|One of the first Native American women to publish traditional stories derived from oral tribal legend was Zitkala-Sa, whose real name
was Gertrude Simmons. She was born at the Yankton Sioux Agency in South Dakota, from a white father and a Dakota Indian mother.
Her writing was full of imagery and emotion and frequently harangued on the white oppression of Native Americans.
Zitkala-Sa lived within the Sioux culture until 1884 when missionaries came to recruit students for a Quaker boarding school for Indians
in Wabash, Indiana. Next, she attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana and became a school teacher at the Pennsylvania
Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
While teaching, she began writing autobiographical stories, which were published in 1900, in the Atlantic Monthly magazine.
Zitkala-Sa's forthright criticism of the Indian boarding school experience caused bad feelings between Zitkala-Sa and her employer at
Richard Henry Pratt had founded the school in 1879 with the aim of acculturating Native American children, and, as Zitkala-Sa wrote in
a letter to Carlos Montezuma, Pratt characterized her as "worse than pagan" and her stories as "trash." Montezuma, a Yavapai
physician with whom she had developed a close relationship, was several years her elder, highly educated, and already experienced in
political maneuvering among white people.
As Montezuma warned, Pratt's displeasure with Zitkala-Sa's stories led first to her being reassigned as a recruiter -- in effect, banished
to the West and denied the support of her literary coterie -- and eventually to the end of her service at Carlisle.
At Earlham College, Zitkala-Sa had begun to discover her musical talents, and she had performed as a violin soloist with the Carlisle
Indian Band at the Paris Exposition of 1900. After she decided late that year to leave her position at Carlisle, she studied at the New
England Conservatory during 1900 and 1901. Moving to Boston put her in touch with an intellectual and artistic community that
supported her career as a writer and liberated her from the assimilationist demands of her Carlisle teaching experience.
When Zitkala-Sa's romance with the acclaim of the white eastern mainstream diminished, she decided to live near her mother again, but
she needed to support herself. After trying unsuccessfully to secure a reservation teaching job, she became an issue clerk at the
Standing Rock Reservation, where she met Raymond Talesfase Bonnin, also a Yankton Sioux. She ended her engagement to
Montezuma, and she and Bonnin were married on 10 May 1902. Later that year they transferred to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation
near Fort Duchesne, Utah, where they spent the next fourteen years. Their son, Raymond O. Bonnin, was born there early in 1903.
In 1914 Zitkala-Sa became a member of the advisory board of the Society for the American Indian (SAI), which had been founded in
1911. The SAI required that its members be of Indian blood; it aimed to promote Indian self-determination, but it was essentially
assimilationist. In 1916 Zitkala-Sa was elected secretary of the SAI, and to serve in that capacity she and her husband moved to
Washington, D.C. Raymond Bonnin served in the army and later clerked at a Washington law firm.
As secretary of the society in 1918 and 1919 Zitkala-Sa also edited its journal, the American Indian Magazine. Following strenuous
internal disagreements the SAI disbanded in 1920, and Zitkala-Sa began working with the General Federation of Women's Clubs to
found the Indian Welfare Committee in 1921. She also collected her autobiographical stories and other previously uncollected short
fiction as American Indian Stories . In addition to showing the Sioux from the inside, her stories reveal the cruelties that white schooling
imposes on Indian children, as well as the feelings of alienation that this education had engendered in her.
As she relates in "The School Days of an Indian Girl," the missionary school was designed to strip children of their tribal cultures and
replace these cultures with knowledge of the dominant one. At first Indians such as her mother thought that the offer of education
began "to pay a tardy justice" for the theft of Indian lands and was necessary if their children were to advance in the white world; from
the white culture, however, Gertrude Simmons discovered no compensation for her loss of Sioux culture and habits. Left angry and
isolated, she was alienated from her family and decided to create her own name: Zitkala-Sa.
Although Zitkala-Sa grew up speaking the Nakota (Dakota) dialect of the Sioux language, the name she chose was from the Lakota
dialect. In Fisher's estimation Zitkala-Sa'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.
Zitkala-Sa tells of these origins in "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," the first piece in American Indian Stories. Sioux educational
practices sharply contrast with those of her later experiences at a school run by white missionaries.
Zitkala-Sa's early childhood appears to have offered her two modes of learning that she was to lose on entering the white school
system -- learning through experience and through imitating her mother and other older women of the tribe. Whether she attempted to
create beadwork, which her mother insisted must be "sufficiently characteristic" in traditional styles, or to play with her girlfriends in
imitating their mothers, the child learned to perpetuate the culture of her tribe.
She was taught to respect her elders, to be a generous host to guests in her home, and to be concerned for the welfare of all members
of her tribe, particularly the ill or unfortunate.
Zitkala-Sa represents her mother as a nearly prophetic voice of truth. When the mother yielded to her daughter's wish to leave for the
missionary school, she did so partly because she wanted to acknowledge the "palefaces['] . . . large debt for stolen lands"; and, despite
her knowledge that her "daughter must suffer keenly in this experiment," she let the girl go.
To characterize the white missionaries, Zitkala-Sa tells a story that occurred before she was old enough to be tempted to leave home
with them. The incident is, significantly, set in winter, a time of confinement and probably of some deprivation. The missionaries had
given her a bag of glass marbles, and the image of ice at the heart of the marbles prefigures the coldness that she later experienced
when at the missionaries' hands. Later images describing the palefaces reiterate this image:
"The "glassy blue eyes" of white men stared at the Indian children on their journey to Indiana; "the snow still covered the
ground, and the trees were bare" when she arrived at the missionaries' boarding school; and she found Earlham College
students to be "a cold race whose hearts were frozen hard with prejudice."
Zitkala-Sa contrasts the way she was raised by her mother with the practices at the missionary boarding school in the second chapter,
"The School Days of an Indian Girl." On her journey to Indiana in the company of the palefaces she was "as frightened and bewildered
as the captured young of a wild creature," and after one day at White's Manual Institute she had become "only one of many little
animals driven by a herder." Every activity of life, even eating meals, is now regimented in new, strange ways.
Zitkala-Sa repeatedly observes that the good intentions of the missionaries are wrongheaded, and in many cases the conventions of
white culture affront well-brought-up Indians. The clothing she was required to wear at the school -- dresses with tight-fitting bodices --
struck her as terribly immodest, since she was used to concealing her figure in loose-fitting buckskin and a blanket.
The hairstyle was even worse:
For the Sioux, "short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards" [i.e., captured warriors whose hair has been
cut by the enemy].
Zitkala-Sa narrates this cultural conflict in terms of a warrior's struggle because she recognizes the system of white education to be part
of the violent destruction of her people and their culture. She tried to hide on the day her hair was to be cut, but she was found: "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." She mourns the
death of her Indian identity.
At Earlham College, Zitkala-Sa "hid" in her dorm room, "pined for sympathy," and "wept in secret." White students were slow to seek her
out, doing so only when she won the Indiana State Oratorical Contest, where she was the sole representative of Earlham College in
1896. Zitkala-Sa tells of "the slurs against the Indian that stained the lips of our opponents" and describes "a large white flag, with a
drawing of a most forlorn Indian girl on it. Under this they had printed in bold black letters words that ridiculed the college which was
represented by a 'squaw.' " Zitkala-Sa characterizes this slur as "worse than barbarian rudeness" and puts the "savage" shoe on the
white foot that she believes it truly fits.
Zitkala-Sa recounts her journey east in the third chapter of American Indian Stories. Carlisle Indian School in western Pennsylvania is
the focus of this chapter, which is ironically titled "An Indian Teacher among Indians," for the only Indian with whom she interacted was
her mother, during a brief visit to Yankton. There she discovered that her brother had been replaced as an Indian agent on the
reservation, when her mother told her that "the Great Father at Washington sent a white son to take your brother's pen from him. Since
then Dawee has not been able to make use of the education the Eastern school has given him." Dawee had risked becoming an
advocate for his people, and, as his mother said, "The Indian cannot complain to the Great Father in Washington without suffering
outrage for it here." Dawee's trouble helped to direct Zitkala-Sa toward her eventual life's work in Washington.
Zitkala-Sa's awareness of the intentions and corruptions of the Indian education system led her to reflect bitterly on her role as a
teacher and on the "civilized" visitors who have passed through her classrooms as if they were going through a zoo. Her decision to
leave her teaching post was predicated on the question that palefaces have failed to ask themselves: "whether real life or long-lasting
death lies beneath this semblance of civilization," the white system of educating Indians.
Having "forgotten the healing in trees and brooks," she characterizes herself as "a slender tree ... uprooted from my mother, nature,
and God ... shorn of my branches.... The natural coat of bark ... [has been] scraped off to the very quick." Though such a metaphor
seems to bear little hope for the survival of the "cold bare pole" Zitkala-Sa feels that she had become, she extends and develops the
metaphor to include the poles that bear long-distance telephone wires; through this trope she expresses her desire to communicate
powerfully for her people in a new medium.
In much the same way that the dominant culture created the image of the white woman as the Christian "angel in the house," Zitkala-Sa
depicts her mother as the bearer of tribal religion. Her mother, however, was not limited and enfeebled by being associated with her
religion, as the white woman was by hers. Only when her mother was converted to Christianity did Zitkala-Sa cease to regard her as a
source of power.
Then, in the face of so much resistance, corruption, and disappointment, she temporarily lost her faith in the Great Spirit. "The Great
Spirit does not care if we live or die!" she despaired. "Let us not look for good or justice: then we shall not be disappointed!" Despite
having adopted Christianity, her mother replied, "Sh! my child, do not talk so madly. There is Taku Iyotan Wasaka, to which I pray."
Zitkala-Sa adds a note on the name of this deity, which means "an absolute power," that implies that in later years she regained respect
for the faith that she thought she had lost.
The second half of the book is a collection of essays and new stories. "The Great Spirit," originally published in the Atlantic Monthly as
"Why I Am a Pagan" (1902), justifies her rejection of Christianity in favor of Native American religion. Zitkala-Sa describes herself as
more religious than the converted Indian, whom she characterizes as a "distorted shadow," and insists that she is attuned to "the loving
Mystery." She treats "the solemn 'native preacher' " with compassion and listens to him "with respect for God's creature, though he
mouth most strangely the jangling phrases of a bigoted creed." In her knowledge of "natural forces" she has found the forthrightness
and assurance necessary to discard Christianity, despite her missionary schooling. Since Christianity has justified the conquest of
Native Americans, Zitkala-Sa's rejection of Christianity betokens her rejection of the imperialist impulse.
"The Trial Path," "A Warrior's Daughter," and "A Dream of Her Grandfather" present carefully constructed positive images of Plains
Indian culture. "The Trial Path" is a tale of complex past relationships: an elderly grandmother tells how one of her two lovers killed his
rival and had to stand trial, Indian-style. The trial involved a feat of pony riding; if the killer succeeded, he would be allowed to live.
When the young man did succeed, he was adopted by the family of his rival as their new son, as the tradition of Indian justice
prescribes. Indian justice preserves the structure of the family and the community instead of imposing an absolute rule that executes a
murderer and thereby robs the community of his potentially valuable presence.
In "A Warrior's Daughter" Zitkala-Sa depicts a young woman of extraordinary strength, an unusual portrait when it was published in
Everybody's Magazine in 1902. The woman's lover goes on a war party to get the scalp that her father requires before they can marry.
The young man is captured, and the maiden, who has accompanied the older women following the war party, prays to the Great Spirit:
"All-powerful Spirit, grant me my warrior-father's heart, strong to slay a foe and mighty to save a friend!" Disguised as an old woman,
she infiltrates the enemy camp, kills the young man's captor, and frees her lover. The heroine's act perhaps exceeds ordinary Sioux
expectations of women's behavior; but Beatrice Medicine points out that women warriors in Dakota society did participate in war "for
glory as well as revenge, and some even led war expeditions."
"A Dream of Her Grandfather," published for the first time in American Indian Stories, depicts a young welfare worker in Washington, D.
C., much like Zitkala-Sa, who derives hope for her people from a dream vision sent by her grandfather, a medicine man. The vision
presents the nourishing quality of tribal life and traditions and emphasizes their necessity even in the lives of those who have
assimilated to white culture. In her native Dakota language a message comes to her: "Be glad! Rejoice! Look up, and see the new day
dawning! Help is near! Hear me, every one." She sees the dream as a sign that she is ready to perform a heroic task.
In 1924 citizenship was finally granted to Native Americans. In the same year the Indian Rights Association assigned Zitkala-Sa to
investigate alleged abuses of some Oklahoma tribes by the federal government. With two fellow investigators she co-authored
Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians, an exposé that resulted in the creation of the Meriam Commission.
Zitkala-Sa wrote to revise the dominant white assessment of tribal culture and she was able to do that and more.
Cutter, M.J. "Zitkala-Sa's Autobiographical Writings: The Problems of a Canonical Search for Language and Identity," MELUS, 19
(Spring 1994): 31-44.
Fuller, M. Creating Cultural Spaces: The Pluralist Project of American Women Writers, 1843-1902.
Leckie, S. A. Their own frontier : women intellectuals re-visioning the American West. 2008.
Kilcup, K. Native American women's writing : c. 1800-1924, an anthology. 200.
Medicine, B. The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women. 1983).
Rappaport, D. The flight of Red Bird : the life of Zitkala-̈Sa. 1997.
Works of Zitkala-sa
Zitkala-sa. Old Indian Legends. 1985.
Zitkala-sa. American Indian Stories. 1985.
Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin). "Why I Am a Pagan." The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women's Writings, Ed. Glynis Carr.
Zitkala-Ša, Fabens, Charles H. and Matthew K. Sniffen. Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five
Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery. Philadelphia: Office of the Indian Rights Association, 1924.
Zitkala-Sa. Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera. Edited by P. Jane Hafen. 2001.