Zitkala-Ša (which means ‘Red Bird’), also known by the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was a Native American writer, musician and activist. She was born on 22nd February 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her mother was a Sioux American Indian, her father a white American who left the family when Zitkala was only young.
In 1884 Christian missionaries came to the reservation and took many of the children, including Zitkala, away from their home, traveling 700 miles to their missionary school. Despite her mother’s concerns, she allowed Zitkala to leave, at the age of 8, to attend White’s Manual Labor Institute in Indiana.
She wrote about her time at school in The School Days of an Indian Girl, describing the mix of emotions she had about it. The experience was frightening and strange to her; she felt sad that they made her pray to a new god that was not her own, and that they cut her long hair – which had great significance in her culture:
“I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was shingled like a cowards! In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”
Despite the difficulty she endured, she also felt glad to learn how to read, write and play the violin. The ability to write and play music gave her a voice that she would use throughout her life. She received a diploma from the institute, and gave a stirring speech about women’s inequality.
Zitkala returned to the reservation in 1887, but she had a desire to learn more, and so went back to the school when she was 15. In 1895 she received a scholarship to attend college where she developed her skills in giving speeches and also began to collect Native American stories which she translated into English.
The opportunity to learn violin gave her a great passion for music and from 1897-99 she played with the New England Conservatory of Music. After this she found a job at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where she would be teaching music.
Around this time she also began writing politically, submitting articles to local magazines. One of the things she wrote about was the school she was working at. She disagreed with the way that they tried to change the Native American children who attended; trying to make them forget their heritage, customs and religion , replacing them with the ways that white people lived. Zitkala was proud of where she had come from and her Sioux identity was incredibly important to her. Because she spoke out about this in her writings she was eventually asked to leave the school in 1901.
She returned to the Yankton Reservation and within a year had met and married her husband, who was also a mixed race Native American.
By this time Zitkala was a seasoned writer, and her writing career really started to take off. As well as collecting Native American tales, which she published in the books American Indian Stories and Old Indian Legends, she regularly wrote political articles, and began to write about her own life and experiences.
As her literary career grew Zitkala didn’t forget her love of music, and in 1910 composed an opera with the musician William F Hanson. It was called The Sun Dance and used traditional Sioux melodies which she played on her violin and Hanson wrote down. The opera was performed by and for Native Americans, and dealt with many of the issues that they faced. It is considered the first Native American opera.
Zitkala continued to write and became involved in politics and activism. She joined the Society of American Indians (SOI), becoming the only woman on the executive board. The SOI was a group who campaigned to preserve Native American culture and fought for full citizenship for Native Americans. Between 1918 – 19, as well as writing for it, she was the editor of their magazine American Indian Magazine.
In 1926 Zitkala set up a new group, The National Council of American Indians. She hoped to unite people from all different tribes to speak with one voice in the struggle for citizenship, civil rights and the right to vote. The organisation “advocated citizenship rights, better educational opportunities, improved health care, and cultural recognition and preservation.”
Zitkala-Ša wrote many things, articles, essays, books – both fiction and non fiction. One of the most significant pieces of writing she published was Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes – Legalized Robbery, published in 1923. This long-titled work exposed the corporations who had criminally obtained land (through robbery & murder) which belonged to Native American tribes, to get at the oil they believed was there. She spoke out about this in her writing and most people think that this piece was an important stepping stone to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1924, which gave land rights back to the Native American people.
Zitkala-Ša died in 1938. She is remembered around the world for boldly speaking out in defence of her culture and against the abuses they suffered.
Find out more:
Much of Zitkala-Ša’s writing is available to read for free online. Here you can read the account of her time at school in The School Days of an Indian Girl http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cusww/zs/SDIG.html
For an in depth piece about The Sun Dance opera have a look at this PDF: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3027&context=greatplainsquarterly
Here is a great WordPress blog all about Zitkala http://zitkalasachangeagent.wordpress.com/
Here is a video about Zitkala’s life with some lovely illustrations: