THE LIFE OF ZITKALA-SA
Why Should We Remember Zitkala-Sa?
“There is no great; there is no small; in the mind that causeth all”
A while ago I became aware of my Native American heritage. I have never encountered discrimination aimed at me for being a Native. However, I know that there are people that do. I know that there was a time when Natives were thought of as “savages”. I wasn’t aware of the cruelty that Natives endured through history until I heard of Zitkala- Sa. Then once again I questioned people’s behavior. What is the rationality in this belief? How do I learn from it so I can take action? Is it ever going to change?
There are many other things I need to learn about the injustice in our world before I can decide what to do about it. My teacher introduced me to Zitkala- Sa, a Native American woman. Although she was taught to be ashamed of her heritage, Zitkala- Sa spent her life attempting to show that natives aren’t savages because their skin is different as well as their beliefs.
Zitkala- Sa (Red Bird), also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin was a Native American educator, justice fighter, and artist. She worked to improve education, health care, and legal recognition of Natives until her death. Zitkala-Sa was born on February 22, 1876, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. The Yankton Indian Reservation is a federally recognized tribe. Their name is Ihanktonwto an Dakota Oyate, meaning “People of the End Village.”(Wikipedia.org)
She was born to a Native American woman and a Frenchman who soon left after Zitkala-Sa was born. As a child, Zitkala-Sa spent her time hearing legends from the tribe members and fearing nothing but intruding on others as her mother taught her.
In early Spring, when she was eight years old, she was lured by Quaker missionaries to attend White’s Indiana Manual Labor school. Zitkala- Sa wanted to go to the school with the missionaries but her mom didn’t want her to go. After much beseeching and crying Zitkala- Sa’s mom reluctantly relented.
The school was founded in 1852 in Wabash, Indiana. The school’s purpose was to strip the natives of their “animal ways” and educate them by making them blacksmiths, carpenters, farmers, cooks, and housekeepers. (newspaper.com). At the school, she was introduced to Christianity. She was forbidden to speak her language and she was set a schedule for manual labor. She was given the missionary name Gertrude Simmons.
Zitkala-Sa attended the school until 1887 when she dropped out. She returned home to live with her mother. Upon her return, she felt conflicted about her feelings. A part of her had enjoyed learning how to read and write at the school. The other part of her felt deep grief when she was stripped of her heritage by being forced to pray as a Quaker and cut her hair. She felt like she had betrayed her people and culture. Later on, when she began writing, she revealed the deep sadness she felt when she returned home. She didn’t fit in anymore. The Institute had changed her. In 1891, at the age of fifteen Zitkala-Sa returned to White’s Indian Manual Labor school.
At school, she planned to become more than a housekeeper which was what was expected of her. She studied piano and violin and occasionally taught music to children. The decision she made to leave her mother was a big step towards independence. This was the turn in her life. She graduated in 1895. When she received her diploma she gave a speech about the necessity of granting equal rights to women. “Half of humanity cannot rise while the other half is in subjugation.” Her speech was thought of as a “masterpiece, never surpassed in eloquence or literary perfection by any girl in the country”. While her ability to write and the literary perfection of her speech were acknowledged the profound meaning was ignored.
Deciding not to return home Zitkala-Sa accepted a scholarship at Earlham College in Richmond Indiana. Here she was one of few Native Americans. During college, she began to accumulate stories from Native tribes. She collected stories to show white people what the Native culture was about. She wanted them to see the virtue and merit of native beliefs. She translated the stories into Latin and English.
While she was at Earlham her ability for literacy didn’t go unnoticed. She was chosen to represent the school at the statewide oratory competition held at one of Indianapolis’s grandest structures, the English Hotel and Opera House. The people she competed against were not impressed. They held banners to explain why she was a humiliation to the competition. Many of the signs displayed rude words intending to hurt her. However, they did nothing but fan the flame of her desire to share her opinions. She delivered her speech and with it, she revealed to the public her profound rage at the prejudice towards natives. She also shared her deep commitment to her people’s safety. She spoke of the life natives had before Europeans arrived in America. She referred to the horror of American slavery. “She asked the wardens of religion and civilization why they attacked, instead of aided, Indian peoples, and whether more violence was all that would follow.”(-Tadeusz Lewandowski) People were awed by her speech. She had captured her audience like no other person had that day. However, a judge from the south, outraged by her audacity to say such things about the white people, prevented her from winning. It was the opinion of the Indianapolis News and others that she was the true winner of the oratory. Her speech was published in newspapers and shared across America although it was edited to the press’s liking. Similar to her previous oratory, people focused on how beautiful she was, how pleasing her voice was, and how much different she was from other savages, rather than her message.
Unfortunately, Zitkala-Sa wasn’t able to finish her college degree due to sickness. She had six weeks left before she graduated. In 1899 she began teaching a music class at Carlisle Industrial Training School in Pennsylvania, a school for native children. “It is this nature in our red brother that is better dead than alive, and when we agree with the oft-repeated sentiment that the only good Indian is a dead one, we mean this characteristic of the Indian. Carlisle’s mission is to kill this Indian as we build up the better man.”- (Carlisle’s school narrative). The school’s goal was to eradicate all empathy native children had for their culture by ridiculing it. Zitkala-Sa enjoyed teaching kids how to play piano and violin but she strongly believed that Carlisle was teaching Indian children the wrong thing, hence she began to write.
She started writing about her life as a Native American. She wrote about what it felt like to be stripped of her mother’s culture. “In this fashion, many have passed idly through the Indian school during the last decade, afterward to boast of their charity to the North American Indian. But few there are who have paused to question whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization.” In 1900 her work was published in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Monthly, and other English magazines.
Many people, including Carlisle, believed that Zitkala-Sa was ungrateful for not treasuring how the white people led her out of a life of poverty and pettiness to a world full of opportunities. Captain Richard Henry Pratt considered Zitkala-Sa’s stories “trash” and her as “worse than Pagan”. Pratt’s commentary was supposed to stop her from writing but Zitkala-Sa felt more convicted to continue. She was fired from her position as a teacher.
Zitkala-Sa went back home and continued gathering stories from her people. She interviewed the elders of her reservation for what would later become one of the articles for the Atlantic Monthly, “Old Indian Stories”.
She also started working with the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA is a government office whose mission is to promote economic opportunity and to improve the trust assets of Native American tribes in the USA. While working at the BIA she met Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin who she later married in 1902. Raymond was a native who had been working with the BIA since 1898. The couple moved to Uintah- Ouray Reservation in Utah where they lived and worked as teachers and participants of Indian Services for the next fourteen years. The Uintah- Ouray Reservation is one of the three largest Indian reservations inhabited by members of the Ute tribe. However, many of the native Utes lived in poverty because the U.S government pushed many of them to give up their lands to white settlers. “The BIA punished those who refused to adopt white lifestyles or send their children to school by withholding rations.” (- Tadeusz Lewandowski).
On May 28, 1903, she gave birth to her first and only child who she named Raymond Ohiya Bonnin. Soon after she sought work as a music teacher at the Uintah Boarding School of Whiterocks run by the government. However, the school was reluctant to accept her because of her published criticism of Native American schools in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1905, she was a substitute teacher. In 1906 the school hired her as a music teacher because they were out of teachers and needed new ones.
Many times Zitkala-Sa attended to the younger and older public by giving lectures on sanitation. She also taught children who wanted to learn music and formed a children’s band. “Zitkala-Sa’s stay in Uintah was a difficult trial.” Her family had a hard time keeping jobs and keeping their land because of the U.S government. The payment Zitkala-Sa received from the government wasn’t as much as other teachers received because she was native. Zitkala-Sa quit her job in 1909.
Zitkala-Sa and her family moved to Standing Rock Reservation in North and South Dakota. Here she became involved with the Benedictine Catholic Mission. Participating with the church changed Zitkala-Sa’s view of Christianity. She started to see that not all Christians were bad. She believed that the light of spirit that Christianity talked about wasn’t much different from what the natives believed. Therefore, she converted. After six months at Standing Rock, she went back to Utah. It was the Spring of 1910. To restore the spiritual light the Utes and whites had lost she sought to convert people she worked with to Catholicism. “The Utes show no interest in spiritual life. They are largely governed by superstitions. They are immoral. They waste all their time gambling. Some drink intoxicants. Even the school children, who should know better, after leaving school, are living lives of immorality.”(Quote from Zitkala-Sa). She prayed for the conversion of the Utes. She believed that they needed salvation and rescuing from the spiritual darkness plaguing them.
While in Utah they met William F. Hanson, an opera composer. Together he and Zitkala-Sa created an opera which they named “The Sun Dance Opera”. With this opera Zitkala- Sa wanted to show the power and spirituality of nature that white and native people had forgotten. She wanted to change what the white people thought as heathen and savage into western high art. The opera featured twenty-three musical numbers in three acts. Many people admired her work and her music. As the Opera became widely known people started practicing the dance to strengthen their spiritual light and power. Today this is what she is most remembered for. The music has outlived her articles and speeches.
In 1914 Zitkala-Sa joined the Society of American Indians (SAI), a group founded in 1911 with the purpose “to encourage Indian leadership, promote self-help, and foster the assimilation of Indians while encouraging them to exhibit pride in their race.” The society promoted traditional Native American culture while also lobbying for full American citizenship for Native Americans.
Zitkala-Sa continued to write. She advocated for things she felt needed to change. She wrote an article named “America, Home of the Red Man” in which she called for natives to be considered citizens of the United States. “America. Home of the Red Man, who has the preeminent right to the nation. But like his fellow Americans, the Red Man loves democracy and hates mutilated treaties.” She challenged her audience to regard the irony when white people call natives “foreigners” in the land where they were born.
Zitkala-Sa became increasingly vocal in her criticism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She and the rest of the SAI believed that the BIA did the exact opposite of what they were supposed to do. Wanting to work more actively for the rights of natives, Zitkala-Sa and her family moved to Washington, DC. From 1918 to 1919 Zitkala-SA edited the American Indian Magazine. “She lectured across the country promoting the preservation of Native American cultural and tribal identities.” -(https://www.nps.gov/people/zitkala-sa.htm) She also gave speeches on why natives should be American citizens. On June 2, 1924, the Federal Native Citizenship Act was passed. It granted US citizenship to all Native Americans. However, their ability to vote relied on the state’s voting laws. Some states prevented natives from voting until 1957.
After Congress granted citizenship to Native Americans, Zitkala-Sa continued her association with organizations that strived to improve the lives of the Natives. In 1926, Zitkala-Sa and her husband formed the National Council of American Indians (NCAI). Zitkala-Sa was president and her husband was the secretary. “The NCAI attempted to establish political power through voting blocs,” The couple held their positions as “president, fundraiser, and speaker” until they died.
Zitkala-Sa died peacefully of old age in Washington DC. on January 26, 1928. She is now remembered as a Native American woman who worked to improve education, healthcare, and legal recognition of Native Americans. She was a woman who devoted her life to promoting her culture and demonstrating to white people that natives weren’t savages. She opened American eyes to the injustice natives were living. She showed us that because someone is not Christian, white, doesn’t have guns, that doesn’t mean he or she is a savage.
A few months ago when people mentioned racism. I thought of African Americans as the only ones who had to go through that. I knew something about the injustice towards natives. Then I heard of ZItkala-Sa and her struggle to shield her culture from the spiritual darkness coming from her oppressors. Is it just because we weren’t white? Was it fear or hatred? Zitkala-Sa life’s story has taught me that small acts like a speech or a story can make a difference. She has taught us to not forget what makes us who we are today. She has taught us to fight for what is right and for what we love. Zitkala-Sa has shown us that the prejudice we hold against other races can change. Sometimes your attempts at resolution won’t be welcomed but we can all continue to try like she did.
– Zitkala-Sa, ed. Hannah Wilson, My Life, 2008, Dodo Press (Originally published separately as Impressions of an Indian Childhood, The School Days of an Indian Girl and Why I Am a Pagan, in January and February of 1900.).
– Zitkala -Sa, edited by P. Jane Hafen, Dreams and Thunder, June, 2005, University of Nebraska Press.
– Zitkala-Sa, American Indian Stories, 1921, Compass Circle (Originally published in 1921 but recently published by Compass Circle in 2019).
– Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird/Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), National Park Service https://www.nps.gov/people/zitkala-sa.htm, August 31, 2020.
– Wikipedia, American Indian Opera, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_opera, February 23, 2021.
– Tadeusz Lewandowski, Red Bird, Red Power, 2016, University of Oklahoma Press.