"No, I will not submit! I will struggle first!"
In 1884, Quaker missionaries visited the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When they left, they took
several children with them to White Indiana Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Ind. Among them was an 8-year-old then called Gertrude Simmons, the daughter of a Sioux Dakota woman and a white man. Her father had left the family years before and she left despite her mother’s objections. She wanted to go to the “Red Apple Country” promised by the missionaries.
Years later, this little girl would choose her own name, Zitkála-Šá (Red Bird, or Cardinal), and write about the trauma that came with the relocation in “The School Days of an Indian Girl” published in 1921.
The hard-soled shoes of the other children clattered on the wooden floors, a maddening distraction to Zitkála-Šá in her soft moccasins, and the required English dress displeased her. “As I walked noiselessly...I felt like sinking to the floor, for my blanket had been stripped from my shoulders. I looked hard at the Indian girls, who seemed not to care that they were even more immodestly dressed than I, in their tightly fitting clothes.” She was not permitted to speak her native language, and most horrifyingly, a friend “had overheard the paleface woman talk about cutting our long, heavy hair. Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!”
“We have to submit, because they are strong,” her friend said.
“‘No, I will not submit! I will struggle first!’” I answered.”
Zitkála-Šá hid when they came to cut her hair. All the adults and even her fellow students searched for her. “From my hiding place [under the bed] I peered out, shuddering with fear whenever I heard footsteps nearby. ... I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair. I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit.”
At the institute, she was taught to read, write, and play the violin, but she was also forced to pray as a Quaker and wear English dress. After three years, she returned to the reservation and her mother in South Dakota, but she did not stay long. She no longer felt she fit among her people; the education and assimilation of the institute had changed her, so she returned to the institute and her studies.
She was so proficient at violin and piano that the institute hired her to teach the instruments even before her graduation in 1895. She then attended Earlham College in Richmond, Ind. where she began to collect the stories of native tribes and translate them into English and Latin. Later, she moved to Boston to study violin at the New England Conservatory of Music.
In 1899, she began teaching music at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was, at the time, a flagship school and the model for all schools serving Native American populations in the United States. Its goal was to civilize the children from the tribes. It wore on Zitkála-Šá to see native children brought in, their hair cut, their clothing changed, and their native languages prohibited. She judged the education provided by inefficient, unqualified white teachers.
She began to write and many of these writings were published in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly. She wrote of the warmth and love of her people, which defied the popular stereotypes of Native Americans as brutal and savage. She began to reconcile her own education with the culture taken from her. “For the white man’s papers,” she wrote, “I had given up my faith in the Great Spirit. For these same papers I had forgotten the healing in trees and brooks. On account of my mother’s simple view of life, and my lack of any, I gave her up, also. ... I had been uprooted from my mother, nature, and God.”
She wrote honestly as well of her feelings toward the very schools like the one where she taught. These schools “boast of their charity to the North American Indian. But few there are who have paused to question whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this civilization.”
The administration of the Carlisle school did not appreciate this public criticism. Zitkála-Šá was first given undesirable positions and eventually fired. She returned to the reservation to care for her mother and also gather stories for a book she would publish in 1901, Old Indian Legends. She also worked as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Standing Rock Indian Reservation. While here she met and married Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin, a fellow Sioux Dakota, in 1902.
The couple moved to Utah to work on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation. There, they had one son, Raymond Ohiya Bonnin in 1903, and lived for the next fourteen years. Zitkála-Šá worked as a teacher on the reservation. She also collaborated with a Brigham Young professor on an opera based upon a Sioux ritual that had been prohibited by the United States government. This opera, The Sun Dance Opera, premiered in Utah in 1913.
While in Utah, Zitkála-Šá served on the Society of the American Indian. In 1916 she became the secretary of the SAI, communicating frequently with the BIA. She was openly critical of the religious and cultural assimilation required of native communities. If a child was punished for not practicing Christianity, for example, she would make a report of child abuse. Perhaps not unrelated to this, her husband was fired from his position at the BIA.
The family relocated to Washington, D.C., where Zitkála-Šá continued her work for the SAI and she and her husband could advance their activism for Native Americans. She met and collaborated with Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa woman, to publish American Indian Magazine. Zitkála-Šá toured and lectured across the country, advocating for the preservation of Native American traditions and ways of life.
While many women celebrated winning the right to vote in 1919, Native Americans had been expressly exempted from the amendment. Zitkála-Šá, though deeply critical of assimilation, believed that Native Americans should be granted rights as United States citizens, especially as they were the country’s original inhabitants. “In the land that was once his own – America...there was never a time more opportune than now for America to enfranchise the Red man!” she wrote.
The Indian Citizenship Act passed in 1924 granted Native Americans citizenship, but did not guarantee voting rights. For those, Zitkála-Šá continued to fight. That same year, she co-wrote an article exposing the murder and exploitation of Oklahoma Native Americans who had been forced to relocate to land which turned out to be rich in oil. This article, “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes – Legalized Robbery,” helped spark an investigation that would ultimately lead to the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
In 1926, she and husband Raymond founded the National Council of American Indians, which worked to unite the tribes to push for voting rights. Zitkála-Šá also organized the Indian Welfare Committee, in coordination with the National General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Zitkála-Šá would not live to see her people get the right to vote (which—nationwide—did not happen until 1962), but she advocated for the culture, health, rights, education, religion, and values of Native Americans until her death in Washington, D.C. in 1938. That same year, the New York Light Opera Guild performed The Sun Dance Opera.
Examination of her chosen name reveals interpretations as compelling, poetic, and heartbreaking as her life itself, the life of a little girl hungry for an education and forced to sacrifice her culture. As the researchers at nativeamericanwriters.com note, “Although Zitkála-Šá grew up speaking the Nakota (Dakota) dialect of the Sioux language, the name she chose was from the Lakota dialect. ... Zitkála-Šá’s act of self-naming asserted both her independence from and her ties to Sioux culture. That she chose a Lakota name, however, instead of one from her home dialect might indicate a profound dislocation from her family origins, as well as a conscious choice.”
She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery under the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. One of the craters on Venus, all of which are named after famous women, was named “Bonnin” in her honor.