Historical Figures

Zitkala-Ša, Native American writer and activist

Zitkala-Ša (1876–1938), also known as the missionaries gave her, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was a Sioux writer, editor, musician, and activist. In her books, she described the difficulty of being Native American in American society. She also wrote the first Native American opera and created the National Council of American Indians , militant association for civil rights.

Red bird

Zitkala-Ša, whose name means "Red Bird", was born on February 22, 1876 in a reserve in the South Dakota. Her father, an American of European descent, abandoned the family when Zitkala-Ša was very young, and she was raised by her mother, Ellen Simmons, whose Native American name is Taté Iyòhiwin. When she was eight, missionaries took several children from the reservation to the White’s Manual Labor Institute , a school run by Quakers. She stayed there for three years and saw this brutal break with her culture and her roots as a deep pain, especially when she was forced to adopt the Quaker religion or when her long hair was cut. She enjoys, however, learning to read, write, and play the violin.

In 1887, Zitkala-Ša returned to the reserve to live with her mother, but she no longer found her place there. While she missed the Sioux traditions, she can no longer entirely conform to them, and considers that many on the reservation conform to the dominant white culture. Four years later, at fifteen, she chose to return to White’s Manual Labor Institute , and learned the piano and the violin. Later, she began to teach music there herself and graduated in 1895. She then left to study at Earlham College , a Quaker-run art school in Indiana. During this period, she began to collect and translate Native American legends. Forced to leave school before graduating for health reasons, Zitkala-Ša played the violin for a while at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

Struggling against cultural assimilation

In 1899, Zitkala-Ša obtained a position as music teacher at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School , Pennsylvania. She also leads debates on the treatment of Native Americans in the United States. In 1900, she played the violin at the Universal Exhibition in Paris with the school orchestra. The same year, she began to write, for various newspapers, articles on the life of the Amerindians. However, she ended up coming into conflict with the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School , blaming him for the establishment's policy of cultural assimilation and the imposed dominance of white culture. In 1901, following an article on the loss of identity felt by a young Native American at school, she was fired. Her concern for her mother and brother, living in poverty on the reservation, pushes her to return to live with them.

The Sun Dance

Zitkala-Ša then embarked on a project to collect Native American stories, commissioned by the publishing house Ginn and Company , and finds a job at the Indian Affairs office on another reservation in South Dakota. There she met Raymond Bonnin, a Métis who became her husband the following year. Raymond was quickly transferred to another reservation, in Utah, where the couple settled with the Utes for fourteen years. They have a son, Raymond Ohiya Bonnin. It was during this period that she met the composer William F. Hanson, with whom she worked on the music for the opera The Sun Dance , for which she wrote the libretto and the songs. The opera will be presented for the first time in 1913, interpreted by the Utes of the reserve; first opera written by a Native American, it received an excellent reception.

American Indian Magazine

In 1916, Zitkala-Ša and her husband moved to Washington. She then began to work on much more political writings, on the treatment of Native Americans but also on her own experience and her youthful struggles between her culture and the dominant white culture that was imposed on her. His writings, between literature and political essays, are very marked by this tension between tradition and assimilation.

From 1918 to 1919, Zitkala-Ša edited and contributed to the American Indian Magazine , the journal of the Society of American Indians of which she is a member and which campaigns for citizenship and civil rights for Native Americans. In this context, she frequently interacted with the Indian Affairs Bureau, but became increasingly critical of the corruption that reigns there and certain practices, such as the prohibition of the use of native languages.

In 1923, she co-wrote with Charles H. Fabens Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians:An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes-Legalized Robbery , article denouncing the fraudulent practices and even the crimes of several organizations seeking to monopolize the lands of Native American tribes in Oklahoma. This text has a strong impact; he contributed to the passage before the American Congress of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. This text restores to the Native American tribes all of their rights to the lands concerned.

The National Council of American Indians

In 1926, Zitkala-Ša and her husband created the National Council of American Indians , dedicated to the idea of ​​uniting all Native American tribes in the United States to achieve full citizenship, including the right to vote. The association also campaigns for better access to healthcare and education. Zitkala-Ša would preside over the association until his death, managing its organization, raising funds and speaking regularly on Native American rights. She is also active in the fight for women's rights.

Zitkala-Ša died on January 26, 1938 in Washington, at the age of 61. She is buried as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.