Person

Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin)

Zitkala-Sa and her violin, 1898. Photo by Gertrude Kasebier, Smithsonian
Zitkala-Ša, having grown her hair back out after her stay at the missionary school, and her violin.

Photo by Gertrude Kasebier, 1898. Smithsonian Institution.

Quick Facts

Zitkála-Šá (“Red Bird”) was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota on February 22, 1876. A member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux, she was raised by her mother after her father abandoned the family. When she was eight years old, Quaker missionaries visited the reservation. They took several of the children (including Zitkála-Šá) to Wabash, Indiana to attend White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute. Zitkála-Šá left despite her mother’s disapproval. At this residential school, Zitkála-Šá was given the missionary name Gertrude Simmons. She attended the Institute until 1887. She was conflicted about the experience, and wrote both of her great joy in learning to read and write and to play the violin, as well as her deep grief and pain of losing her heritage by being forced to pray as a Quaker and cut her hair.

She returned to live with her mother on the Yankton Reservation in 1887, but left only three years later. She felt that she did not fit in after her experiences at the Institute. At fifteen years old, she returned to the Institute to further her education. Her study of piano and violin led the Institute to hire her as a music teacher. She graduated in 1895. When she received her diploma, Zitkála-Šá gave a speech advocating for women’s rights.

Instead of returning home, Zitkála-Šá accepted a scholarship she was offered at Earlham College in Richmond Indiana. It was while at Earlham that she began to collect stories from Native tribes. She translated the stories into Latin and English. In 1897, just six weeks before she was to graduate, Zitkála-Šá had to leave Earlham because of financial and health issues. Again, she chose not to return to the reservation. Instead, she moved to Boston, where she studied violin at the New England Conservatory of Music.[1]

In 1899, she took a job as music teacher at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.[2] From 1879 until 1918, it was the flagship Indian boarding school in the United States, and used as a model for many others. In 1900, the school sent Zitkála-Šá back to the Yankton Reservation to gather more students. She was shocked to find her family home in disrepair. Many people on the reservation lived in deep poverty, and white settlers were occupying land given to the Yankton Dakota people by the federal government. Zitkála-Šá returned to Carlisle and began writing about Native American life. Her autobiographical and Lakota stories presented her people as generous and loving instead of the common racist stereotypes that portrayed Native Americans as ignorant savages. These stereotypes were being used as arguments why Native Americans needed to be assimilated into white American society. Her writing, which was deeply critical of the boarding school system, was published in the national English-language magazines including Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly. In 1901, she wrote a piece for Harper’s that described the profound loss of identity felt by a student at the Carlisle Indian School. She was fired from Carlisle.

Afterwards, Zitkála-Šá spent some time back at home on the reservation taking care of her mother and collecting stories for her book, Old Indian Legends. She also took work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) office at Standing Rock Indian Reservation as a clerk. She married Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin in 1902. They were assigned to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Utah, where they lived and worked for the next fourteen years. While there, they had a son, Raymond Ohiya Bonnin.

In 1910, Zitkála-Šá met William F. Hanson, a professor at Brigham Young University in Utah. They collaborated on an opera. Sun Dance was completed in 1913. Zitkala-Ša wrote the libretto and songs for the story, based on a sacred Sioux ritual that the federal government had prohibited. Sun Dance was the first American Indian opera written. It is a symbol of how Zitkála-Šá lived in and bridged both her traditional Native American world and the world of white America that she was raised in.

While on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation, Zitkála-Šá joined the Society of American Indians, a group founded in 1911 with the purpose of preserving traditional Native American culture while also lobbying for full American citizenship. Beginning in 1916, Zitkála-Šá was the Society’s secretary. In this position, she corresponded with the BIA. She became increasingly vocal in her criticism of the Bureau’s assimilationist policies and practice, reporting abuse of children when they, for example, refused to pray as Christians. Her husband Raymond was fired from the BIA office in 1916.

The family moved to Washington, DC. Zitkála-Šá continued her work with the Society of American Indians, where she was colleagues with Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin. From 1918 to 1919 Zitkála-Šá edited their journal, American Indian Magazine. She lectured across the country, promoting the preservation of Native American cultural and tribal identities (though she was adamantly against the traditional use of peyote, likening it to the destructive effects of alcohol in Native communities). While being sharply critical of assimilation, she was firm in her conviction that Indigenous people in America should be American citizens, and that as citizens, they should have the vote: “In the land that was once his own – America… there was never a time more opportune than now for American to enfranchise the Red man!”[3] As original occupants of the land, she argued, Native Americans needed to be represented in the current system of government.

The federal Indian Citizenship Act passed in 1924. It granted US citizenship rights to all Native Americans. However, this did not guarantee the vote. States retained the authority to decide who could and could not vote. In 1926, Zitkála-Šá and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians. Until her death in 1938, she served as president, fundraiser, and speaker. The Council worked to unite the tribes across the United States to gain suffrage for all Indians. Zitkála-Šá also worked with white suffrage groups and was active in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) beginning in 1921. Zitkála-Šá created the Indian Welfare Committee of GFWC in 1924. That year, she ran a voter registration drive among Native Americans, encouraging those who could to engage in the democratic process and support legislation that would be good for Native Americans.[4]

The same year, Zitkála-Šá also published a report entitled "Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes – Legalized Robbery." This article was instrumental in getting the government to investigate the exploitation and defrauding of Native Americans by outsiders for access to oil-rich lands.

Until her death on January 26, 1928, Zitkála-Šá continued to work for improvements in education, health care, and legal recognition of Native Americans as well as the preservation of Native American culture. She died in Washington, DC. She is buried at Arlington National Cemetery with her husband. Sharing a headstone, she is memorialized as: “His Wife / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin / Zitkala-Ša of the Sioux Indians / 1876-1936.”[5]

Discover the Places of Zitkála-Šá.

Notes:

[1] The New England Conservatory of Music at 290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 14, 1980.

[2] The Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on July 4, 1961. Explore the history of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School with our Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plan, "The Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Assimilation with Education after the Indian Wars."

[3] Zitkala-Ša (as Gertrude Bonin), “Editorial Comment,” American Indian Magazine 6 (1919): 162.

[4] It was not until 1962, when New Mexico enfranchised Native Americans that all American Indians could vote.

[5] The Arlington National Cemetery Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 11, 2014. She was eligible for burial in Arlington National Cemetery because her husband had been an Army Captain.


Sources:
Barker, Joanne. 2015. Indigenous Feminisms. The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous People’s Politics, edited by Jose Antonio Lucero, Dale Turner, and Donna Lee VanCott. Oxford University Press.

Conley, Paige Allison. 2013. Stories, Traces of Discourse, and the Tease of Presence: Gertrude Simmons Bonnin as Orator and Indigenous Activist. PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Find A Grave. “Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (1876-1938).”

Johnson, David L. and Raymond Wilson. 1988. Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 1876-1938: “Americanize the First American.” American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 27-40.


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Last updated: September 1, 2022