The Accomplished Life of Zitkala-Sa

Updated on February 20, 2019
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An Arts, Literature and History Buff, Humanities Major, Published Indie Writer, Avid Photographer, and World Foodie & Travel Enthusiast

Gertrude Bonnin was born in 1876, a third child and full-blooded Yankton Sioux, but in time, to most, she was known as Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird), a Native American icon, whom mother time has not forgotten nor has she lost, a daughter of the earth.

Not only was she known for her sharp intellect, but also known for her earthy beauty, an old soul and lover of nature, and champion of truth. Though she was best known as a gifted writer, she pursued other talents, excelling as a musician (pianist and violinist), an editor, teacher, and an outspoken political activist.

Portrait of Zitkala-Sa
Portrait of Zitkala-Sa | Source

My heart and I lie small upon the earth like a grain of throbbing sand. Drifting clouds and tinkling waters, together with the warmth of a genial summer day, bespeak with eloquence the loving Mystery round about us.

— Zitkala-Sa

Against the Troubling Odds

As a Native American growing up during the mid to latter 19th century, Gertrude had several troubling odds stacked against her young life. Still perceived as an indigenous amongst the culture back east, in the eyes of the white man, she was in no position of respect or social standing.

Compounding to this fact, her European-American father abandoned the family while she was still a toddler. When she grew into adolescence, her mother, Ellen Tate, thinking of her daughter's future in a pale-face world, she sent her East so that she might get a white man's education. Though she suffered significant loss and disadvantage, Gertrude found a way to overcome her differences.

Map of Siouan Reservations
Map of Siouan Reservations | Source

The Yankton Sioux Tribe

The Yanktonai, or the Yankton, also known as the Western Dakota "Middle Sioux" were Native American people originally from the Mississippi Region, which during the 18th century, resided along the Minnesota River area.

By 1860, the Yankton tribe had given up millions of acres to the U.S. government and moved on its present-day reservations in South Dakota.

A White Man's Education

Gertrude's first experience in a white man's school was at a Quaker Missionary School for Indians, in Wabash, Indiana. After several years of primary and secondary education, she graduated and then eventually moved on to Pennsylvania where she taught music at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Though accepted by her white peers, Gertrude remained a recluse, not entirely happy with her station in life. She often yearned for her life back home on the plains, which in turn inspired her to write about her native experiences.

To combat her internal yearnings for home while at Carlisle, Gertrude finished a compilation of various short stories and autobiographical essays with Harper's Weekly and The Atlantic Monthly magazines. The articles focused on her life as a Native American living on the plains and her struggle to identify in a white man's world.

"Zitkala-Sa" reading by windowlight; "Zitkala-Sa" in pencil on verso ..Credit: Gertrude Kasebier (Smithsonian Institution)
"Zitkala-Sa" reading by windowlight; "Zitkala-Sa" in pencil on verso ..Credit: Gertrude Kasebier (Smithsonian Institution) | Source

Bonnin's Literary Career

For a woman, no less a Native American, Gertrude Bonnin maintained a highly prolific career in writing. Most of her work centered around autobiographical and co-authored works or retold Dakota stories that mainly focused on life among the Sioux such her 1901 publication of Old Indian Legends, a collection of traditional folklore.

Provided below are a few links and a table, distinguishing the various works and accomplishments of Gertrude Bonnin.

Example of Various Works:  Old Indian Legends Zitkala Sa
Example of Various Works: Old Indian Legends Zitkala Sa | Source

"A wee child toddling in a wonder world... I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan."

— Zitkala-Sa

Noted Works and Accomplishments

American Indian Stories in 1921 with the Hayworth Publishing House
An influential pamphlet with Matthew K. Sniffen of the Indian Rights Association
"A Warrior's Daughter", published in 1902 in Volume 4 of Everybody's Magazine
Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery (1923
Atlantic Monthly "An Indian Teacher Among Indians" published in Volume 85 in 1900
Harper's Monthly "Soft-Hearted Sioux" appeared in the March 1901 issue, Volume 102
An influential pamphlet, with Charles H. Fabens of the American Indian Defense Association
Atlantic Monthly "Impressions of an Indian Childhood" and "School Days of an Indian Girl" published in Volume 85 in 1900
Created and researched for the Indian Welfare Committee of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs

Red Bird Sings

Numerous Legacies

Not only was Gertrude Bonnin a well-known poet and writer, but also known for many other accomplishments, namely:

  • As a musician, in 1910, Bonnin helped write in collaboration with composer William F. Hanson, The Sun Dance Opera, which premiered in 1913, at Orpheus Hall, in Vernal, Utah.
  • The Broadway Theatre ran The Sun Dance Opera in 1938, but unfortunate as it was, the billboard only featured William F. Hanson as the only composer.
  • As a member of the Society of American Indians, she dedicated her time by fighting Native American rights to gain full citizenship.
  • •In 1916, she became an outspoken voice for the Society of American Indians as the groups elected Secretary she pushed for an investigation into corrupt practices by the Bureau of Indian Affairs against the abuse of Native American children.
  • In 1921, Bonnin joined General Federation of Women's Clubs, an organization who promoted women's rights.
  • •Recognized in the Scientific community, by giving her an honorary title, naming a crater after the Native American authoress on the planet Venus.
  • Named a 1999 Honoree by the National Women's History Project.
  • •Upon her death, Gertrude Bonnin's burial commenced in Washington DC at the prestigious Arlington National Cemetery.

Contemporary 1913 newspaper article about The Sun Dance opera, written by Zitkala-Sa.
Contemporary 1913 newspaper article about The Sun Dance opera, written by Zitkala-Sa. | Source

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Cited Work & Resources

  • Lewandowski, Tadeusz. "Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša" (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016)
  • Zitkala-Ša. "Old Indian Legends" (May 16, 2012) Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Zitkala-Sa (2018)

© 2013 ziyena


Submit a Comment
  • Vellur profile image

    Nithya Venkat 

    17 months ago from Dubai

    Thank you for introducing me to a wonderful and strong woman, Zitkala-Sa. Will look up her writings.


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