAI’s president, speaker, and major fundraiser from its founding until her death.  When the group was revived in 1944, Zitkala-Ša’s work was dismissed.

Zitkala-Ša died on January 26, 1938 in Washington, D.C.  She is buried in Arlington National Cemetery due to her husband’s service in World War One.  She is buried as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.  There is a crater on Venus named Bonnin in her honor (all craters on Venus are named for women or have women’s names).

It’s agreed that Zitkala-Ša had two major periods of work.  The first is from 1900 to 1904.  This period includes the Native American legends and her autobiographical pieces, showing the conflicts between her cultural traditions and assimilation into white culture.  Many of these pieces were published in Harper’s Monthly and Atlantic Monthly.  The second period is from 1916 to 1924.  These are her political works.  Zitkala-Ša and her family had moved to Washington, D.C., and Zitkala-Ša became increasingly political on behalf of Native Americans and women.

Some of Zitkala-Ša’s most influential works are from this second period.  American Indian Stories was published in 1921.  She was also co-author of 1923’s Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery.  Her co-authors were Charles H. Fabens, from the American Indian Defense Association, and Matthew K. Sniffen of the Indian Rights Association.  Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians exposed “the corrupt land allocation policies in place at the time in Oklahoma” (10).  This work “resulted in her appointment as an advisor to the U.S. government’s Meriam Commission of 1928, the findings of which eventually led to several important reforms” (11) and influenced Congress to pass the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

Zitkala-Ša’s writings were “the first major literary pieces written by a Native American in English that deal with Native American culture and the process of assimilation from an Indian’s point of view” (12).  She’s so interesting.  I’m going to have to read some of her writings now, many of which are available online.


1 – Pinterest caption

2, 3, 6, 7, 9 – Zitkala-Sa

4, 5, 8 – Zitkala-sa, Sioux Indian

10, 12 – Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin)

11 – Zitkala-Sa, Encyclopædia Brittanica


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