Contributed by Joanne Baptiste
Zitkala-Sa, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was a musician, writer and activist who fought for Native Americans’ rights during the early years of the 20th century. At the age of eight, she was taken to a Quaker missionary school in Wabash, Indiana called the White’s Manual Labor Institute. It was there she was assigned the name, Gertrude Simmons, forced to cut her hair and pray as a Christian. She also learned to play the violin and piano, ultimately becoming a music teacher at the Institute. At age 19, against her parents’ wishes, she enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana where she began collecting Native American stories and translating them into Latin and English. After studying violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, she became a music teacher at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a boarding school for Native American children. She published short stories and essays in “The Atlantic” and “Harper’s” that portrayed Indigenous people without the racist stereotypes promoted by white American society. Her writings were very critical of the boarding school system. In 1901, she published an anthology of retold Dakota stories called The Old Indian Legends to preserve the traditional stories of her people.
In 1916 she became the secretary of the Society of American Indians which advocated for citizenship for Native people. She was vocal in her criticism of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ assimilationist policies and practice. She reported the abuse of children when they refused to pray as Christians. Her husband, who worked for the BIA, was fired that year. They moved to Washington, DC and she continued to work for the Society of American Indians, as editor of their journal. She traveled extensively and lectured about Indigenous citizenship and suffrage. Zitkala-Sa believed that Native Americans should be American citizens and should have the right to vote and be represented in government since they were the “original occupants of the land”. Although the federal Indian Citizenship Act granted US citizenship rights to all Native American’s in 1924, it didn’t guarantee the right to vote, that was left to the states. In 1926, she and her husband created the National Council of American Indians which supported universal suffrage. She continued to work for the Indigenous communities, influencing the Federal government to investigate exploitation of Native people and leading to the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. She died on January 26, 1928 and is buried with her husband at Arlington National Cemetery.
“Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, www.nps.gov/people/zitkala-sa.htm.