“Few there are who have paused to question whether real-life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization.”
― Zitkála-Šá, American Indian Stories
Zitkála-Šá, Lakota Sioux for Red Bird, was an amazing woman. She is also known by her married and missionary-given name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.
And yet, until Google honored her, I’d never heard of her. I guess that many have not, but that’s been the plight of women throughout history.
Born in 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation, she was amongst the first Native American writers to introduce Native American stories to white, English-speaking readers and is one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century.
Zitkála-Šá was a writer, editor, translator, musician, educator, and political activist.
No matter what title you give her, she was an amazing woman.
At the age of eight, missionaries took Zitkála-Šá and several other Yankton children to White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute, a Quaker missionary school. In her book, The School Days of an Indian Girl, she describes the heartache of having her heritage and beliefs stripped away, but also the joy of learning to read, write, and play the violin.
Though it was a difficult time in her life, it proved valuable for both her and Native Americans. It opened her eyes to possibilities in the big world and the inequalities in it.
In 1887 she returned to the reservation and knew she had grown apart from her people. She also observed that many in her tribe were conforming to the white man’s ways.
Determined to make a difference in this world, Zitkála-Šá returned to the institute to continue her education. She became a housekeeper, as was expected of women, but studied piano and violin. After graduating, she eventually became a music teacher.
It was at her graduation that she gave her first speech on inequality and women’s rights. It received acclaim in a local newspaper.
An activist was born.
Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, offered her a scholarship, which she accepted. However, due to illness, she was forced to drop out only a few weeks before graduation. She later attended the renowned New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied and played the violin.
In addition to being a musician, Zitkála-Šá was a composer.
In 1910, she and William F. Hanson, a professor at Brigham Young University, collaborated on the Sun Dance Opera musical, which premiered in 1913 to high local acclaim. The New York Light Opera Guild premiered in 1938 at The Broadway Theatre.
However, because it was based on sacred Sioux rituals, the federal government prohibited the Ute from performing the opera on the reservation.
She fought to preserve the Native American way of life, joining the Society of American Indians in 1911. She advocated for citizenship and employment. The Bureau of Indian Affairs fired her husband after 14 years due to reporting abuse of children who refused to say Christian prayers.
Afterward, they moved to Washington, where Zitkála-Šá began lecturing nationwide. She petitioned for Indian rights, bringing to light thousands of American Indians' service in the First World War. President Calvin Coolidge passed the Indian Citizenship Act on June 2, 1924, giving American Indians the right to become citizens.
She was also active in women’s rights, joining the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1924, creating the Indian Welfare Committee.
She and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians, where she served as president, a major fundraiser, and speaker from 1926 -1938. The organization was refounded in 1944 and the now all-male leadership disregarded her early work.
Zitkála-Šá published short stories and autobiographical essays in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s monthly. In them, she described her struggle to maintain her cultural heritage and the United States' pressure to adapt to the white man’s culture.
In 1901, she published an anthology of Dakota stories entitled Old Indian Legends.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of Zitkála-Šá’s work and accomplishments. I am grateful to have learned about her and her contributions to Native Americans and women.
She is an inspiration to women everywhere.