Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša): Advocate for the "Indian Vote"

By Cathleen D. Cahill
black and white profile portrait of zitkala sa. Wiki
Zitkala-Ša. Wikimedia Commons (
When suffragist and voting rights activist Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša) passed away in Virginia in 1938, she and her husband, Raymond Bonnin, both of the Yankton Sioux (or Dakota)[1] Nation, chose as their final resting place Arlington National Cemetery. She was eligible for burial there as a veteran's spouse due to Raymond's US Army service in the Great War, and he later joined her. Her tombstone reads: "Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 'Zitkala-Ša of the Sioux' 1876-1938" with the carving of a plains-style tepee on the reverse. This bold statement left an enduring message, which was one she had spent much of her life explaining to non-Native Americans: she could be both a citizen of the United States and a citizen of the Yankton Sioux Nation, she did not have to choose. Her political activism, including her suffrage advocacy, has to be understood from that perspective. The story of Indigenous women’s participation in the struggle for women’s suffrage is highly complex, and Zitkala-Ša’s story provides an illuminating example.

Zitkala-Ša was born in South Dakota in 1876 -- the year that the Sioux defeated Custer, she liked to remind people. But that was only one battle of the many the federal government fought to conquer the Native nations in the American West after the Civil War. Years of intense military violence enacted on the part of the federal government gradually forced those nations to cede much of their territory to the United States, eventually leaving them on much smaller reservation lands. For example, Zitkala-Ša also noted that 1876 was the year the federal government forced the Sioux to cede their sacred Black Hills "under duress."[2] Although the treaties and agreements that ended those wars recognized the sovereignty and some land rights of Native nations, the federal government increasingly tried to dismantle those political and territorial rights in the following decades. Over the course of Zitkala-Ša's childhood, the federal government instituted a number of policies meant to eliminate Indigenous nations and assimilate their people into the United States as individual US citizens disconnected from their Native cultures. Those policies included: outlawing Native governments and placing Native people under legal federal wardship; dividing communally-held land into private holdings; forcibly sending Native children to white-run boarding schools; and outlawing cultural and religious traditions. Those policies led directly to the social crises, poverty, and despair faced by Native people at the turn of the twentieth century. They also left Indigenous people without a political voice to address those problems, as their own nations were unrecognized and they did not have US citizenship but were instead legally classified as “wards” of the federal government.

Zitkala-Ša was raised by her mother and aunts after her father, a man of French descent, abandoned the family. When she was eight-years-old, she was sent to a boarding school run by Quakers in Indiana. Although she learned many skills that would serve her well in the future, she later wrote of the terror experienced by Native children removed from their families and sent to live among strangers. She went on to graduate from another Quaker institution, Earlham College. Her ideas about women's equality were influenced both by her mother and the Dakota women who raised her, as well as by the Quakers, who were known for their ideas of spiritual equality of the sexes.

As a college graduate, Zitkala-Ša was a modern "New Woman," who also celebrated her Dakota heritage; these were two things many white Americans thought were incompatible. They could not imagine Indigenous people as modern; instead, they believed that Native communities were disappearing because they could not survive in the contemporary world. Federal assimilation policies might help some survive, according to widely-held beliefs of the time, but only if they abandoned all of their traditions and culture. In part, because of this belief in "the vanishing Indian," many white Americans, including suffragists, began to romanticize traditional Native cultures.

White suffragists celebrated the matriarchal traditions in Native societies, especially the Haudenosaunee (formerly Iroquois), holding them up as examples of women with significant power. Early suffragists like Matilda Joselyn Gage and Lucretia Mott learned about those societies directly from Native women in upstate New York. Mott, for example, had been visiting the Haudenosaunee community at Cattaraugus just before she attended the women's rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848.[3] That strand of white feminist thought remained compelling into the early twentieth century. Learn more about the impact of the Haudenosaunee on the suffragists in this article in The Suff Buffs blog series.
black and white portrait of Laura Cornelius Kellogg 1925 wikimedia
Laura Cornelius Kellogg, 1925. Wikimedia Commons (
However, for Zitkala-Ša, the challenges faced by Indigenous communities were not romantic, they were devastating. After graduating from college, she tried to address those challenges while also finding her own path in the world. Moving to Boston to study violin, she earned some fame as a writer of short stories addressing Native experiences. She later took a teaching job at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the flagship federal boarding school in Pennsylvania, before moving to Utah with her husband, Raymond, who was superintendent of the Uintah and Ouray reservation agency. Her time in the Indian Service sharpened her critique of federal Indian policies as she encountered white employees who were prejudiced against the Indian people they worked for and saw first-hand the way that bureaucracy was designed to separate Native people from their resources. It was, she would later write, a "sham protection" that left Indians "without voice in their own affairs or expenditure of their moneys."[4]

Zitkala-Ša was not the only Indigenous activist to recognize that the system in which Indians were considered wards of the federal government was failing them. She joined other Native women and men in the Society of American Indians (SAI), an organization founded by and for Native people in 1911. A group of highly-educated Native people, many of whom worked for the federal government, they gathered to address Native people's wardship status and lack of US citizenship. They were dedicated to countering stereotypes about Native people and advocating on their behalf. In particular, they wanted to demonstrate that rather than disappearing, Natives were modern people who could contribute to the nation's future. As the invitation to their first conference read: "Dear Fellow Indian, What is to be the Future of the American Indian?"[5]

Zitkala-Ša was one of several women in the SAI who advocated for women's right to vote, including Laura Cornelius Kellogg, a poet and a citizen of the Wisconsin Oneida nation, and Marie Bottineau Baldwin, who was a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and one of the first Native woman to graduate from law school in the US. Zitkala-Ša's suffrage activism became most visible when she moved to Washington, D.C. in 1917 to become the secretary of the SAI, and when she became most active with the mainstream white suffrage movement. Her earlier writings and her visibility from testifying before Congress on Indian appropriation bills made her known to women's groups in the capital. She spoke at the National Woman's Party headquarters in June 1918 and certainly saw their pickets of the White House that intensified over the summer as she lived just three blocks away from Lafayette Park.[6] She was also known to other groups like the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Anthony League, and the Congressional Club, a group made up of the wives of Congressmen, who also invited her to speak and were often seeking presentations about traditional Indian life. Taking advantage of their interest, she deliberately wore what she called her "drawing card," a buckskin dress with Indigenous accessories, but then used her presentations to emphasize the concerns of "the Indian woman of today."
Black and white photo of Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin looking into the camera LOC
Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin. Collections of the Library of Congress (
She educated her audiences, informing them the reservation superintendents "tyrannical powers" over a "voiceless people" who had no say in how their land or money was managed. There were many other "trials [and] dangers" around the poor education imposed on Native children at government schools, as well as Indians' lack of citizenship, which kept them from being able to address those very issues.[7] She emphasized the irony that the "First Americans" lacked the rights all other Americans had. She also drew their attention to the thousands of Native men, including her husband, who were fighting for the country during the Great War, but were still legally classified as wards of the government, not citizens. Calling on white Americans to help change this state of affairs, Zitkala-Ša argued that US citizenship and the enfranchisement of Indians -- both women and men -- was the solution.[8]

Indian Country was and is diverse,[9] so it is important to note that not all Indigenous people agreed with Zitkala-Ša and the other Native people advocating for citizenship and suffrage. Many tribal leaders, like those of Zuni Pueblo, believed (and indeed had been explicitly told by US government officials) that if they agreed to US citizenship and participated in elections, they were giving up their rights as sovereign nations, especially their rights to tribal land and resources. Many members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy rejected US citizenship and emphasized their belonging in their own nations that predated the United States. In 1923, members of the Mohawk Nation traveled to Europe hoping to convince the League of Nations to recognize them as a sovereign nation. Though they were unsuccessful, they have continued to insist on their sovereignty.[10] Also, rather than engage in conversation with white women, many Native women chose to work within their communities, helping women by serving as midwives, maintaining their languages, and carrying on cultural traditions.[11]

Zitkala-Ša and other Indigenous suffragists like Kellogg and Bottineau Baldwin used their speeches and writings to propose something like dual citizenship. They wanted Native people to be members of their own self-governing nations, as well as citizens of the United States. Each woman argued that economic self-support rested on communally-held property, and political self-determination depended on self-governance. They noted their unfree status as wards under the Bureau of Indian Affairs and argued for a new democratic community. They wanted Native people to govern themselves and vote for their own representatives, and for the US federal government to honor its treaties. They each used their own communities to offer examples of how this might work. Kellogg offered a vision based on a corporate model for the Wisconsin Oneida in her book, Our Democracy and the American Indian, while Zitkala-Ša pointed to her Dakota communities. Zitkala-Ša advocated for tribal self-government that liaised with the federal government, the establishment of communally-held tribal property, especially cattle herds, and education systems with competent teachers and curriculum that included law, comparative government, and treaties.
Zitkala-Ša. Collections of the Smithsonian Institution
In August 1920, Tennessee became the final state needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Nineteenth Amendment, however, did not apply to many Native women as at least one third of Native adults lacked US citizenship and were instead considered wards of the government. In the face of this, Zitkala-Ša continued her fight for citizenship and suffrage. At the National Woman’s Party (NWP) conference a few months after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, she hoped that Native people would be enfranchised "through the help of the women of America." She urged them to support an Indian citizenship bill. Determined to keep a narrow focus on sex equality, however, the NWP chose to focus on the Equal Rights Amendment. Zitkala-Ša found more success in appealing to the almost three million members of the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), which at Zitkala-Ša's urging created a Department of Indian Welfare that year. They also hired her as a speaker and investigator. For three years, she travelled the country addressing women's clubs and calling on white women to use their newly won votes to enfranchise Native people. She called their attention to the corruption and inefficiency in Indian policy, especially through her investigation of guardianship cases in Oklahoma, which she pursued under the auspices of the GFWC.[12]

In 1924, advocacy by Native people like Zitkala-Ša and members of the Society of American Indians, along with complex political currents such as gratitude for Native veterans and increasing nativism, convinced Congress to pass the Snyder Act or the Indian Citizenship Act that endowed full US citizenship rights on all Native people born in the country. However, the law upheld US government oversight of Native lands.

Zitkala-Ša was thrilled by the possibility of the vote. For many years she had been developing her ideas of capacious citizenship for Native people that could encompass membership in a Native nation as well as US citizenship. She also believed that by voting together, Native people could form a powerful bloc in certain states, especially those with large Native populations, that could help change federal policies. She urged Native people to take advantage of their new citizenship status to vote. In 1926, she and her husband formed the National Council of American Indians to coordinate the political actions of Native people across the nation. For three summers they traveled to Native communities learning of their concerns, discussing recent legislation, and registering voters. Initially, this seemed like a promising strategy. Many Native people began to vote and some Native men ran for and were elected to office, including Senator Charles Curtis a citizen of the Kaw Nation who served as Herbert Hoover's vice president (1928-1932).[13]

However, many non-Natives, especially in states that had significant populations of Indigenous people like Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico, used a variety of strategies to disenfranchise Native people. Some of those strategies mirrored Southern Jim Crow laws, such as literacy tests, at-large elections, or poll taxes. Arizona and New Mexico argued that despite the Citizenship Act, anyone living on land that remained under government trust oversight in a wardship status could not vote. In this way, states used the relationship between Native people and the federal government to suppress voting. Zitkala-Ša was outraged. She continued her advocacy for Native rights and especially for self-governance of her nation, the Yankton Sioux, until her death in 1938. Even then, as we saw in the opening anecdote, she made a powerful final statement about her identity as both an American and a citizen of an Indigenous nation.
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This article was originally published by the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission (WSCC) on July 30, 2020 as a part of the WSCC blog, The Suff Buffs. The Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission was created by Congress to commemorate 100 years of the 19th Amendment throughout 2020 and to ensure the untold stories of women’s battle for the ballot continue to inspire Americans for the next 100 years.
Author Biography

Cathleen D. Cahill is an associate professor of history at Penn State University. She is a social historian who explores the everyday experiences of ordinary people, primarily women. She focuses on women's working and political lives, asking how identities such as race, nationality, class, and age have shaped them. She is also interested in the connections generated by women's movements for work, play, and politics, and how mapping those movements reveal women in surprising and unexpected places. Her first book, Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service, 1869–1932 (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), won the Labriola Center American Indian National Book Award and was a finalist for the David J. Weber and Bill Clements Book Prize. Her most recent book, Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2020) follows the lead of feminist scholars of color calling for alternative "genealogies of feminism." It is a collective biography of six suffragists -- Yankton Dakota Sioux author and activist Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša); Wisconsin Oneida writer Laura Cornelius Kellogg; Turtle Mountain Chippewa and French lawyer Marie Bottineau Baldwin; African-American poet and clubwoman Carrie Williams Clifford; Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, the first Chinese woman in the United States to earn her PhD; and New Mexican Hispana politician and writer Nina Otero Warren -- both before and after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. She also serves on the advisory committee for the National Votes for Women Trail and is the steering committee chair of the Coalition for Western Women's History.


[1] In Dakota their name is Ihanktonwan Dakota Oyate.

[2] Tadeusz Lewandowski, Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša (Volume 67) (American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series), (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 189.

[3] Sally Roesch Wagner, Sisters in Spirit: Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists, (Summertown, TN: Native Voices, 2001).

[4] Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories (Penguin, 2003), 159 and 245.

[5] Philip J. Deloria, “Four Thousand Invitations,” American Indian Quarterly Vol. 37, No. 3, The Society of American Indians and Its Legacies: A Special Combined Issue of SAIL and AIQ (Summer 2013), 25-43.

[6] "Indian Woman to Be Speaker," Washington Post, June 2, 1918.

[7] Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, 244 and “Personal News of Capital’s Secret and Fraternal Societies: Improved Order of Red Men” Washington Herald, 26 May 1918, p. 8.

[8] Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, 245-246 and Susan Applegate Krouse, North American Indians in the Great War (University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

[9] At the time of this writing, there are 567 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States.

[10] Maurice S. Crandall, These People Have Always Been a Republic: Indigenous Electorates in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, 1598–1912, (The David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History), (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Jace Weaver, The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927,(Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014),183-188; and Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, (Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

[11] See, for example: Brianna Theobald, Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century (Critical Indigeneities), (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019) and Cutcha Risling-Baldy, We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women's Coming-of-Age Ceremonies (Indigenous Confluences), (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2018).

[12] Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, 155-156 and Oklahoma's poor rich Indians, an orgy of graft and exploitation of the five civilized tribes, legalized robbery; a report by Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša), Charles H. Fabens, Matthew K. Sniffen, 1924.

[13] William E. Unrau, Mixed-Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989)


Ackley, Kristina and Christina Stanciu, eds. Laura Cornelius Kellogg: Our Democracy and the American Indian and Other Works (The Iroquois and Their Neighbors). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015.

Cari Carpenter, “Detecting Indianness: Gertrude Bonnin’s Investigation of Native American Identity,” Wicazo Sa Review Vol. 20 No. 1 (Spring, 2005), 139-159

Bonnin, Gertrude (Zitkala-Ša), 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. Pamphlet, 1924.

Crandall, Maurice S. These People Have Always Been a Republic: Indigenous Electorates in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, 1598–1912 (The David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Deloria, Philip J. “Four Thousand Invitations,” American Indian Quarterly Vol. 37, No. 3, The Society of American Indians and Its Legacies: A Special Combined Issue of SAIL and AIQ (Summer 2013), 25-43.

Deloria, Philip J. Indians in Unexpected Places. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004.

Indian Woman of Today: “Personal News of Capital’s Secret and Fraternal Societies: Improved Order of Red Men” Washington Herald, 26 May 1918, p. 8.

Krouse, Susan Applegate. North American Indians in the Great War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

Lewandowski, Tadeusz. Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša (Volume 67) (American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series), Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.

McCool, Daniel, Susan M. Olson, Jennifer L. Robinson. Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Risling-Baldy, Cutcha. We Are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women's Coming-of-Age Ceremonies (Indigenous Confluences). Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2018.

Simpson, Audra. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

Theobald, Brianna. Reproduction on the Reservation: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Colonialism in the Long Twentieth Century (Critical Indigeneities). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Unrau, William E. Mixed-Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.

Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters in Spirit: Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Summertown, TN: Native Voices, 2001.

Weaver, Jace. The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Zitkala-Sa. American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Part of a series of articles titled On Their Shoulders: The Radical Stories of Women's Fight for the Vote.

Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument, Women's Rights National Historical Park

Last updated: December 14, 2020