Sepia toned image of bust Native American woman looking straight into the camera.
Zitkala-Ša in 1898, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Born(1876-02-22)February 22, 1876
DiedJanuary 26, 1938(1938-01-26) (aged 61)
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery
Other namesGertrude Simmons Bonnin
EducationWhite's Manual Labor Institute, Wabash, Indiana
Alma materEarlham College
  • Writer
  • editor
  • musician
  • teacher
  • Native American activist
EmployerCarlisle Indian Industrial School, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Uintah-Ouray reservation
Known forCo-composed the first American Indian opera, founded the National Council of American Indians, authored books and magazine articles
Notable work
Sun Dance Opera, Old Indian Legends, American Indian Stories, "Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians"
Spouse(s)Raymond T. Bonnin
Parent(s)Mother, Ellen Simmons, also called Thaté Iyóhiwiŋ ("Every Wind" or "Reaches for the Wind")

Zitkála-Šá (Lakota for Red Bird;[1] February 22, 1876 – January 26, 1938), also known by her missionary-given and later married name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was a Yankton Dakota writer, editor, translator, musician, educator, and political activist. She wrote several works chronicling her struggles with cultural identity and the pull between the majority culture in which she was educated and the Dakota culture into which she was born and raised. Her later books were among the first works to bring traditional Native American stories to a widespread white English-speaking readership, and she has been noted as one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century.

Working with American musician William F. Hanson, Zitkala-Ša wrote the libretto and songs for The Sun Dance Opera (1913), the first American Indian opera. It was composed in romantic musical style, and based on Sioux and Ute cultural themes.[2][3]

She was co-founder of the National Council of American Indians in 1926, which was established to lobby for Native people's right to United States citizenship and other civil rights they had long been denied. Zitkala-Ša served as the council's president until her death in 1938.[4]

Early life and education

Zitkála-Šá was born on February 22, 1876, on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She was raised by her mother, Ellen Simmons, whose Dakota name was Thaté Iyóhiwiŋ (Every Wind or Reaches for the Wind). Her father was a Frenchman named Felker, who abandoned the family while Zitkala-Ša was very young.[5]

For her first eight years, Zitkála-Šá lived on the reservation. She later described those days as ones of freedom and happiness, safe in the care of her mother's people and tribe.[5] In 1884, when Zitkala-Ša was eight, missionaries came to the Yankton Reservation. They recruited several of the Yankton children, including Zitkala-Šá, taking them for education to the White's Indiana Manual Labor Institute, a missionary Quaker in Wabash, Indiana.[5] This training school was founded by Josiah White for the education of "poor children, white, colored, and Indian," to help them advance in society.[6]

Zitkála-Šá attended the school for three years until 1887. She later wrote about this period in her work, The School Days of an Indian Girl. She described the deep misery of having her heritage stripped away when she was forced to pray as a Quaker and to cut her traditionally long hair. By contrast, she took joy in learning to read and write, and to play the violin.[7]

In 1887, Zitkála-Šá returned to the Yankton Reservation to live with her mother. She spent three years there. She was dismayed to realize that, while she still longed for the native Yankton traditions, she no longer fully belonged to them. Besides, she thought that many on the reservation were conforming to the dominant white culture.[8]

In 1891, wanting more education, Zitkála-Šá decided at age fifteen to return to the White's Indiana Manual Labor Institute. She planned to gain more through her education than simply becoming a housekeeper, a role the school anticipated most female students would pursue.[9] She studied piano and violin and started to teach music at White's after the music teacher resigned. In June 1895, when Zitkála-Šá was awarded her diploma, she gave a speech on the inequality of women's rights, which received high praise from the local newspaper.[9]

Though her mother wanted her to return home after graduation, Zitkála-Šá chose to attend Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, where she had been offered a scholarship. While initially feeling isolated and uncertain among her predominantly white peers, she soon proved her oratorical talents with a speech entitled "Side by Side". During this time, she began gathering traditional stories from a spectrum of Native tribes, translating them first to Latin and then to English for children to read.[10] In 1897, six weeks before graduation, she was forced to leave Earlham College due to ill health and financial difficulties.[11]

Zitkala-Ša with her violin in 1898

From 1897 to 1899 Zitkala-Ša studied and played the violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.[12]

In 1899, she took a position at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where she taught music to children. She also facilitated debates on the treatment of Native Americans.[13] At the 1900 Paris Exposition, she played violin with the school's Carlisle Indian Band.[14] In the same year, she began writing articles on Native American life, which were published in national periodicals such as Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Monthly. Her critical appraisal of the American Indian boarding school system and vivid portrayal of Indian deracination were markedly contrasting to the more idealistic writings of most of her contemporaries.[11]

In early 1901, she became engaged to Carlos Montezuma, whom she likely met when he served as caretaker of the Carlisle band in 1900 after he had completed medical school. She broke off the relationship by August. He had refused to give up his private medical practice in Chicago and relocate with her to the Yankton Indian Agency.[citation needed]

Also in 1900, Zitkala-Ša was sent by Carlisle's founder, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, to the Yankton Reservation to recruit students. It was her first visit in several years, and she was troubled that her mother's house was in disrepair, her brother's family had fallen into poverty, and that white settlers were beginning to occupy lands allotted to the Yankton Dakota under the Dawes Act of 1887.[15] Upon returning to the Carlisle School, she came into conflict with Pratt. She resented his rigid program of assimilation into dominant white culture and the limitations of the curriculum. It prepared Native American children only for low-level manual work, assuming they would return to rural cultures.[12] In 1901 Zitkala-Ša was dismissed. That year she had published an article in Harper's Monthly describing the profound loss of identity felt by a Native American boy after undergoing the assimilationist education at the school.[16]

Zitkála-Šá returned to the Yankton Reservation in 1901 to care for her ailing mother and to gather material for her collection of traditional Sioux stories [11] to publish in Old Indian Legends, commissioned by the Boston publisher Ginn and Company.[12] She took a job as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office at Standing Rock Indian Reservation.[citation needed] She would later travel the country for the General Federation of Women's Clubs, calling for the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.[17]

Marriage and family

In 1902, she met and married Raymond Talephause Bonnin who was of mixed race and culturally Yankton.[5][18]

Soon after their marriage, Bonnin was assigned to the Uintah-Ouray reservation in Utah. The couple lived and worked there with the Ute people for the next fourteen years. During this period, Zitkala-Ša gave birth to the couple's only son, Alfred Ohiya Bonnin.

Also during this period, Zitkála-Šá met American professor and composer William F. Hanson, who taught music at Brigham Young University. Together, in 1910, they started their collaboration on the music for The Sun Dance Opera, for which Zitkala-Sa wrote the libretto and songs. She based it on sacred Sioux rituals, which the federal government prohibited the Ute from performing on the reservation.[2] The opera premiered in Utah in 1913, with dancing and some parts performed by the Ute with lead singing roles filled by non-natives. According to historian Tadeusz Lewandowski, it was the first Native opera.[19] It debuted in Vernal, Utah to high local praise.[20]

Bonnin enlisted in the US Army in 1917 after the United States declared war against the German Empire during the World War I, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1918. He served in the Quarter Master Corps in Washington, D.C., and was honorably discharged with the rank of captain in 1920.[21]

Literary career

Woman with long hair standing in profile with hand to forward indicating she's looking far away
Zitkála-Šá, by Gertrude Käsebier, 1898

Zitkála-Šá had a fruitful writing career, with two major periods.[4] The first period was from 1900 to 1904, when she published legends collected from Native American culture, as well as autobiographical narratives. She continued to write during the following years, but she did not publish any of these writings. These unpublished writings, along with others including the libretto of the Sun Dance Opera,[3] were collected and published posthumously in 2001 as Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and the Sun Dance Opera.[22]

Zitkála-Šá's articles in the Atlantic Monthly were published from 1900 to 1902. They included "An Indian Teacher Among Indians," published in Volume 85 in 1900. [23][24] Included in the same issue were "Impressions of an Indian Childhood"[25] and "School Days of an Indian Girl".[26][24]

Zitkála-Šá's other articles ran in Harper's Monthly. "Soft-Hearted Sioux" appeared in the March 1901 issue, Volume 102, and "The Trial Path" in the October 1901 issue, Volume 103.[24] She also wrote "A Warrior's Daughter", published in 1902 in Volume 6 of Everybody's Magazine.[27][24]

In 1902, Zitkála-Šá published "Why I Am a Pagan" in Atlantic Monthly, volume 90.[28] It was a treatise on her personal spiritual beliefs. She countered the contemporary trend that suggested Native Americans readily adopted and conformed to the Christianity forced on them in schools and public life.[28]

Much of her work is characterized by its liminal nature: tensions between tradition and assimilation, and between literature and politics. This tension has been described as generating much of the dynamism of her work.[29]

The second phase of her writing career was from 1916 to 1924. During this period, Zitkala-Ša concentrated on writing and publishing political works. She and her husband had moved to Washington, D.C., where she became politically active. She published some of her most influential writings, including American Indian Stories (1921), with the Hayworth Publishing House.[30][31] 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.[12]

American Indian Stories

American Indian Stories is a collection of childhood stories, allegorical fiction, and an essay, including several of Zitkála-Šá's articles that were originally published in Harper's Monthly and Atlantic Monthly.[30] First published in 1921, these stories told of the hardships which she and other Native Americans encountered at the missionary and manual labor schools designed to "civilize" them and assimilate them to majority culture. 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 her period teaching at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. [30]

Her autobiography contrasted the charm of her early life on the reservation with the "iron routine" which she found in the assimilation boarding schools. Zitkála-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."[32]

Old Indian Legends

Commissioned by the Boston publisher Ginn and Company, Old Indian Legends (1901) was a collection of stories that she learned as a child and had gathered from various tribes.[33][12] 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 from the dominant European-American culture. [4]

Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians

One of Zitkála-Šá's most influential pieces of political writing, "Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians" was published in 1923 by the Indian Rights Association.[12] 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, particularly the Osage, to their rights to leasing-fees from development of their oil-rich land in Oklahoma. The work influenced Congress to pass the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which encouraged tribes to re-establish self-government, including management of their lands. Under this act, the government returned some lands to them as communal property, which it had previously classified as surplus, so they could put together parcels that could be managed.[34]

Articles for

Zitkála-Šá was an active member of the Society of American Indians, which published American Indian Magazine. From 1918 to 1919 she served as editor for the magazine, as well as contributing numerous articles.[12] These were her most explicitly political writings, covering topics such as the contribution of Native American soldiers to World War I, issues of land allotment, and corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency within the Department of Interior that oversaw American Indians. Many of her political writings have since been criticized for favoring assimilation. She called for recognition of Native American culture and traditions, while also advocating US citizenship rights to bring Native Americans into mainstream America. She believed this was how they could gain political power and protect their cultures.[29]

Making an opera

Contemporary 1913 newspaper article in the El Paso Herald about The Sun Dance Opera

In 1910, Zitkala-Ša began collaborating with American composer William F. Hanson, who taught at Brigham Young University. She wrote the libretto and songs. She also played Sioux melodies on the violin, and Hanson used this as the basis of his music composition.[35]

In 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, who lived on the nearby Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. It was significant for adapting the Native American oral musical tradition to a written one. Its debut was met with critical acclaim. Few works of Native American opera since have dealt so exclusively with Native American themes. [35]

In 1938, the New York Light Opera Guild premiered The Sun Dance Opera at The Broadway Theatre as its opera of the year. Its publicity credited only William F. Hanson as composer.[citation needed]

Political activism

Zitkála-Šá was politically active throughout most of her adult life. During her time on the Uintah-Ouray reservation in Utah, she was involved with the Society of American Indians (SAI) which was dedicated to preserving the Native American way of life while lobbying for the right to full American citizenship.[12] The letterhead of the council stationery claimed that the overall goals for SAI was to "help Indians help themselves in protecting their rights and properties".[36] Zitkála-Šá served as SAI's secretary beginning in 1916. Since the late 20th century, activists have criticized SAI and Zitkála-Šá 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.[12]

As the secretary for SAI, Zitkála-Šá corresponded with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She began to criticize practices of the BIA, such as their attempt at the national boarding schools to prohibit Native American children from using their native languages and cultural practices. She reported incidents of abuse resulting from children's refusal to pray in a Christian manner.[12] Her husband was dismissed from his BIA office at the Ute reservation in 1916. The couple and their son relocated to Washington, D.C., where they fought to find allies.[citation needed]

From Washington, Zitkála-Šá began lecturing nationwide on behalf of SAI to promote greater awareness of the cultural and tribal identity of Native Americans. During the 1920s she promoted a pan-Indian movement to unite all of America's tribes in the cause of lobbying for citizenship rights. In 1924 the Indian Citizenship Act was passed, granting US citizenship rights to most indigenous peoples who did not already have it.[37]

While Native Americans now had citizenship, discrimination remained widespread. In some states their right to vote was denied, a situation not fully changed until the Civil rights movement of the 1960s.[38] 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.[39] From 1926 until she died in 1938, Zitkála-Šá would serve as president, major fundraiser, and speaker for the NCAI. Her early work was largely forgotten after the organization was revived in 1944 under male leadership.[12]

Zitkála-Šá was also active in the 1920s in the movement for women's rights, joining the General Federation of Women's Clubs in 1921.[12] This grassroots organization was 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. She helped initiate a government investigation into the exploitation of Native Americans in Oklahoma and the attempts being made to defraud them of drilling rights and leasing fees for their oil-rich lands.[12]

In addition to her other organizing, Zitkála-Šá also ran a voter-registration drive among Native Americans. She encouraged them to support the Curtis Bill, which she believed would be favorable for Indians. Though the bill granted Native Americans US citizenship, it did not grant those living on reservations the right to vote in local and state elections. Zitkála-Šá continued to work for civil rights, and better access to health care and education for Native Americans until she died in 1938.[12]

Death and legacy

Zitkala-Sa, circa 1900

Zitkála-Šá died on January 26, 1938, in Washington, D.C., at the age of sixty-one. She is buried as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin in Arlington National Cemetery[39] with her husband Raymond.[40] In the late 20th century, the University of Nebraska reissued many of her writings on Native American culture.[12]

She has been recognized by the naming of a Venusian crater "Bonnin" in her honor.[41] In 1997 she was designated a Women's History Month Honoree by the National Women's History Project.[42] Zitkála-Šá lived part of her life in the Lyon Park neighborhood of Arlington County, Virginia, near Washington, DC. In 2020, a park in that neighborhood previously been named for Henry Clay was renamed in her honor.[43][44]

In 2018, Melodia Women's Choir of New York City performed the world premiere of a commissioned work based on the story of Zitkála-Šá, Red Bird by Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian. [45]

Zitkála-Šá's legacy lives on as one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century.[46] She left an influential theory of Indian resistance and a crucial model for reform. Through her activism, Zitkála-Šá was able to make crucial changes to education, health care, and legal standing for Native American people and the preservation of Indian culture.[47]

Chris Pappan illustrated a Google Doodle that incorporated ledger art for use in the United States on February 22, 2021 to celebrate her 145th birthday.[48][49]

Writings by Zitkala-Sa

  • Old Indian Legends. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985
  • American Indian Stories. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
  • Zitkála-Šá. "Why I Am a Pagan." Atlantic Monthly, 1902.
  • Zitkála-Šá, Fabens, Charles H. 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.
  • Zitkála-Šá. Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera. Edited by P. Jane Hafen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8032-4918-7.
  • Zitkála-Šá: Letters, Speeches, and Unpublished Writings, 1898–1929. Edited by Tadeusz Lewandowski. Leiden, Boston: Brill Press, 2018. ISBN 9789004342101.


  • Hanson, William F., and Zitkala-Sa. The Sun Dance Opera (romantic American Indian opera, 1913, 1938). Photocopy of the original piano-vocal score, from microfilm (227 pp.). Library of Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

See also


  1. ^ Buechel & Manhart 2002.
  2. ^ a b Hafen 1998.
  3. ^ a b Giese 1996.
  4. ^ a b c Baym 2007.
  5. ^ a b c d Tadeusz Lewandowski (2016). Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša. University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 18–21. ISBN 978-0-8061-5516-6.
  6. ^ Leeper 2013.
  7. ^ Zitkala-Ša 2009, pp. 15–20.
  8. ^ Capaldi 2011, p. 12.
  9. ^ a b Capaldi 2011, p. 15.
  10. ^ Staff (2020). "Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) (U.S. National Park Service)". www.nps.gov. Archived from the original on August 11, 2020.
  11. ^ a b c Peyer 2007.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Helen Rappaport (2001). Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers. ABC-CLIO. pp. 100–101. ISBN 978-1-57607-101-4.
  13. ^ Capaldi 2011, p. 21.
  14. ^ Capaldi 2011.
  15. ^ Capaldi 2011, p. 22.
  16. ^ Campbell, Donna. "Professor and Director of Graduate Studies Department of English". Zitkála-Šá (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) (Dakota Sioux) (1876–1938). Washington State University. Retrieved February 22, 2021.
  17. ^ "The Places of Zitkála-Šá (U.S. National Park Service)". www.nps.gov.
  18. ^ Sarah R Robbins (May 31, 2017). Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women's Cross-Cultural Teaching. University of Michigan Press. p. 201. ISBN 978-0-472-12284-4.
  19. ^ Tadeusz Lewandowski (May 26, 2016). Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-8061-5515-9.
  20. ^ Vernal Express, February 28, 1913.
  21. ^ Tadeusz Lewandowski (May 26, 2016). Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-8061-5515-9.
  22. ^ Zitkala-Ša 2001.
  23. ^ Zitkala-Ša 1900, pp. 381–386.
  24. ^ a b c d Register of the GRBC 1998.
  25. ^ Zitkala-Ša 1900, pp. 37–47.
  26. ^ Zitkala-Ša 1900, pp. 185–194.
  27. ^ Zitkala-Ša 1902a.
  28. ^ a b Zitkala-Ša 1902b.
  29. ^ a b Herzog.
  30. ^ a b c Zitkala-Ša 1921.
  31. ^ Dexter Fisher (January 1, 2005). "Zitkala-Šá: The Evolution of a Writer". In Willis Goth Regier (ed.). Masterpieces of American Indian Literature. U of Nebraska Press. pp. 198–202. ISBN 0-8032-8997-9.
  32. ^ Quoted in Peyer 2007, pp. 67–68
  33. ^ Susag 1993.
  34. ^ Capaldi 2011, p. 28.
  35. ^ a b Capaldi 2011, p. 25.
  36. ^ Wilkins & Stark 2018.
  37. ^ Gridley 1974.
  38. ^ "Voting Rights for Native Americans | The Right to Vote | Elections | Classroom Materials". Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
  39. ^ a b Capaldi 2011, p. 29.
  40. ^ "Burial Detail: Bonnin, Gertrude S". ANC Explorer. Section 2, Grave 4703
  41. ^ IAU 2006.
  42. ^ NWHP 2010.
  43. ^ Hyatt, Brian (December 1, 2020). "Endorsement of renaming Henry Clay Park to "Sitkala-Ša Park"". County Board Agenda, Meeting of December 12, 2020. Arlington County, VA. Archived from the original on January 10, 2021 – via arlington.granicus.com.
  44. ^ "Henry Clay Park Set to Be Renamed for Indigenous Activist Who Lived Nearby". December 8, 2020.
  45. ^ "Composing for Melodia in 2018". Melodia Women's Choir blog. Retrieved December 20, 2020.
  46. ^ Stone 2000.
  47. ^ Lewandowski 2016.
  48. ^ Zitkala-Sa Google Doodle in United States | Short Biography of Yankton Dakota writer on YouTube
  49. ^ "Zitkala-Sa's 145th Birthday". www.google.com.


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