An American Indian Writer Extraordinaire
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (February 22, 1876 - January 26, 1938), better known by her pen name, Zitkala-Sa (Lakota: pronounced zitkála-ša, which translates to Red Bird), was a Native American writer, editor, musician, teacher and political activist. She published in national magazines. With William F. Hanson, Bonnin co-composed the first American Indian opera, The Sun Dance (composed in romantic style based on Ute and Sioux themes), which premiered in 1913. She founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926, which she served as president until her death.
Bonnin/Zitkala-Sa was born and raised on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota by her mother, Ellen Simmons, whose Yankton-Nakota name was Taté Iyòhiwin (Every Wind or Reaches for the Wind). Her father was a white man named Felker, about whom little was known. Zitkala-Sa lived a traditional lifestyle until the age of eight when she left her reservation to attend Whites Manual Labor Institute, a Quaker mission school in Wabash, Indiana. She went on to study for a time at Earlham College in Indiana and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
After working as a teacher at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, she moved to Boston and began publishing short stories and autobiographical vignettes. Her autobiographical writings were serialized in Atlantic Monthly from January to March 1900 and later published in a collection called American Indian Stories in 1921. Her first book, Old Indian Legends, is a collection of folktales which she gathered during visits home to the Yankton Reservation. Much of the early scholarship on her life is based on the American Indian Stories and, more recently, Doreen Rappaport’s biography The Flight of Red Bird.
In 1902 during a period when Zitkala-Sa had returned to her reservation, she met and married Captain Raymond Bonnin, who was also mixed-race Nakota. An Army captain, he worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). They had one son whom she named Ohiya.
Bonnin's BIA assignment to Utah led to Zitkala-Sa's meeting composer William F. Hanson, who taught at Brigham Young University. Together in 1910 they started their collaboration on the music for The Sun Dance, an opera for which Zitkala-Sa wrote the libretto and songs. The opera was produced in Utah in 1913.
Zitkala-Sa had a fruitful writing career, throughout her life, that can be seen as chronologically separated into two publishing periods. The first period, which began at the turn of the century, was from 1900 to 1904. She wrote mainly legends and autobiographical narratives. She continued to write during the following years, but she did not publish. These unpublished writings, along with others including the libretto of the Sun Dance Opera, have been collected and published in Dreams and Thunder by P. Jane Hafen.
The second period was from 1916 to 1924; this period was almost exclusively made up of political writings. In this period, Zitkala-Sa moved to Washington, D.C. and published some of her most influential writings, including: American Indian Stories. She co-authored Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery (1923), an influential pamphlet, with Charles H. Fabens of the American Indian Defense Association and Matthew K. Sniffen of the Indian Rights Association. She was then working as a research agent for the Indian Welfare Committee and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Her Atlantic Monthly articles were published from 1900 to 1902. They included, "An Indian Teacher Among Indians" published in Volume 85 in 1900. Included in the same issue were "Impressions of an Indian Childhood" and "School Days of an Indian Girl." They are discussed in more detail below.
Zitkala-Sa's other articles ran in Harper's Monthly. Two appeared in the October 1901 issue, Volume 103. They were titled, "Soft Hearted Sioux" and "The Trial Path." She also wrote "A Warrior's Daughter".
In 1902, she published another article in Atlantic Monthly called, "Why I Am a Pagan." It is about her beliefs and counters the trend of showing Indian writers conforming to traditional Christianity. She talks of her connection to the nature around her and of her cousin's coming to talk with her, to implore her to avoid the pit fires of hell. She comments on the interwoveness of all mankind, regardless of who they are or what race they show. There is even mention of her mother's choice of "superstition". (Zitkala-Sa, 1902).
Her work and life received more attention since the so-called "canon wars." New scholarship by and about ethnic groups who had been largely excluded from the traditional American literary canon has brought attention to writers telling different American stories. Scholars such as Dexter Fisher, Agnes Picotte, Kristin Herzog, Doreen Rappaport, P. Jane Hafen, and Dan Littlefield have been instrumental in reviving interest in Zitkala-Sa's work. She has been recognized by the naming of a Venusian crater "Bonnin" in her honor.
American Indian Stories offered an account of the hardships which she and other Native Americans encountered when they were sent to boarding schools designed to “civilize” the Indian children. The autobiographical writings described her early life on the Yankton Reservation, her years as a student at boarding schools, and the time she spent teaching at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first and most well-known of boarding schools for Native Americans. It was founded by Richard Henry Pratt, whose famous slogan offers the philosophy of the manual labor educational program in a nutshell: “Kill the Indian and save the man!” (Peyer 284).
Her autobiography contrasted the charm of her early life on the reservation with the “iron routine” which she found in the assimilation schools off the reservation. Zitkala-Sa wrote: “Perhaps my Indian nature is the moaning wind which stirs them [schoolteachers] now for their present record. But, however tempestuous this is within me, it comes out as the low voice of a curiously colored seashell, which is only for those ears that are bent with compassion to hear it."