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"), [cite book| last = Buechel| first = Eugene| coauthors = Paul Manhart| title = Lakota Dictionary: Lakota-English/English-Lakota| origyear = 1970| edition = New Comprehensive Edition| year = 2002| publisher = University of Nebraska Press| location = Lincoln and London| isbn = 0-8032-1305-0| oclc = 49312425] was a Native American writer, editor, musician, teacher and political activist. She was born and raised on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakotaby her mother, Ellen Simmons, whose Yankton- Nakotaname was Taté Iyòhiwin (Every Wind or Reaches for the Wind). 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 Collegein Indiana and the New England Conservatory of Musicin Boston. Bonnin also co-composed the first American Indian grand opera, "The Sun Dance" (composed in romantic style based on Ute and Sioux themes), in 1913. She founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926, which she served as president until her death [cite book| title = Norton Anthology of American Literature| edition = 5th edition] .
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 of 1900 and later published in a collection called "American Indian Stories" in 1921. Her first book, " Old Indian Legends", is a collection of folktales that she gathered during her visits home to the Yankton Reservation. Much of the early scholarship on her life comes from "American Indian Stories" and, more recently, from Doreen Rappaport’s biography titled "The Flight of Red Bird".
Her life has recently received more attention after the so-called "
canon wars." This new influx of scholarship from ethnic groups who have been largely excluded from the traditional American literary canon has brought attention to writers who told a different side of the American story. Scholars like Dexter Fisher, Agnes Picotte, Kristin Herzog, Doreen Rappaport, P. Jane Hafen, and Dan Littlefield have been instrumental in re-popularizing Zitkala-Sa's work. She has been recognized by the naming of a Venusian crater "Bonnin" in her honor.
Zitkala-Sa had a most 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, is from 1900 to 1904, and it is mainly produced 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 is from 1916 to 1924, and this period is almost exclusively made up of political writings. In this period, she moved to Washington D.C. and published some of her most influential writings including: "American Indian Stories" and a pamphlet that she co-authored with
Charles H. Fabensof the American Indian Defense Associationand Matthew K. Sniffenof the Indian Rights Associationwhile she was working as a research agent for the Indian Welfare Committee and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, "Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery" (1923).
Her Atlantic Monthly articles appeared 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." The former on pages 37 to 47, while the latter was further back on pages 185 to 194. 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." There was one more articled credited to her, "A Warrior's Daughter," as well.
In 1902, she published another article in Atlantic Monthly called, "Why I Am a Pagan." It ran in issue 90 of the magazine and was only a few pages long. It was located near the very back on pages 801 to 803. It is about her beliefs and counters the trend at the time which commonly showed Indian writers conforming to traditional Christianity. She talks of her connection to the nature around her and of her cousin 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).
American Indian Stories
"American Indian Stories" offers an account of the hardships she and other Native Americans endured when they were removed from their reservation life and put into boarding schools that were designed to “civilize” the Indian children. The autobiographical writings describe 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 manual labor boarding schools for Native Americans. It was founded by
Richard Henry Prattwhose 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 contrasts the charm of her early life on the reservation with the “iron routine” that she found in the assimilative manual labor schools off the reservation. Zitkala-Sa spoke about her own account in her autobiography by saying: "“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”" (67-8).
Impressions of an Indian Childhood
As a child, Zitkala-Sa described herself as a free and innocent young girl. All of the older Yanktons treated her with love and respect. Even when she mistakenly "made coffee" on the ashes of a dead fire,for a visitor while her mother was away from their dwelling, she was not scolded or even given the notion that she had done anything wrong. When she was with her friends they were free to run after their shadows and the shadows of the clouds. In the evening, she listened to the stories of the elders while she gazed out into the open universe above her. She was surrounded with people she could trust, and she had no reason to mistrust the people of her Nation.
chool days of an Indian girl
When Gertrude Simmons was eight years old, "paleface"
Quakermissionaries who famously lured the Yankton children with stories of the "Red Apple Country" were visiting her reservation. Young eight-year-old Gertrude was strongly lured by the promises of apple orchards. Having never been deceived, she trusted them despite her mother’s warnings. The young child’s innocence led her to desire the apple orchards and to choose to be educated by the missionaries. Taté Iyòhiwin finally gave in. She knew that it would be a hard transition for her child from innocence to experience, but she also believed that her child would need the education when there were more Euro-Americans than Native Americans.
In "American Indian Stories" she said, "It was next to impossible to leave the iron routine after the civilizing machine had once begun its day’s buzzing; and as it was inbred in me to suffer in silence rather than to appeal to the ears of one whose open eyes could not see my pain, I have many times trudged in the day’s harness heavy-footed, like a dumb sick brute" (66). As one example of this disconnect, she described a scene in the chapter titled "The Cutting of My Long Hair." During the breakfast of her first day at the Quaker school, her friend Judewin told her that their hair was to be cut by the teachers that day. Zitkala-Sa wrote, "“when Judewin said, ‘we have to submit, because they are strong,’ I rebelled. ‘No, I will not submit’ I will struggle first!”" She then sneaked upstairs and found a place to hide under a bed so that they could not find her and “shingle” her hair. They found her. Zitkala-Sa wrote, "“I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair”" (55). In the Native American culture that she came from, cutting or shingling one’s hair was symbolic of shame and/or mourning.
Her bad experiences did not end there however. In one particular incident she was playing in the snow with her friends Judewin and Thowin. This was an activity forbidden by the school masters and they were spotted and brought inside. Judewin knew some English and told the other girls to say "no" to whatever the woman said. However, no was not the proper response to the question and wrong answer by Thowin resulted in a "hard spanking". Once Thowin finally gave the proper response she was let out of the room, the same fate being spared for Judewin and Kala-Sa. She states that during the first two or three years at the school misunderstandings such as that one were frequent.
Her bad experiences did not end there and her experience with the "devil" was also traumatizing for her. She was told about the devil by a woman at her school and that he roamed the world torturing little girls who disobeyed school regulations. This frightened her greatly and she dreamt about this devil that night. Her dream of the devil scared her, she dreamed she was back at home and the devil came after her, chasing her. As she ran from him she noticed her mother's indifference to what was happening until she fell and the devil outstretched his arms towards her. Then her mother picked her up and put her on her lap. The next morning she went to the room where the Bible was kept and scratched out the eyes of the devil.
In 1887, after three years of schooling at White’s Manual Labor Institute, Gertrude was allowed to return home to see her family. She stayed home for four years. During this time she felt increasingly alienated from her tribal heritage. In "American Indian Stories" she said, "“during this time I seemed to hang in the heart of chaos, beyond the touch or voice of human aid.”" She felt alienated within Euro-American culture due to her heritage, but she began to feel alienated within Native American culture due to her education. In 1891, after her "four strange summers", she returned to her education in the Euro-American culture. received her high school diploma and went on to college at
Earlham Collegein 1895.
While attending Earlham, she entered an oratorical contest at the college and won first place. Then, in 1896, she entered the Indiana State Oratorical Contest as the representative from her college. She won 2nd place in the statewide competition regardless of the overwhelming prejudice of the audience. People at this contest not only made racist comments to her, but some members of the audience also waved a flag ridiculing her and her college with the picture of a “forlorn” Indian and the word “squaw” on the flag. She felt a sense of victory and accomplishment in the face of a Euro-American audience when the flag was lowered at the announcement of her award. Her speech, “Side By Side”, was published in "The Earlhamite" in March 16, 1896.
An Indian teacher among Indians
Zitkala-Sa went to
Carlisle Indian Industrial Schoolin Carlisle, Pennsylvaniato teach in 1897. During her first summer at Carlisle, she was sent her to her birthplace at the Yankton Reservation to recruit students for the next school year saying, "“I am going to turn you loose to pasture!”" (85). After returning home, seeing her mother, and the encroaching settlement of Euro-Americans on the reservation, Zitkala-Sa decided that she should not continue teaching at Carlisle. When she stayed with her mother, at night, the nearby hills around Taté Iyòhiwin’s reservation home were peppered with the "“twinkling lights”" of the settlers. Her mother had become even more jaded against the Euro-American settlers as they encroached more and more upon the reservation. During her stay, Gertrude found out that her brother had lost his job on the reservation as a government clerk.
Performance of opera
The premiere performance of "The Sun Dance Opera" was presented in February 1913 at Orpheus Hall in Vernal, a town in northeastern Utah. The production featured members of the Ute Nation living on the nearby
Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation.
Writings by Zitkala-Sa
*"Old Indian Legends". Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985
*"American Indian Stories". Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
*Zitkala-Ša, Fabens, Charles H. and Matthew K. Sniffen. "Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery". Philadelphia: Office of the Indian Rights Association, 1924.
*Zitkala-Sa. "Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera. Edited by P. Jane Hafen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. ISBN 0803249187.
For a more comprehensive listing of all her writings see the American Native Press Archives maintained by the
Sequoyah Research Centerat the University of Arkansas at Little Rock accessed at [http://anpa.ualr.edu/] .
*Hanson, William F., and Zitkala-Sa. "The Sun Dance opera" (romantic Indian opera, 1938-1962?). Photocopy of the original piano-vocal score, from microfilm (227 pp.). Held in the library of
Brigham Young Universityin Provo, Utah.
*Fear-Segal, Jacqueline (1999). "Nineteenth-Century Indian Education: Universalism Versus Evolutionism." "Journal of American Studies" vol. 33, no. 2 (August 1999), pp. 323-341.
*Fisher, Dexter (1979). "Zitkala Sa: The Evolution of a Writer." "American Indian Quarterly", vol. 5, no. 3 (August 1979), pp. 229-238
*Hafen, P. Jane (1997). "Zitkala Sa: Sentimentality and Sovereignty." "Wicazo Sa Review", vol. 12, no. 2 (Autumn 1997), pp. 31-41.
*Hafen, P. Jane (2001). "Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera". By Zitkala-Sa. Ed. P. Jane Hafen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
*Henderson, Melissa Renee and Lauren Curtwright (1997). "Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa)". Washington State University. Online. Internet. Posted: 12-4-97. Updated: 8-19-04. http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/bonnin_gertrude_simmons_zitkalasa.html.
*Peyer, Bernd C. (1997) "The Tutored Mind: Indian Missionary-Writers in Antebellum America". Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
*Rappaport, Doreen (1997). "The Flight of Red Bird: The Life of Zitkala-Sa". New York: Puffin.
*Smith, Catherine Parsons (2001). "An Operatic Skeleton on the Western Frontier: Zitkala-Sa, William F. Hanson, and the Sun Dance Opera." "Women & Music", January 2001.
*Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin). "Why I Am a Pagan" The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings. Ed. Glynis Carr. Online. Internet. Posted: Winter 1999. http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cUSWW/ZS/WIAP.html.
* [http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/bonnin_gertrude_simmons_zitkala-sa.html Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) from Voices in the Gaps]
* [http://essays.quotidiana.org/zitkala-sa/ Essays by Zitkala-Sa at Quotidiana.org]
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