Native American Intellectual: Zitkala-Sa

Updated on April 2, 2018
ziyena profile image

Indie author of historical romance and paranormal novellas and a history buff.

Zitkala-Sa, portrayed by Joseph Keiley, b.1869 - 1914, published in Camera Notes Vol. 5 No. 1, 1901, 9.5 x 16 cm Photogravure
Zitkala-Sa, portrayed by Joseph Keiley, b.1869 - 1914, published in Camera Notes Vol. 5 No. 1, 1901, 9.5 x 16 cm Photogravure | 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

Beauty and Intellect

Not only was she known for her sharp intellect, she was 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.

She was born Gertrude Bonnin, 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 forgot nor has she lost, a daughter of the earth.

Accomplished Writer and Violinist

Zitkala-sa with her violin, 1898
Zitkala-sa with her violin, 1898 | Source

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 great loss and disadvantage, Gertrude found a way to overcome her differences.

Siouan Reservations

Map of Siouan Reservations
Map of Siouan Reservations | Source

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 Yanton tribe had given up millions of acres to the U.S. government and moved on its present day reservations in South Dakota.

By Window Light

"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

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 she was accepted among 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 (1876-1938)
Zitkala-Sa (1876-1938) | Source

Literary Career

For a woman, no less a Native American, Gertrude Bonnin maintained a highly prolific career in writing. Most of her work was centered around autobiographical works, mainly about her life among the Sioux.

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

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

"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

Example of Various Works

Old Indian Legends Zitkala Sa
Old Indian Legends Zitkala Sa | Source

Numerous Legacies

Not only was Gertrude Bonnin a well-known poet and writer, she was 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.
  • •In the Scientific community, Bonnin was recognized by giving her a 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 was buried in Washington DC at the prestigious Arlington National Cemetery.

Opera Production

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

Red Bird Sings

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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 Enclopedia Britannica. "Zitkala-Sa" (2018) Retrieved from



Submit a Comment

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Thank you Fox for your support ... I really did put my heart into this Hub. Yes, she was remarkable, and suffered through hardship, especially at a young age. I'm glad she was there for other Native American women to look up to during times of strife. Thanks also for the UP

  • Writer Fox profile image

    Writer Fox 

    4 years ago from the wadi near the little river

    What a wonderful tribute to this remarkable woman. I had never heard of her before and am so glad I found this article. Gertrude Bonnin was a woman born before her time and made a real difference in the world. Enjoyed and voted up!

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Dora - good to know that I still managed to 'tell' juxtaposed to just reporting it ... Thx so much for your feedback

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Weithers 

    4 years ago from The Caribbean

    Thank you for sharing the inspiration from the life of Gertrude Bonnin. You also tell the story very well.

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Nice play on words Brave :)

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 

    4 years ago from Central Florida

    What a brave warrior she was! This is a fascinating hub, Ziyena. Thank you!

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Without trying to sound too self-debasing, her experience and purpose reminds me of how truly unremarkable that I am. Thanks Bill

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    She was amazing, definitely ahead of her time, and a force to reckon with, I think. Thanks Nell

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 

    4 years ago from England

    Hi, this was really fascinating reading, I had never heard of this amazing girl before, and what a story, I really enjoyed it, voted up!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    4 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Remarkable story of a remarkable woman. Thank you for this article and for the education. Truly an inspiring story.


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