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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa; Sioux)

In her writings as well as her work as an Indian rights activist, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, or Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird), is a vital link between the oral culture of tribal America in conflict with its colonizers and the literate culture of contemporary American Indians. A Yankton, born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, she was the third child of Ellen Tate 'Iyohiwin Simmons, a full-blood Sioux. Little is known of her father, a white man. Her mother brought up the children in traditional ways. At the age of eight, Zitkala-Sa left the reservation to attend a Quaker missionary school in Wabash, Indiana. She returned to the reservation but was culturally unhinged, "neither a wild Indian nor a tame one," as she described herself later in "The Schooldays of an Indian Girl." After four unhappy years she returned to her school, graduated, and at age 19 enrolled—against her mother's wish—at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. She later taught at Carlisle Indian School for about two years. Having become an accomplished violinist, she also studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music.

Meanwhile, the estrangement from her mother and the old ways of the reservation had grown, as had her indignation over the treatment of American Indians by the state, church, and population at large. Around 1900 she began to express her feelings publicly in writing. In articles in the Atlantic Monthly and other journals she struggled with the issues of cultural dislocation and injustice that brought suffering to her people. But her authorial voice was not merely critical. She was earnestly committed to being a bridge builder between cultures, for example, by writing Old Indian Legends, published in 1901. "I have tried," she says in the introduction to that work, "to transplant the native spirit of these tales—root and all—into the English language, since America in the last few centuries has acquired a second tongue."

In the following decades, Zitkala-Sa's writing efforts were increasingly part of, and finally supplanted by, her work as an Indian rights activist. She had accepted a clerkship at the Standing Rock Reservation, where she met and married Raymond T. Bonnin, another Sioux employee of the Indian service. The Bonnins then transferred to a reservation in Utah where they became affiliated with the Society of American Indians. Zitkala-Sa was elected secretary of the Society in 1916, and the Bonnins moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked with the Society and edited the American Indian Magazine. In 1926 she founded the National Council of American Indians and continued to pursue reforms through public speaking and lobbying efforts. She was instrumental in the passage of the Indian Citizenship Bill and secured powerful outside interests in Indian reform. Zitkala-Sa died in Washington, D.C., in 1938 and was buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Although her output was limited, her artistic accomplishment cannot be denied. In addition to her earlier works, in 1913 she collaborated with William P. Hanson in producing an Indian opera, "Sundance." In 1921 her collection of American Indian Stories was published, combining her previously printed work with some new essays and merging autobiography and fiction in a unique way. In her writings, Zitkala-Sa anticipated some aspects of the work of present-day American Indian fiction writers like N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Silko and contemporary advocates of the Indian cause like Vine Deloria, Jr. As her collection of Old Indian Legends proves, she realized that political rights would be fruitless unless they were rooted in a recovery of cultural identity through a revitalization of the oral tradition.

Zitkala-Sa's autobiographical work makes her perhaps the first American Indian woman to write her own story without the aid of an editor, interpreter, or ethnographer. Her essay, "Why I am a Pagan," merits special attention because at the time it was published it was popular for American Indians to describe their conversions to Christianity.

Kristin Herzog
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

In the Heath Anthology
Why I Am a Pagan (1902)
from The School Days of an Indian Girl
      Chapter I: "The Land of Red Apples" (1900)
      Chapter II: "The Cutting of My Long Hair" (1900)
      Chapter III: "The Snow Episode" (1900)
      Chapter VI: "Four Strange Summers" (1900)
      Chapter VII: "Incurring My Mother's Displeasure" (1900)

Other Works
Old Indian Legends (1901)
American Indian Stories (1921)

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An Indian Teacher Among Indians
Text reprinted from The Atlantic Monthly (1900), Volume 85.

Native American Authors Project
Online resources by and about Zitkala Sa.

Native American Indian Resource
Presents a substantive biography.

Secondary Sources

Alice Poindexter Fisher, "The Transportation of Tradition: A Study of Zitkala-Sa and Mourning Dove, Two Traditional American Indian Writers," Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1979

Dexter Fisher, "Zitkala-Sa: The Evolution of a Writer," American Indian Quarterly, 5 (August 1979):229-238, reprinted as "Foreword" in American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1985), v-xx

P. Jane Hafen, "Zitkala-Sa: Sentimentality of Sovereignty," Wicazo Sa Review, 12, 2 (Fall 1997):13 (18)

Lavonne Brown Ruoff, "Early Native American Women Authors: Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, Sarah Winnemucca, S. Alice Callahan, E. Pauline Johnson, and Zitkala-Sa," in Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Critical Reader, ed. Karen L. Kilcup, 1998

Robert Allen Warrior, "Reading American Indian Intellectual Traditions," World Literature Today, 66 (1992):236-240

William Willard," Zitkala-Sa, A Woman Who Would Be Heard," Wicazo Sa Review, 1 (1985):11-16

William Willard, "The First Amendment, Anglo-Conformity and American Indian Religious Freedom," Wicazo Sa Review, 7 (1991):25-30