“The American Indian must have a voice. Let us teach our children to be proud of their Indian blood. Let us stand up straight and continue claiming our human rights.”– Zitkála-Šá
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin was born in 1876 on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota, to the Ihanktonwan Nation (also known as the Yankton Sioux Tribe). She later renamed herself Zitkála-Šá, which means “red bird” in the Lakota language. At the age of eight in 1884, like tens of thousands of other American Indian children, she left the reservation to attend a boarding school run by missionaries, White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute, in Wabash Indiana. Zitkála-Šá went on to attend Earlham College, and made a name for herself as a powerful speaker by winning a second place prize at the 1896 Indiana State Oratorical Contest for a speech criticizing slavery.
In 1897, Zitkála-Šá became a teacher at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, one of the first federally-funded boarding schools for American Indian youth, founded by military officer Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt’s philosophy is encapsulated by his phrase, “kill the Indian, and save the man.” He advocated for total assimilation as the only way to “civilize” indigenous Americans and make them Christians. As a result, traditional hairstyles, dress, languages, and religions were all banned at the Carlisle school and most other American Indian boarding schools.
After deciding that Pratt’s strict assimilationist approach had a deeply negative effect on Indian children, Zitkála-Šá left her teaching job at Carlisle. She moved to Boston to study violin with a professor associated with the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1900, she was invited to perform at the White House in Washington, D.C., for President William McKinley alongside the Carlisle School band. That same year, she published several exposés about the trauma of the boarding school experience in the Atlantic Monthly. The pieces drew criticism from Pratt as attacking the very system which educated her to become an author. Undeterred, Zitkála-Šá continued writing and in 1901, she published a book of short stories based on the Sioux oral tradition called Old Indian Legends.
In 1902, Zitkála-Šá married Raymond Bonnin, another boarding school survivor from her tribe. After their marriage, the couple relocated from the Yankton Sioux Reservation to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah where they lived for 15 years among the Ute Nation, raising their son and working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was there, in 1913, that Zitkála-Šá wrote the first American Indian Opera, in collaboration with the white composer William Hanson. “The Sun Dance Opera” was inspired by a sacred ceremony of spiritual healing practiced by many tribes across the Great Plains, which at the time was outlawed by the U.S. government. The opera was staged 15 times across Utah by a mixed Native and non-native cast. The major roles were performed by trained white singers in redface, some critics suggest the opera presented stereotypical depictions of American Indians.
As she became more involved with activism and witnessed first-hand the quality of life on Indian reservations decline, Zitkála-Šá moved to Washington, D.C., in 1917 to dedicate the rest of her life to political activities. She served as the secretary of the Society of American Indians, edited its journal, and served as a lobbyist in Congress. Zitkála-Šá’s work was influential to the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted U.S. citizenship to American Indians. In 1926, Zitkála-Šá and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians to continue advocating for American Indians’ rights and representation. She served as its president until her death on January 26, 1938. Because of her husband’s military service in World War I, she was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Featured in the Film
P. Jane Hafen
Dr. P. Jane Hafen (Taos Pueblo) is a Professor Emerita of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She edited Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems and The Sun Dance Opera by Zitkala-Ša, and “Help Indians Help Themselves”: The Later Writings of Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša). She co-edited The Great Plains Reader, is author of Reading Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, and articles and book chapters about American Indian Literatures. She edited two collections of essays, Critical Insights: Louise Erdrich, and Essays on American Indian and Mormon History (co-edited with Brenden Rensink).
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard
LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Ta Mak’a Wast’e Win (Good Earth Woman), is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Allard was the first to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline with the Sacred Stone Camp, playing a major role in calling on indigenous nations and the world to stand with Standing Rock. A tribal historian, she has compiled the history of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She is an annual speaker at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, was on the Executive Board of The American Indian Alaskan Native Tourism Association, and was a Tribal Advisor for Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Events. She partnered with Sitting Bull College to develop the National Native American Scenic Byway, worked with the Alliance of Tribal Tourism as the past and current vice-president and marketing manager, and was President of North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance.
Meg Singer is a native of Salt Lake City, UT, and a member of the Navajo Nation. She produced performances of Zitkálá-Ša’s “The Sun Dance Opera” in Utah from 2013 to 2015. Singing is a family tradition for the Singers, and both Meg’s sister and her brother performed in the opera. After graduating from Westminster College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature, Singer moved to Polson, MT, to work as a student advisor for Salish Kootenai College. Her passion for indigenous justice and the rights of Native American and Alaskan Native people took her to Bozeman, MT, to earn her Master of Arts degree in Native American Studies. Singer is the former Indigenous Program Manager at the ACLU of Montana.
February 22, 1876
Zitkála-Šá (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) was born
Zitkála-Šá attended White’s Manual Labor Institute
Zitkála-Šá taught at the Carlisle Indian School
Zitkála-Šá performed at the White House
Zitkála-Šá published Old Indian Legends
Zitkála-Šá wrote The Sun Dance Opera
American Indian Stories published
Zitkála-Šá founded the National Council of American Indians
Revival of The Sun Dance Opera
IN HISTORY - 1975
The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act