Zitkala Sha

Zitkala Sha           Gertrude Bonnin                       Yankton Nakota

Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Zitkala Sha (Red Bird), Yankton Nakota (Eastern Sioux), 1876-1938. Short story writer, cultural preserver, essayist, orator, editor, musician and composer, political activist.

Gertrude Simmons Bonnin faced, and to the extent it was humanly possible, overcame or sidestepped almost all the same problems — in a much more severe form of that time — that still face educated, intelligent Indian women today. Her life, efforts, and achievements are a fitting role model of intellectual and charismatic political leadership — at a time when women (much less Indian women) were supposed to have no brains, and be happy, quiet mothers.
She has been described by one critic (Dexter Fischer) as “…always on the threshold of two worlds, but never fully entering either.” It seems to me more that from a position in the white world that she created in the teeth of a world as hostile to intelligent women leaders as to Indians, she created changes and improvements in the Indian world to which she was born. Though she was a mixed-blood or half-breed, she did not have identity problems as to which world was hers.
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala Sha). was born to Ellen Tate Iyohinwin (She Reaches for the Wind), a Yankton Nakota, and a white man, named Felker at the Yankton Sioux Agency in South Dakota. Felker deserted his Indian family. His wife remarried John Haysting Simmons, who gave his name to the girl. As a young woman — after she had left the tribe and graduated from college — she gave herself the Lakota name Zitkala Sha, Red Bird, in the Lakota dialect.
In 1884, she left the Yankton agency town to attend White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, a charity school operated by the Society of Friends or Quakers, whose liberal attitudes, and lack of dogmatism and preaching Bonnin was greatly influenced by. Ellen Simmons distrusted the missionaries, and their influence on Indian youth at the Indian boarding schools, but also opposed her daughter’s attempt to seek any off-reservation education. Gertrude returned after 4 years, but told her mother she was going to seek higher education, which Ellen Simmons continued to oppose. Gertrude tried to stay close by attending Santee Normal Training School (nearby in Nebraska), but finding this very limiting, accepted scholarships to Earlham College in Indiana in 1895. There she received many scholastic honors, for writing and oratory. The Santee Agency newspaper printed some of her school essays with pride.
Her musical talent led to a scholarship at the Boston Conservatory of Music. By 1899 though, she had a job teaching at Carlisle Indian school, whose founder, Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, had taken the mottoes “From savagery to civilization” and “We must kill the savage to save the man”. Pratt’s educational approach was militaristic, with severe discipline imposed on the students, who wore uncomfortable Army-style uniforms in all weathers, marched everywhere, and supported the school through work contracts which exploited their labor for the school’s benefit. They received little exposure to academic skills, were subjected to ferocious religious-Christian and anti-Indian propaganda, punished severely for speaking their native languages, and were expected at best to become “civilized” farm or manual laborers. Carlisle received government subsidies for each student, so it tried to prevent them leaving (or graduating or taking jobs independent of its labor contracts) by any means possible. A bounty was paid to “catchers” who returned runaways. See the 1903 story about this by Akwesasne Mohawk Daniel La France, where the name of Carlisle was disguised by the magazine.
Her intelligence and talents, recognized by helpful white people had preserved Gertrude from exposure to this bitter form of Indian “education”, which she was to oppose for the rest of her life.
Adoption of the name Zitkala Sha seems to have been as much a pen name as an assertion of identity — perhaps an attempt when she began to publish to protect her job at Carlisle (which was unsuccessful). There she was the violin soloist (and music teacher) for the Carlisle “Indian band”. Her musical talents were such that in 1900, the band had its way paid to play at the Paris Exposition, where she made many French intellectual contacts. At the same time she had begun teaching, she wrote several articles for Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly, prestigious literary magazines. (See E-books
She disagreed with the boarding school approach — teaching Indians agriculture and homemaking, forced Christianity, eradication of Indian culture and language. As someone whose own intellectual powers developed in the face of heavy social discouragements, she thought Indian students were capable of and should be exposed to higher learning and academic subjects, not limited to vocational training. She also disapproved of the military discipline and Christian evangelizing most Indian schools imposed, following the alleged successes of the quasi-military manual labor program developed at Carlisle.
Around 1900, she met activist and physician Carlos Montzuma, a Yavapai, who asked her to marry him. She broke a brief engagement. From her letters to him it was because he wanted a helpmeet and child-bearing wife, while she had other ideas about the life she wanted. The articles she began to publish in 1900 contained strong criticisms of the assimilationist methods of Carlisle. Probably “The Soft-Hearted Sioux” was the last straw that got her fired (though she had already such a reputation that Carlisle gave it out she was going to Boston to study music some more). That article — which through BIA spies was known about before it appeared — led to an editorial in Carlisle’s newspaper criticizing her as “immoral”. This alleged immorality consisted in her showing — through the story — that the Chrisitian education the Indian main character youth received left him unfit to survive or help his family, after his return to them, because it destroyed his heritage and all knowledge of the lifeways. Here’s part of what the Carlisle critic said:
“All she has in the way of literary ability and culture she owes to the good people who, from time to time, have taken her into their homes and hearts…Yet not a word of gratitude…has ever escaped her in any line of anything she has ever written for the public. By this course, she injures herself and harms the educational work in progress for the race from which she sprang….[Among other Indians better educated and more famous than her] we know of no other case of such pronounced morbidness.”
High praise indeed, considering the source at Carlisle! And it’s a note one still hears sounded today, too, the ungrateful Indians! beneficiaries of all we have done for them! We brought you some old clothes — why aren’t you thanking us?
She returned to her reservation — with a contract from Ginn and Company of Boston to collect legends of her people for book publication. She met a talented young Lakota artist, Angel de Cora, and arranged for Angel’s paintings to illustrate her book. She also encouraged Angel to write, and to assume a name emphasizing her Lakota identity. Using her contacts in Philadelphia, she got several of Angel’s short stories accepted for publication. (See Angel de Cora stories.)
On the reservation, she also met Captain Raymond Bonnin, a Nakota mixed-blood like herself who was working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). They were married in 1902, not long after her book of legends (see e-texts) was published. She continued to correspond with literary people who saved her letters, but as she had feared with her first love, her literary career ended for many years with her marriage.
As many of us do when we marry, she followed her husband around in his jobs on various reservations. Their only child, a son born in 1903, was named Ohiya (Winner in Nakota dialect), probably influenced by her correspondence with Charles Eastman (Ohiyesa, Winner, Dakota dialect). In 1913, while living on the Unitah-Ouray reservation in Utah, where her husband was working, she collaborated with the classical music composer William Hanson on an opera, Sun Dance for which she wrote the libretto and songs, and contributed substantially to the music, which she played for Hanson on her violin, so he could score it. The opera was performed by a few rural civic amateur troupes — attended by and liked by some Indians — but ignored by serious music companies until once, in 1937, then ignored after that, too.
She continued to write for an all-Indian magazine, the journal of the Society of American Indians (SAI). In 1916, she was elected secretary of that organization, and became active (while still living in Utah,) in many Indian self-help organizations.
It was from Utah that she organized a campaign to support the 1918 Indian Bill that suppressed the use of peyote for Indian spiritual practices; she felt these practices were not traditional, and were basically Christianity gussied up for poor natives. She did support a kind of non-religious political pan-Indianism, which advocated that tribes people work together on common causes for all Indians, rather than lobbying exclusively for only their own tribes. That did not happen, and even today isn’t very strong, tends to be mostly lip-service.
She attacked the BIA, and called for its abolition, because of its corruption and paternalistic treatment of Indians as incompetent wards, while helping white interests to swindle them. Her husband was fired from his BIA job because of this. The couple moved to Washington to work as what today might be called lobbyists, except they had to raise money by speaking engagements (Gertrude’s) or writing (hers). Her first salaried job (since being fired from Carlisle) was in 1917, as editor of SAI’s magazine, but she resigned in 1920 over political differences with the new male leadership of SAI, who favored peyote usage. At this time, she gathered her earlier articles and published them as a second book, American Indian Stories, 1921. It did not realize very much money.
With the support of the Indian Rights Association, she collaborated in the research and did all the writing in a small book, an expose of robberies, land thefts, and oil-motivated murders in Oklahoma, Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft, Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribs, Legalized Robbery, published in 1924 by that organization. Though 2 white men were listed as co-authors, she was the accomplished writer (and orator) whose skills created a moving and effective story (long out of print) about the swindles and murders of Oklahoma Indian people once oil had been discovered on their land. A direct result of the booklet or pamphlet was political pressures for investigation that led to formation of the Meriam Commission in 1928, whose findings led to the Indian Rorganization Act of 1934, which attempted to stop the sale of remaining lands by placing them in trust, and established tribal councils and reservation business committees. Tokenly-powered though these were, they are also the nucleus of practical sovereignty that began to take hold in the 1970’s.
She continued to work for and lecture about Indian rights, and to try to build a pan-Indian political unity among all tribes, founding the National Council of American Indians in 1926. She was its first and only president until her death in 1938. Aside from an occasional wealthy donor, she was sole support of the organization, through speaking engagments to women’s groups; the constant travel was hard on her health. NCAI went moribund when she died. When Native men restarted it in 1944, the male leadership simply “disappeared” her and her role and the first 12 years of NCAI from Native history. Almost all reference and history books record NCAI as having been founded in 1944, entirely by men.
Since Bonnin had been active in the drive to gain citizenship and voting rights for Indians (something many states did not allow until the 1950’s and even ’60’s), NCAI’s founding purpose was to “carry on an Information Service for untrained Indian citizen voters, helping them to organize thmselves in assemblies for discussion.” Had this evolved to parliamentarianism, this effort could have helped the initial tribal councils of the Indian Reorganization (1934), backed by grass roots tribal organization, take power from the BIA much earlier, and institute genuine democratic government, instead of powerless, often corrupt, puppet neocolonial regimes.
Shortly before she died, her opera Sun Dance was premiered in New York by the New York Light Opera Guild, a musically respectable organization, which selected it as its only American opera for that year. No other opera has been authored or co-authored by a Native American; this opera has apparently never been performed since, was not recorded, and has no published score or libretto. Although she was already ill and frail, she was able to hear it once performed professionally, before her death early the following year. She had once written that music was her real love, but a life spent working for her people — which she saw as all Indian people — did not permit her to follow this love.
American Opera and its Composers says: “The opera does not depict the Indian in the dime novel fashion familiar on stage and screen. It is a sympathetic portrayal of the real Indian in a conscientious attempt to delineate the manners, the customs, the dress, the religious ideals, the superstitions, the songs, the games, the ceremonials — in short, the life of a noble people too little understood.”
Throughout her life, she corresponded with a number of Native men who became influential in work — especially writing — for Indian people. Charles A. Eastman was inspired by her to begin his first writing — an attempt to educate people so that the horrors of the Wounded Knee massacre which he had witnessed as the only physician there would not happen again, as white people would learn Indians are human beings.
Zitkala Sha is buried — as Mrs. Bonnin — in Arlington National Cemetery, not because the U.S. honors her achievements, but because her husband, an Army Captain, was buried there first. She is mentioned in several reference sources about accomplishments of Indian people, and one of American women’s accomplishments, and there are several review-type articles about her that appeared in The American Indian Quarterly when University of Nebraska reissued her long-out-of-print collected stories as paperbacks. There has never been a full biography — a book — about her life. This is my poor best to gather such fragments as I could readily find locally. To do a bio would require ability to travel, to locate caches of her letters to more famous men, if saved somewhere.  – Shanya Del Cohen