Zitkála-Šá

Zitkála-Šá, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, is one of the many influential Native American activists of the 20th century. A member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux nation, Zitkála-Šá was born on February 22, 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota and later moved to Northeastern Utah, specifically the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, in the early 1900s. A writer, editor, translator, musician, librettist, and political activist, Zitkála-Šá wrote numerous books and essays, and, in 1926, became co-founder of the National Council of American Indians, which lobbied for American Indians’ rights to national citizenship, and other civil rights.

A prolific writer, Zitkála-Šá published stories collected from American Indian culture, as well as essays about her own life torn between her Dakota Sioux heritage and the Quaker life into which she had been forced to assimilate. As a young girl, after Quaker missionaries came to the Yankton Reservation, Zitkála-Šá and several other Yakton children were recruited to the White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute in Indiana, where they were taught to speak, read and write English. Zitkála-Šá spent three years at the institute before returning to the Yankton Reservation to live with her mother, returning later to the institute to receive more education in music and languages. 

An accomplished musician, Zitkála-Šá studied and played the violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston between 1897 and 1899, before which she attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, where she also studied music and language. In 1899, she began teaching music at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

Throughout her life, Zitkála-Šá critiqued the rigid assimilationist programs behind institutes such as Indiana Manual Labor Institute and Carlisle, which finally led to her dismissal from Carlisle in 1901. Her articles for Harper’s Monthly and The Atlantic Monthly about life in such institutions stand in stark contrast to the pro-assimilationist views of other white and native writers at the time.

Zitkála-Šá’s books include Old Indian LegendsAmerican Indian Stories and, posthumously, Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems and the Sun Dance Opera, and Letters, Speeches and Unpublished Writings, 1898-1929. In 1910, she co-wrote The Sun Dance Opera with William F. Hansen, a composer and music teacher from Brigham Young University, which made its debut in February 1913 at the Orpheus Hall in Vernal, and featured Ute singers and actors from the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. It was critically and nationally well received by critics, and is credited as being the first opera co-authored by an American Indian.

Between 1918-1919, Zitkála-Šá served as editor of American Indian Magazine, and continued her work on the Uintah-Ouray reservation in Utah, joining the Society of American Indians. In the 1920’s, Zitkála-Šá was also highly active in supporting women’s rights, and in 1926 founded, along with her husband, Raymond Bonnin, the National Council of American Indians, which worked to unite the U.S. tribes to lobby for native citizenship through suffrage. Zitkála-Šá spent 14 years in Utah before moving to Washington D.C. There Zitkála-Šá worked for civil rights, health care and access to education for American Indians until her death on January 28, 1938.

Zitkála-Šá is buried in Arlington National Cemetery under the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. 

Works

Bibliography

  • Old Indian Legends (University of Nebraska Press, 1985)
  • American Indian Stories, (University of Nebraska Press, 1985).
  • With Charles H. Fabens and Matthew K. Sniffen. Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery. Philadelphia: Office of the Indian Rights Association, 1924.
  • Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems and the Sun Dance Opera (University of Nebraska Press, 2001)
  • Letters, Speeches and Unpublished Writings, 1898-1929 (Brill Press, 2018).