Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin)
Full name: Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin)
Real name: Gertrude Simmons Bonnin
Years: 1876 / 1938
In her writings as well as her work as an Indian rights activist, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, or Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird), is a vital link between the oral culture of tribal America in conflict with its colonizers and the literate culture of contemporary American Indians. A Yankton, born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, she was the third child of Ellen Tate 'Iyohiwin Simmons, a full-blood Sioux. Little is known of her father, a white man. Her mother brought up the children in traditional ways. At the age of eight, Zitkala-Sa left the reservation to attend a Quaker missionary school in Wabash, Indiana. She returned to the reservation but was culturally unhinged, "neither a wild Indian nor a tame one," as she described herself later in "The Schooldays of an Indian Girl." After four unhappy years she returned to her school, graduated, and at age 19 enrolled—against her mother's wish—at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. She later taught at Carlisle Indian School for about two years. Having become an accomplished violinist, she also studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music.
Meanwhile, the estrangement from her mother and the old ways of the reservation had grown, as had her indignation over the treatment of American Indians by the state, church, and population at large. Around 1900 she began to express her feelings publicly in writing. In articles in the Atlantic Monthly and other journals she struggled with the issues of cultural dislocation and injustice that brought suffering to her people. But her authorial voice was not merely critical. She was earnestly committed to being a bridge builder between cultures, for example, by writing Old Indian Legends, published in 1901. "I have tried," she says in the introduction to that work, "to transplant the native spirit of these tales—root and all—into the English language, since America in the last few centuries has acquired a second tongue."
In the following decades, Zitkala-Sa's writing efforts were increasingly part of, and finally supplanted by, her work as an Indian rights activist. She had accepted a clerkship at the Standing Rock Reservation, where she met and married Raymond T. Bonnin, another Sioux employee of the Indian service. The Bonnins then transferred to a reservation in Utah where they became affiliated with the Society of American Indians. Zitkala-Sa was elected secretary of the Society in 1916, and the Bonnins moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked with the Society and edited the American Indian Magazine. In 1926 she founded the National Council of American Indians and continued to pursue reforms through public speaking and lobbying efforts. She was instrumental in the passage of the Indian Citizenship Bill and secured powerful outside interests in Indian reform. Zitkala-Sa died in Washington, D.C., in 1938 and was buried in Arlington Cemetery.
Although her output was limited, her artistic accomplishment cannot be denied. In addition to her earlier works, in 1913 she collaborated with William P. Hanson in producing an Indian opera, "Sundance." In 1921 her collection of American Indian Stories was published, combining her previously printed work with some new essays and merging autobiography and fiction in a unique way. In her writings, Zitkala-Sa anticipated some aspects of the work of present-day American Indian fiction writers like N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Silko and contemporary advocates of the Indian cause like Vine Deloria, Jr. As her collection of Old Indian Legends proves, she realized that political rights would be fruitless unless they were rooted in a recovery of cultural identity through a revitalization of the oral tradition.
Zitkala-Sa's autobiographical work makes her perhaps the first American Indian woman to write her own story without the aid of an editor, interpreter, or ethnographer. Her essay, "Why I am a Pagan," merits special attention because at the time it was published it was popular for American Indians to describe their conversions to Christianity.
A vital link between the oral cultures of tribal America and the literate culture of contemporary American Indians, Gertrude Bonnin was the third child of Ellen Tate 'I yohiwin Simmons, a full-blood Yankton Sioux. Born in 1876 on a Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and known as Zitkala-Sa, which means Red Bird, she was raised in a tipi on the Missouri River until she was 12 when she went to a Quaker missionary school for Indians--White's Manual Institute--in Wabash, Indiana. Though her mother was reluctant to let her go to the boarding school she herself had attended when young, she wanted to ensure her daughter's ability to fend for herself later in life among an increasing number of palefaces.
As with many uprooted children, Zitkala-Sa returned after three years to a heightened tension with her mother and ambivalence regarding her heritage. The assimilationist schooling left her "neither a wild Indian, nor a tame one," as she later described herself in "The School Days of an Indian Girl" (1900).
Four years later, Zitkala-Sa re-entered school, graduated on to Earlham College to become a teacher, remaining socially reclusive even after congratulatory gestures by schoolmates when she won oratory contests. As a student at the Boston Conservatory she went to Paris in 1900 with Carlisle Indian Industrial School (CIIS) as violin soloist for the Paris Exposition. Increasingly, she devoted herself to her people's cause and to overcoming her own cultural alienation through her fiction, as expressed in her 1901 collection Old Indian Legends: "I have tried to transplant the native spirit of these tales--root and all--into the English language, since America in the last few centuries has acquired a new tongue." She realized the need to ground political rights in a recovered cultural identity by revitalizing oral traditions, evident in the publication of several stories for which CIIS art teacher and Winnabago, Angel DeCora, drew illustrations.
Later, Zitkala-Sa taught at CIIS in Pennsylvania, founded by Colonel Richard Pratt in 1879 to "save" Indians from white abuse and destruction by assimilating them and teaching them a trade. In her autobiographical essays in The Atlantic Monthly and Indian legends in Harper's, Zitkala-Sa began publicly to express her estrangement from both cultures and her indignation over the treatment of her people by state and church. She articulated her struggle with cultural dislocation and injustice and thereby became an earnest bridge builder between cultures, using language as a tool to forge an identity encompassing both cultures.
Zitkala-Sa's activist commitment to these goals became full-time when she began to serve as clerk at Standing Rock Reservation where she married Sioux Ray Bonnin. After she and her husband moved to the Ute Reservation in Utah, they served in varied capacities for fourteen years. Causes for which she fought included government reform, law codification, Bureau of Indian Affairs' employment of Indians, Court of Claims' redress of land settlements, and the preservation of the actual history of her people. She later advocated assimilation, citizenship, and abolishing the BIA as well as common properties.
When she was elected secretary of the Society for American Indians--the first exclusively Indian-managed organization which facilitated her lifelong work as a spokeswoman and reformer--she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C. (1916). As secretary and as editor of its publication, American Indian Magazine, she aired such controversial issues as enfranchisement, Indian military service in World War I, corruption in the BIA, and allotment of tribal lands. She lectured on these and related topics throughout the country. Her central role both as an activist and writer surfaces in 1921, when she published her American Indian Stories collection, which uniquely combines autobiography and fiction and represents an attempt to merge cultural critique with aesthetic form, especially surrounding such fundamental matters as religion. In the tradition of sentimental, autobiographical fiction, this work addresses keen issues for American Indians' dilemmas with assimilation. In Parts IV and V of "School Days," for example, she vividly describes a little girl's nightmares of paleface devils and delineates her bitterness when her classmate died with an open Bible on her bed. In this groundbreaking scene, she inverts the allegation of Indian religion as superstition by labelling Christianity thus.
Bonnin was equally bold in her political or didactic writing, entitling an essay "Why I Am a Pagan" during a time (1902) when it was popular for American Indians to humbly describe their conversions to Christianity. This essay posits a daring viewpoint, in spite of its sentimentality and self-consciously poetic language. Rather than satirizing a white preacher, she depicts a tragically duped kinsman. While the faith she expresses herein resembles the romantic white pantheism also popular in her day, her courage in insisting upon Indians' rights to their own spiritual traditions can't be denied. Her popularization of Indian spirituality in a modified version of this, "The Great Spirit" in American Indian Stories, demonstrates her rhetorical savvy in embedding palatably her critique of oppressive hierarchy. She evokes this theme again in "Sun Dance Opera," which she composed later in life. Here and elsewhere, she illustrates that the question of cultural and spiritual identity goes deeper than notions of civil rights.
Zitkala-Sa's insistence on the dignity of Indian religion and exposure of Christian hypocrisy manifests itself in her activist life, as well. While she and her husband denounced the Peyote religion due to their first-hand observation of peyote's destructive--often deadly--effects, they asserted the superiority of Indian spirituality over the disregard for nature, disrespect of other cultures, and depredation of people which accompanied alleged Christian practices such as stripping children from their language, culture, religion, family, and environment, the blatant injustice and trauma of which the reader poignantly feels in her fiction during the hair-cutting scene and in the mother's desperate cry to her departed warrior brothers.
Zitkala-Sa was a controversial activist, as illustrated by her political record. Her tireless advocacy of improved education, health care, resource conservation, and cultural preservation led President Hoover to appoint two Indian Rights Association representatives to the BIA. Kaw Indian Congressman Charles Curtis then introduced the Indian Citizenship Bill; after its passage in 1924, he became U.S. Vice President. Zitkala-Sa meanwhile canvassed away the fear of and skepticism toward the vote and tried to persuade her people to use their right of suffrage to vote in Roosevelt. In 1930, she formed the National Council of American Indians and served as president until her death in 1938. A relentless lobbyist, she secured the General Federation of Women's Clubs' support which, along with the Indian Rights Association and the Indian Welfare Committee, investigated government tribal treatment and abuse.
This indefatigable activist died at 61 and was buried in Arlington Cemetary (due to her husband's service in World War I). Her legacy embodies the ongoing consideration of whether the dynamic coupling of literary art which celebrates vitality and protest that decries oppression is necessary, if not inevitable.
Not only, then, was Zitkala-Sa the first American Indian woman to write her story without aid of an editor, interpreter, or ethnographer, but she was a devoted social reformer unafraid of assuming unpopular positions. Her writing and activism were informed by social criticism and rebellion, conflicts between tradition and acculturation, between literature and politics, between American Indian spirituality and Christian religion, and other dilemmas, such as mother-daughter conflict and gendered family role expectations. With these themes and others, she tapped the potential of merging literary art and protest and thereby paved the way for contemporary activist and experimental writers to do the same.