Zitkala- Sa: what a woman. She was a member of the Sioux tribe in South Dakota, and throughout the course of her life, she made a number of incredible contributions to both her own culture and heritage, and that of the literary world. Zitkala-Sa, also known by the name, Gertrude Simmons Bonin, was a writer, musician, editor, teacher, and political activist. She took the struggles that she faced in her childhood and turned them into multiple pieces of writing. Her works allowed for the rest of the world to look through a window and see not only the hardships she had to face, but the hardships that so many others in her situation have had to go through in regard to preserving a culture that is being swallowed by a more dominant one. Let’s take a closer look at her life.
On February 22nd, 1876, Zitkala-Sa was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her mother, Ellen Simmons, was a member of the Yankton Sioux tribe while her father was a German-American by the name of Felker. He abandoned the family very early on. For the first eight years of her life, Zitkala-Sa enjoyed life on the reservation. However, in 1884, missionaries came to the Yankton reservation and recruited her along with several other young children; taking them to White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute. This was a Quaker school that taught speaking, reading, and writing in English located in Wabash, Indiana.
She attended the school for three years before returning to the reservation in 1887. Zitkala- Sa later wrote about this experience in The School Days of an Indian Girl. When she returned to the reservation, she described feeling as if she no longer belonged to the Yankton traditions and thought that many of her people had already begun to conform to the dominant white culture. At age fifteen, Zitkala-Sa decided to head back to White’s Labor Institute. She excelled in school, even teaching music after the instructor retired. In June of 1885, she earned her diploma and gave a powerful speech on women’s inequality. Her education later continued at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. Here she gathered Native American legends and translated them from Latin to English for children to read. Unfortunately, due to ill health and financial problems, she had to leave the college six weeks before graduation in 1897. She bounced back pretty quickly because from 1897-1899, she continued her studies and played violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
Zitkala-Sa later got a job as a teacher at Carlisle School under the founder, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt. He sent her back to her Yankton Sioux reservation to recruit children. Upon her return, she found it run down and taken over by white settlers. Zitkala-Sa did not agree with Colonel Pratt and his methods of instruction. The curriculum at Carlisle was ridged and forced the agenda of the dominant white culture with many limitations. In 1901, she was dismissed from instruction and returned home to care for her mother.
In 1902, Zitkala-Sa met and married Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin. The couple moved to the Unitah-Ouray Reservation where they had their only child Raymond Ohiya Bonnin.
Zitkala-Sa’s literary career consisted of two different periods. The first period took place from 1900-1904. During this time, she published legends collected from Native American culture as well as wrote autobiographical narratives. She had writing that did not get published but was later collected and published by other authors. For example, the libretto of Sun Dance Opera was published as Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and the Sun Dance Opera by P. Jane Hafen. She had many articles published in Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly from 1900-1902.
Her second period took place from 1916-1924. During this time, she concentrated on writing and publishing political works; inspired by her and her husband’s recent move to Washington D.C. Here, she became politically active. Zitkala-Sa published American Indian Stories and co-authored Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery, an influential pamphlet. In addition to her writing, she created the Indian Welfare Committee of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. She worked as a researcher for this through much of the 1920’s. Her activism was influential in creating many changes to the education, health care, and legal standing of Native American people and stressing the importance of preserving Indian culture.
On January 26th, 1938, Zitkala-Sa died in Washington D.C. at the age of sixty-one. She is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery under the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. She left behind a massive legacy and is known to be one of the most influential Native American writers and activists of the twentieth century.