“American Indians and Alaska Natives enrich every aspect of our country. As the first to live on this land, Native Americans and their traditions and values inspired — and continue to inspire — the ideals of self-governance and determination that are the framework of our Nation.” – President Barack Obama
The contribution of Native Americans to cultures throughout the world is so vast it is nearly incalculable. From food crops to natural medicines to mathematics and politics, their discoveries and ideas have helped to shape the very course of history and the character of the modern world. Among the crops first domesticated by Native Americans are corn, potatoes, peanuts, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, avocados, pineapples, chocolate, and many other foods that have become staples in diets throughout the world. In addition, Native Americans were the first to cultivate cotton and to use honeybees for food. First Nations also discovered numerous medicines (including aspirin), developed an influential confederate style of government, and are now believed to be the first to use “zero” as a concept in mathematics.
Since the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, however, the Native American experience has largely been a negative one. Over the last four centuries, Native tribes have lost their land, their resources, and their culture – and have been subjected to devastating levels of violence, exploitation, and discrimination. For many, it has become all but impossible to maintain traditional ways of life. And yet, in spite of their heavy losses, some tribes have managed to hold on and endure, keeping their culture and traditions alive and relevant. And some Native American leaders have stepped forward to fight for justice and shine a light through the darkness. One such leader is Zitkala Sa.
Zitkala Sa (meaning Red Bird), a woman of Sioux and European descent, was a writer and activist who chronicled her struggles with self-identity as a young girl and wrote about the difficulties of walking a fine line between two cultures. She was one of the first Native Americans to bring traditional native stories to a wider European audience. She was also an accomplished musician, a teacher, and a political and civil rights advocate. Throughout her life, Zitkala Sa fought against the wave of prejudice and ignorance that her people were subjected to in order to express herself creatively and politically, and share with the world the treasures of Native American traditions.
This is her story.
A CONFLICTED CHILDHOOD
Zitkala Sa was born on February 22nd in 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He mother was a full-blooded Sioux named Reaches for the Wind (given the name Ellen Simmons by her husband), and her father was Felker Simmons, a white European-American. Little is known about him, except that he abandoned them when Sa was a young girl. Although Sa was given the name Gertrude Simmons at birth, she later adopted the Sioux name she has come to be known by as a way of asserting her independence and reclaiming her heritage.
Sa lived on the reservation until she was eight, describing those days as ones of freedom and happiness, safe in the care of her tribe. In 1884, however, missionaries removed several children from the reservation, including Sa, to be taken to White’s Manual Labor Institute for education, where she was expected to learn just enough to become a successful housemaid. Sa had mixed feelings about the three years she spent at the institute, feeling sad at having her Sioux heritage stripped from her and being forced to participate in Quaker prayers. At the same time, however, she was joyful about learning to read and write – which opened up a whole new world for her. As part of her education, Sa also learned how to play the violin – an instrument that brought her great joy. Although Sa eventually returned to the Sioux reservation, she felt that she didn’t fully belong to them anymore, that she was caught between two different worlds. This, as well as a yearning for more knowledge, eventually sent her back to the Institute to continue her education.
EDUCATION AND MUSIC
Back at the institute, Sa learned how to play piano, and when the music teacher resigned, she took over his position, determined not to settle for the drudgery of being a house servant. In 1895 she received her diploma, and later gave a speech on women’s equality, which won praise from a local newspaper. Though her mother wanted her to return to the reservation, Sa’s impressive academic performance had earned her a scholarship and, at the age of 19, she continued her education at Earlham College in Indiana.
Around 1896, Sa began collecting and translating Native American legends for children to read. In addition to this, from 1897 to 1899 she played violin with the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In 1899, she took a position at the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania – to teach music. However, she was never comfortable with the school’s rigid and conformist protocol, or the fact that it favored European culture, and this ultimately put her in conflict with its founder, Richard Henry Pratt.
Nevertheless, Sa’s accomplishments were so impressive, that Pratt sent her back to the Sioux reservation to assemble more Native American students. Although she didn’t realize it at the time, the trip would mark a turning point in her life. Upon her arrival at the Sioux reservation, Sa was saddened to see how much poverty had taken hold of the community, and how her mother’s own home had fallen into disrepair. It was not the thriving community she remembered. Sa was especially disturbed to find that white settlers were beginning to occupy the territory – even though the land was promised solely to the Sioux by federal law. All of this affected her deeply and made her question some of her larger choices.
Shortly after Sa’s return to the Carlisle School, she was abruptly dismissed. Between her disagreement with the school’s rigid and one-sided system and an article she had written expressing sorrow for the loss of Native American identity, she was no longer wanted by the school’s administration.
WRITING AND MARRIAGE
Concerned with her mother’s advancing years, and the poverty she and her brother were enduring, Sa returned to the Sioux reservation. There, she soon took a clerical job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where she met her future husband, Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin, who was one-quarter Dakota Sioux. They had a son named Raymond Ohyia Bonnin.
In 1900, Zitkala Sa began writing articles and short stories about Native American life, which were published in prestigious magazines like Harper’s Monthly. The articles mostly covered her thoughts on her struggle to retain her native identity while being pressured to adapt to European culture. Her first book was published in 1901, called Native American Stories, a collection of the tribal stories she had begun pulling together back in 1896.
Sa and her husband moved to Utah to work with the natives of another reservation. There they worked with the Ute people for the next 14 years. Around that time, she met professor and composer William F. Hanson, who taught at Brigham Young University. Together, they worked on and produced an opera called The Sun Dance, which debuted in 1910. It was the first opera ever co-written by a Native American.
TAKING ON THE SYSTEM
It was from 1916 to 1924 that her writing turned political. At this point, Sa began to use her work to call attention to some of the social injustices suffered by Native Americans. Among her writings from this period was Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes (1923), an influential pamphlet that she co-authored with Charles H. Fabens and Matthew K. Sniffen, Native American rights activists. This piece motivated the U.S. government to step in and prevent oil-hungry corporations from defrauding Native Americans out of their land. With the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the reservations were placed strictly under Indian control.
At this point, Zitkala Sa became engaged in political activism. While she lived in Utah, she joined the Society of American Indians (SAI), a progressive group dedicated to preserving the Native American way of life and fighting for their rights. Sa served as their secretary, and edited their journal, American Indian Magazine, from 1918 to 1919. As part of her duties, she was expected to correspond with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. As she grew familiar with the Bureau, however, she began to criticize their corrupt practices, including the fact that they prohibited Native Americans from using their native languages, even in their own schools. Unfortunately, he hardline criticism of the BIA resulted in the dismissal of her husband from his position there in 1916. Soon after, the couple relocated with their son to Washington D.C.
After the move to Washington, Sa began lecturing nation-wide and lobbying congress on behalf of the SAI, promoting the culture and traditions of Native Americans. Throughout the 1920s, she worked hard to unite all Indian nations in the fight for citizenship rights, which led to the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, a bill that granted U.S. citizenship to many (though not all) Native Americans. In 1926, Sa and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians, an organization that helped secure citizenship rights for her and many other tribes. From its founding in 1926 until her death, Sa served as president, major fundraiser and speaker.
Sa also became involved with the women’s rights movement, joining the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Through this organization she created the Indian Welfare Committee, which played an instrumental role in securing full rights to Native Americans in controlling their reservations and keeping them protected from exploitive corporations.
Zitaka Sa passed away on January 26th, 1938, at the age of 61. She was buried at Arlington cemetery. Since then, much of her writings on Native American culture have been republished by the University of Nebraska.
Throughout her life, Sa worked hard to gain basic human rights for her people, including the right to vote, for better education and access to proper health care. And because of her dedication to native Americans and their way of life, solid
legislation had been passed to protect them and the lands that they call home. Many decades later, Sa is still recognized as a champion of human rights, for both American Indians and women in general. In 1997 she was elected an honoree of Women’s History Month by the National Women’s History Project.
Although she struggled with identity and facing discrimination for the better part of her life, Zitkala Sa never lost hope or courage, or lost sight of her cultural heritage and its meaning to her and to other Native Americans. She was a talented writer, accomplished musician, and passionate activist, and should be remembered as a voice that spoke truthfully of fairness and justice for all.