Skip to main content

Zitkala-sa, Native American Composer and Writer

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

An arts major and published indie author who writes on various subjects pertaining to humanities.


Gertrude Bonnin, born in 1876, was a third child and a full-blooded Yankton Sioux. She would later be known to most as Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird), a Native American icon, whom mother time has not forgotten nor lost.

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

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

Gertrude Bonnin Against the Troubling Odds

Growing up as a Native American during the mid to latter 19th century, Gertrude had several troubling odds stacked against her young life. She had no position of respect or social standing given her indigenous ethnicity amongst the culture back east.

Compounding this, 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, sent her East so she might get a white man’s education. Though she suffered significant loss and disadvantage, Gertrude overcame her differences.

Map of Siouan Reservations

Map of Siouan Reservations

The Yankton Sioux Tribe

The Yanktonai, or the Yankton, also known as the Western Dakota “Middle Sioux” were Native American people from the Mississippi Region, which during the 18th century, lived along the Minnesota River area. By 1860, the Yankton tribe had given up millions of acres to the U.S. government and moved on with 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 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 happy with her station in life. She often yearned for her life back home on the plains, which inspired her to write about her native experiences.

To combat her internal yearnings for home while at Carlisle, Gertrude finished 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, telling of her struggle to identify in a white man’s world.

"Zitkala-Sa" reading by windowlight

"Zitkala-Sa" reading by windowlight

Gertrude Bonnin's Literary Career

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

"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

Zitkala-Sa's 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

A Legacy of Numerous Accomplishments

Gertrude Bonnin is a well-known poet and writer, but was also known for many other accomplishments:

  • 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 it was unfortunate that the billboard only featured William F. Hanson as the only composer.
  • As a member of the Society of American Indians, she dedicated her time to fighting for Native American rights to gain full citizenship.
  • In 1916, she became an outspoken voice for the Society of American Indians as the group’s 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 the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, an organization that promoted women’s rights.
  • Recognized in the Scientific community, by giving her an honorary title, naming a crater after the Native American author on the planet Venus.
  • Named a 1999 Honoree by the National Women’s History Project.
  • Upon her death, Gertrude Bonnin’s burial began 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

Cited Sources & Works

  • 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