Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Zitkala-Sa – Red Bird, was a writer and an Indian rights activist who strove to expand opportunities for Native Americans and to safeguard their cultures, as well as a teacher and a magazine editor.
Zitkala-Sa was born the 22nd of February 1876 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, her mother was Ellen Tate Iyohiwin Simmons, a member of the Dakota Sioux, her father was a white man who abandoned the family when Zitkala-Sa was very young.
At the age of eight, Zitkala-Sa left the reservation to attend a Quaker missionary school in Wabash, Indiana, where she struggled with the forced assimilation into the white American culture. However, when she returned to the reservation, three years later, she found herself culturally changed and struggled to fit in to traditional Sioux.
As she relates in “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” the missionary school was designed to strip children of their tribal cultures and replace these cultures with knowledge of the dominant one. Initially, Indians, like her mother, thought that the offer of education began “to pay a tardy justice” for the theft of Indian lands and was necessary if their children were to advance in the white world. On the other hand, from the white culture, Gertrude Simmons discovered no compensation for her loss of Sioux culture and habits.
She repeatedly observed that the good intentions of the missionaries were wrongheaded, and in many cases the conventions of white culture affront well-brought-up Indians. For example, the clothing she was required to wear at the school — dresses with tight-fitting bodices — struck her as terribly immodest, since she was used to concealing her figure in loose-fitting buckskin and a blanket. Zitkala-Sa narrated this cultural conflict in terms of a warrior’s struggle because she recognized the system of white education to be part of the violent destruction of her people and their culture. She tried to hide on the day her hair was to be cut, but she was found: “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.” She mourned the death of her Indian identity.
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin decided to create her own name: Zitkala-Sa. Her act of self-naming asserted both her independence from and her ties to Sioux culture. That she chose a Lakota name instead of one from her home dialect might indicate a profound dislocation from her family origins, as well as a conscious choice.
At age 19, against her family’s wishes, she enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, also a Quaker school, and graduated in 1897. For two years she taught at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, although she was uncomfortable with the school’s harsh discipline and its curriculum, which was devised to teach Euro-American ways and history, thus eradicating students’ Native American cultural identities. She published several short stories and autobiographical essays in “The Atlantic Monthly” and “Harper’s Monthly” under her name Zitkala-Sa. The pieces’ themes derived from her struggle to retain her cultural identity amid pressure to adapt to the dominant American culture.
Her resentment over the treatment of American Indians by the state, church and population had grown, and around 1900, she began to express her feelings publicly in writing. By writing “Old Indian Legends”, she built a bridge between cultures. She said “I have tried to transplant the Native spirit of these tales into English language, since America in the last few centuries has acquired a second tongue”.
In the following decades, Zitkala-Sa’s writing efforts were increasingly part of her work as an Indian rights activist. In 1911, Zitkala-Sa joined the Society for American Indians. The goal of the SAI was to lobby for full American citizenship for Native Americans while still preserving the traditional way of life. Zitkala-Sa served as the organization’s secretary, and from 1918 to 1919, she edited their journal, “American Indian Magazine”. As secretary of the SAI, she criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs for their practices regarding the treatment of children in schools, in particular their attempt to prohibit Native American children from speaking their Native languages. She also reported several instances of abuse against children who refused to adopt Christianity.
She married Raymond Talesfase Bonnin, who was half Euro-American and half Sioux, in 1902, and they moved to a reservation in Utah. She became a correspondent for the Society of the American Indians, the first reform organization to be administered entirely by Native Americans.
In 1916, Zitkala-Sa became the secretary of the Society of the American Indian, and she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C., to be able to lobby more effectively for Native American rights in government. She served as a liaison between the society and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In particular, her 1923 article “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians”, published by the Indian Rights Association, exposed the ways in which American corporations had defrauded, exploited, and stolen from Native American tribes.
In 1924, Zitkala-Sa played an important role in getting Congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted US citizenship to indigenous peoples. In the same year the Indian Rights Association assigned Zitkala-Sa to investigate alleged abuses of some Oklahoma tribes by the federal government. With two fellow investigators she co-authored
“Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians”, an exposé that resulted in the creation of the Meriam Commission.
In 1926, she founded the National Council of American Indians which she served as president until her death. As the organization’s president, she advocated citizenship rights, better educational opportunities, improved health care, and cultural recognition and preservation. Her investigation of land swindles perpetrated against Native Americans resulted in her appointment as an adviser to the U.S. government’s Meriam Commission of 1928, the findings of which eventually led to several important reforms.
Zitkala-Sa was instrumental in the passage of the Indian Citizenship Bill and secured powerful outside interests in Indian reform. She remained politically active as a spokesperson for Native American concerns until her death at the age of 61, in 1938. When she died, the Council suspended its activities, and when it was revived in 1944, the all-male leadership of the new Council disregarded a great deal of Zitkala-Sa’s work.
Zitkala-Sa was the first American Indian woman to write her own story without the aid of an editor, interpreter or ethnographer. Zitkala-Sa made her mark on the world and brought Native American culture and issues to a wide readership. For that, and for her tireless work for the rights of her people, she deserves to be remembered and honoured as an important woman in history.
By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern