Strong Words from a Red Bird
Zitkala Sa: A Cultural Heroine
Zitkala-sa was born Feb. 22, 1876 at the Yankton Sioux Agency in South Dakota. Her birth name was Gertrude Simmons and she was the daughter of a Yankton Sioux mother and a Euro-American immigrant. When she was eight, she was sent to a Quaker missionary school in Wabash, Indiana called White’s Manual Labor School. In her early teens, she adopted the name Zitkala-sa and decided to go to college, against her family’s wishes. She entered Earlham College, another Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana at the age of 19. She graduated from there in 1897.
She became a teacher at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. This was her first view of what a common Indian Industrial School was all about: To eradicate all cultural identities and force Euro-American ways and history on these young natives through harsh discipline. Also to teach the students basic factory and manual labor skills.
Zitkala found herself in that cultural ecotone between two cultures: the native and the euro-American. She valued both sides of the divide by playing her violin and studying literature. At the same time, she published short stories and an autobiographical essay depicting her native experiences. They appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly. She published Impressions of an Indian Childhood soon after, revealing the first eight years of her life on the Yankton Reservation. The book was published again in 1921.
She expressed her value of both cultural identities. She was the first to suggest that students should know their native language and literature. In 1901, she published Old Indian Legends, a primer of retold Dakota stories. She was the very first native person to record the stories and traditions of many of the tribes of the Dakotas. Her idea was to build bridges of understanding between cultures.
In 1902, she married Raymond Talesfase Bonnin who, like Zitkala, was half Euro-American and half Sioux. They moved to a reservation in Utah. She became a full-time reporter for the Society of the American Indians, which was the first reform organization run solely by Native Americans across the United States.
In 1913, a composer, William F. Hanson, asked Zitkala to collaborate in an opera, The Sun Dance. She wrote the libretto for the opera, which became the first opera written by a Native American. The first showing was in Vernal, Utah and it was staged by rural troupes all over the state. Finally, in 1938, it was performed by the New York Light Opera Guild.
The Bonnins moved from Utah to Washington D. C. when Zitkala became the secretary of the Society of the American Indian. She became the go-between and consultant between the Society and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She also edited the Society’s American Indian Magazine in 1918 and 1919.
But bigger reforms were on the horizon when she consulted and coauthored a book titled Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians, an Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes’ Legalized Robbery. It was written by Zitkala, under the name of Gertrude Bonnin, Charles H. Fabens, and Matthew K. Sniffen. It came out in 1924 and exposed the graft and corruption by the Federal Government and the oil industry over the Oklahoman Native’s natural resources.
This lead to the founding of the National Council of American Indians in 1926. Zitkala was the founding president who focused on citizen rights, improved education and health care and cultural recognition and preservation.
There was a continual struggle with Native holdings of land by all sorts of outside influences, as soon as the land proved valuable. In 1928, Zitkala was appointed as an advisor to the U. S. government’s Meriam Commission for investigation and reform of Native land rights. Several important reforms are still on the books to this day.
On January, 26, 1938, at the age of 61, Zitkala died in Washington D.C. She was still bridging the divide between two cultures. Zitkala Sa, Charles A. Eastman, and Luther Standing Bear have been the native cultural links to the Sioux people over the years. Even today, in our Twenty-first century, we are finding many inequities with the Native Americans from voting rights to selfish land grabs to desecration of historic relics, when respect for those who survived before us should be part of our American culture, not decimated for profit.