Life Story: Zitkala-Sa, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (1876-1938)
Fighting for the Rights of Native People
The story of an activist and composer who fought tirelessly for Native American rights and citizenship.
Zitkala-Sa was born on February 22, 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation. She spent her early childhood on the reservation with her mother, who was of Sioux Dakota heritage. Little is known about her father, who was Anglo-American.
When Zitkala-Sa was eight years old, missionaries from the White’s Manual Labor Institute in Indiana came to the Yankton reservation to recruit children for their boarding school. Zitkala-Sa’s older brother had recently returned from such a school, and her mother was hesitant to send her daughter away. Zitkala-Sa, however, was eager to go. For children who had never been off the reservation, the school sounded like a magical place. The missionaries told stories about riding trains and picking red apples in large fields. After debating the decision, Zitkala-Sa’s mother agreed to let her go. She did not want her daughter to leave and did not trust the white strangers, but she feared that the Dakota way of life was ending. There were no schools on the reservation, and she wanted her daughter to have an education.
According to her autobiography, as soon as Zitkala-Sa boarded the train, she regretted begging her mother to let her go. She was about to spend years away from everything she knew. She did not know English, and tribal languages were banned at the school. She would be forced to give up her Dakota culture for an “American” one.
Zitkala-Sa’s arrival at the school was traumatic. The children learned that everyone would get a haircut. In Dakota culture, the only people to get haircuts were cowards who had been captured by the enemy. Zitkala-Sa resisted by hiding in an empty room. When the staff of the school found her underneath a bed, they dragged her out, tied her to a chair, and cut off her braids as she cried out loud. Later in life, she wrote that the staff at the school did not care about her feelings and treated the children like “little animals.”
After a few years, the school granted Zitkala-Sa permission to visit her mother during a school break. During the visit, her mother encouraged her to abandon school and stay at home. But she later wrote that visiting home made her sad. She returned to the school. Like many children, she may have felt that she no longer belonged on the reservation. Life at the school had changed her.
In 1895, Zitkala-Sa graduated and joined a teacher training program at Earlham College in Indiana, where she was one of the few Native American students. She then transferred to the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied the violin. By 1900, she was teaching music and speech at the Carlisle Indian School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, one of the most famous boarding schools in the country.
Zitkala-Sa worked at the Carlisle School for less than two years. The experience reminded her of her own traumatic education. She watched a new generation of young children arrive on trains and have their hair brutally cut. She began to question why the school required the children to give up their entire culture in exchange for an education. She saw the staff treat children cruelly, and learned that the government paid the school for every child successfully removed from a reservation. She realized the schools were designed to erase her people’s culture.
Zitkala-Sa channeled her frustration into a love for writing. She wrote about her personal experiences and the customs and values she had learned from her mother. Soon her essays and short stories were published in national magazines like Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly. In 1901, she published a compilation of her work in a book called Old Indian Legends.
That same year, Zitkala-Sa left the Carlisle school and returned to South Dakota. She took a job at the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs that supported her financially while she continued her true passion: writing stories that promoted Dakota culture and values. While working at the Bureau, Zitkala-Sa met fellow employee Raymond Talesfase Bonnin. They were married in 1902 and had one son, whom they named Raymond.
The family moved to Utah, where Zitkala-Sa worked as a teacher. She did not teach at a boarding school, but at a school on a Ute reservation where children lived at home. While teaching, she met William Hanson, a music professor at Brigham Young University. With William’s help, Zitkala-Sa combined her loves of music and writing. She wrote The Sun Dance, an opera based on her essays. It was the first published opera written by a Native American. Because many Native American customs were passed down orally through music, Zitkala-Sa believed it was a powerful way to share her family’s values and reach a new audience.
Because many Native American customs were passed down orally through music, Zitkala-Sa believed opera was a powerful way to share her family’s values and reach a new audience.
By 1916, Zitkala-Sa and her husband wanted to more actively fight for the rights of Native people. They relocated to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Society for American Indians and American Indian Magazine. In 1926, Zitkala-Sa and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians. She also organized the Indian Welfare Committee on behalf of the National General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Zitkala-Sa’s relationship with the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs became strained. She fought to preserve Native American culture and believed the Bureau did the exact opposite. Her efforts raised public awareness about many issues related to Native Americans, including education, economics, employment, health, and religion. Her activism also had a direct impact on government policy. The various organizations and committees she represented helped pass the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The laws helped Native Americans secure American citizenship and regain control of their lives from the federal government.
Zitkala-Sa died in Washington, D.C., on January 26, 1938. Throughout her life she actively opposed the “Americanization” of Native American culture, and her writing continued to have an impact on policymakers long after her death.
- boarding school: A school that provides students with food and lodging.
- conservatory: A school that focuses on the arts.
- Indian Citizenship Act: An act passed in 1924 that granted full citizenship to all Native Americans born in the United States.
- Indian Reorganization Act: An act passed in 1934 that decreased federal involvement in Native American life and provided the Native American community with more independence.
- missionaries: People who are committed to serving a specific cause or community, often with a religious purpose.
- reservation: Public land set aside for a specific use. Indian Reservations were areas identified by the federal government for the Native American community.
- United States Bureau of Indian Affairs: An agency of the federal government that oversees all issues related to the Native American community.
- Compare the experiences of Zitkala-Sa and her mother with those of Marie Arteshaw and Theresa Green, who also grappled with the challenge of education in the Native American community.
- Read this life story and that of Edith Maude Eaton. Both women had white fathers and non-white mothers. How were their views of the world and the opportunities afforded to them shaped by their mixed-race heritage?
- Compare the life stories of Zitkala-Sa and Jovita Idar Juárez. How did each woman work to legitimize her culture and resist xenophobic policies and belief systems? How did the issue of education play a role in each woman’s work?
- Explore how women in this era used the visual and performing arts to express themselves. Connect Zitkala-Sa’s life story to the artwork of Abastenia St. Leger Eberle and Isadora Duncan and the life stories of Mabel Dodge and Irene Castle in the Armory Show at 100 curriculum guide.
- Explore how influential female photographer Gertrude Kasebier helped establish photography as a fine art, and what her portraits of Zitkala-Sa told the viewer about her life and identity. Using Kasebier’s photographs as inspiration, students will photograph a series of portraits staged to incorporate aspects of the sitter’s own personal identity.
ACTIVISM, ART & CULTURE, EDUCATION, LAWS & LEGAL STATUS, INDIGENOUS EXPERIENCES, NATIVE AMERICAN EXPERIENCES, POLITICS & GOVERNMENT, SOCIAL REFORM, WORK
New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections
- For more on the history of women in the arts and social reform at the turn of the twentieth century, see our Armory Show at 100 curriculum guide.