Learning from Zitkála-Šá

Seated woman with long hair and bead necklaces looks to her right
Zitkála-Šá, 1898. Photo by Joseph Turner Keiley.

Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.


Zitkála-Šá (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation on February 22, 1876. In 1884, when she was eight years old, Quaker missionaries removed her from her mother and took her to be educated at White's Indiana Manual Labor Institute. The school gave her the name Gertrude Simmons. Though traumatized by the experience and longing for her home, she developed a love for reading, writing, and music. When she left the boarding school, she used the skills she had learned to advocate for her tribe and other Native American groups around the United States.

While working as a music teacher at Carlisle Indian School, one of the US's most infamous Indian boarding schools, she began using the Lakota name Zitkála-Šá (Little Red Bird). She wrote extensively about the Native American experience. She published an autobiography, a collection of Lakota stories, and stories about Indian boarding schools for white-run publications like Harper's Monthly and the Atlantic Monthly. Her work challenged common white stereotypes of Native Americans and led to her firing from Carlisle.

In 1911, Zitkála-Šá joined the Society of American Indians. She edited their journal and lectured across the country on the importance of preserving Native American cultural traditions. She also advocated for women's suffrage and other feminist issues. Her writing became more directly political. She investigated and exposed corruption and exploitation in government management of Indian affairs. With her husband Raymond Talefase Bonnin, she founded the National Council of American Indians to organize advocacy. Zitkála-Šá passed away in Washington, DC in 1938 at age 61.

To learn more about Zitkála-Šá, check out the Places of Zitkála-Šá.


  1. Trace the transmission of traditions in different cultures
  2. Evaluate change and continuity in US policies towards Native Americans

Inquiry Question

What can we do to preserve and pass on our culture and traditions? How do we preserve our culture while also appreciating other people's cultures?

Activity 1: Interview

The main goal of institutions like Indian Boarding Schools was to assimilate Native children into dominant US culture. Teachers and school administrators made deliberate efforts like not allowing students to speak their native language, cutting their hair and dressing them in white American clothing, and forbidding traditional practices. Zitkála-Šá, through her writing and other activism, aimed to preserve the traditions that were being lost so they could be passed down to future generations.

Many families have traditions that are in danger of being lost or changed. Interview someone in your family about a tradition or piece of heritage they are proud of. This might be a member of your extended family like a grandparent, aunt or uncle, but it could also be an older family friend or member of your community. How did they practice this tradition when they were young? Who taught it to them? The Lakota Sioux, Zitkála-Šá's tribe, is matrilineal, meaning their clan membership passed through the mother’s family. What role do men and women have in upholding and passing on traditions? Why do they think it is an important part of their culture?

Do you see this tradition as important to you? Are there steps you can take to maintain this tradition and pass it on?

Activity 2

Option 1: Short Story or Poem
One of the ways that Zitkála-Šá advocated for her community and countered white stereotypes was through her writing of fiction and poetry, as well as non-fiction like her autobiography. Think about a time when you advocated for yourself or someone around you. Write a short story or poem about what happened. You are welcome to use fiction, metaphor or other literary devices to make the story or poem engaging. Doing so can both help bring in more readers and help make a single person’s experience more generalized and relatable.


Option 2: Read and Respond
Zitkála-Šá used fiction as well as non-fiction to challenge stereotypes about Native Americans and advocate for better treatment by the US government. Below is an excerpt from her short story “A Warrior’s Daughter.” Read the excerpt and think about the ways it challenges stereotypes.

The Warrior’s Daughter by Zitkála-Šá

“…He was the chieftain's bravest warrior. He had won by heroic deeds the privilege of staking his wigwam within the great circle of tepees.

He was also one of the most generous gift givers to the toothless old people. For this he was entitled to the red-painted smoke lapels on his cone-shaped dwelling. He was proud of his honors. He never wearied of rehearsing nightly his own brave deeds. Though by wigwam fires he prated much of his high rank and widespread fame, his great joy was a wee black-eyed daughter of eight sturdy winters. Thus as he sat upon the soft grass, with his wife at his side, bent over her bead work, he was singing a dance song, and beat lightly the rhythm with his slender hands.

His shrewd eyes softened with pleasure as he watched the easy movements of the small body dancing on the green before him.

Tusee is taking her first dancing lesson. Her tightly-braided hair curves over both brown ears like a pair of crooked little horns which glisten in the summer sun.

With her snugly moccasined feet close together, and a wee hand at her belt to stay the long string of beads which hang from her bare neck, she bends her knees gently to the rhythm of her father's voice….”

Based on the portion of the story, consider the following questions.

  1. What would a non-Native reader recognize from Zitkála-Šá’s portrayal of this Dakota family? Why might she include these details?
  2. What might challenge a non-Native reader’s assumptions or stereotypes about Dakota families or Native Americans more generally?
  3. How do you think this story would have been received in the early 1900s when it was written? How do you think other people would react to it now?

Activity 3: Research

Zitkála-Šá advocated for land rights, preservation of culture and equality for Native Americans. She started by working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the federal agency which oversaw policies and treatment of Native Americans. But she became disillusioned with the BIA assimilationist policy and removal of children from their families. It was hard for Native families to access health care, education, and recognition of their claims to the land. Zitkála-Šá left the BIA and continued her advocacy outside it. She pressured the US government to treat Native Americans better. She testified in front of Congress, ran voter registration drives, published reports and public articles.

The US government made some changes, but there was more work to do when Zitkála-Šá died in 1938. Since then, the BIA has continued to respond to Native American activists and leaders. Today, Native American policy looks very different than it did one hundred years ago. The relationships between Native American tribes and the US government are still crucial to the well-being of Native people.

Research the relationship between tribal governments and the United States. Go to the website for the US Bureau of Indian Affairs and choose one of the issues Zitkála-Šá advocated for in the early 1900s:
Tribal Government
Other issues

Consider the following questions:

  1. What has changed since Zitkála-Šá’s advocacy?
  2. What has stayed the same?
  3. One source of tension during the early 1900s was whether Native Americans should be United States citizens (Zitkála-Šá advocated for the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924) or whether Native Americans should be given the freedom to function as their own nations separate from the US Looking through the US policy on the issue you chose, what is the current balance?
  4. What is one improvement that you would like to see in the relationship between others around you? This could address the relationship between Native American Sovereign Nations and the United States or other groups.

These activities were researched and written by Alison Russell, a NCPE intern with the Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education.

Part of a series of articles titled Curiosity Kit: Zitkála-Šá.

Last updated: September 2, 2022