Zitkala-Ṡa (Red Bird / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin)

Photo by Joseph Turner Keiley, 1898 (printed 1901). From the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Object number S/NPG.79.26

Native American (Yankton Dakota), Music, Education, Activism

Zitkala-Ṡa (Red Bird / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin)


Zitkala-Ṡá wrote several works exploring the tensions of holding Indigenous cultural identities, while operating within a hostile, assimilationist mainstream world. Her books were among the first works to bring traditional Native American stories to a widespread white English-speaking readership. 

Zitkala-Ṡá liked to remind people that she was born in the year that the Sioux Defeated Custer in 1876. Raised by her Yankton Dakota Sioux mother and aunts, Zitkala-Ṡá grew up on the Yankton Dakota reservation until she was eight years old when she was lured into leaving home by Quaker missionaries with stories of candied apples and magical adventures to attend boarding school at the White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. There she was given the name, Gertrude Simmons. She attended the institute until 1887, then returned three years later to study violin and piano. Afterwards, she accepted a scholarship to Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and after two years, moved to Boston to continue studying the violin at the New England Conservatory of Music.

In 1899, she took a job as a music teacher at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The following year, Carlisle sent her home to gather more students, and when she got there, she was shocked to see the poverty and white settlers occupying Dakota treaty land. When she returned to Carlisle, disillusioned with the assimilationist agenda of the school, she began to write about Native American life. In 1900, after she published an article in Harpers Monthly describing the profound loss of cultural identity felt by a student at Carlisle, she was fired. She then took a job as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota, where she became immersed in Indian policy and published Old Indian Legends (1901), a collection of Dakota stories. A year later, Zitkala-Ṡá published My Life (1902), which included her autobiographical essays “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” and “Why I am a Pagan.” That same year, she also married Raymond Talephause Bonnin, who was also from her tribe. 
As one of the most influential 20th century Native Americans, Zitkala-Ṡá worked to preserve Indian cultural knowledges and facilitated crucial changes to education, health care, and legal standing and women’s rights for Native American people through her pan-Indian advocacy and activism. In 1916, she worked with the Society of American Indians to attain citizenship rights for Indian people. From 1918 to 1919, she edited the Society’s journal, American Indian Magazine, and lectured across the country promoting the preservation of Native American cultural and tribal identities and traditions. She also published American Indian Stories (1921), which included several of the articles originally published in other magazines about the hardships of forced assimilation and rejection of their indigenous cultures in boarding schools. Among Zitkala-Ṡá’s publications of relevance to folklorists are:

Old Indian Legends (1901)

American Indian Stories (1921)

Susana Grajales Geliga