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Zitkala-Ša (photography by Gertrude Käsebier , 1898)

Zitkala-Ša (born February 22, 1876 in the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota , † January 26, 1938 in Washington ), also known under the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin , was an Indian writer , musician , teacher and activist from the tribe the Yankton-Dakota .

life and work

Zitkala-Ša was born the daughter of the Yankton-Dakota Tate I Yohin Win ("Reaches for the Wind"), who had been given the name Ellen Simmons by missionaries, and the white trader William Felker. Her baptismal name was Gertie Eveline Felker . Her father left the family before she was born, so she grew up in a purely Indian environment. Already in her childhood she changed her name to Gertrude Simmons. She only took on the name Zitkala-Ša (Lakota for "Red Bird") in her early 20s. Her mother, who spoke no English, raised her the traditional way. She described the years of her childhood on the reservation in her autobiographical story "Impressions of an Indian Childhood". In 1884, at the age of eight, she entered White's Manual Labor Institute boarding school in Wabash , Indiana . She described the traumatic experiences of this three-year school stay in the autobiographical story "The School Days of an Indian Girl". After a few interruptions, she graduated from this school in 1895. She began to learn to play the violin and piano at the White's Manual Labor Institute .

From 1895 to 1897 she studied at Earlham College in Richmond , Indiana. In 1896 she represented the college in a speaker competition in the state of Indiana and thus appeared for the first time as an author. With her text "Side by Side" she won the second prize in the competition, which caused quite a stir because of her Indian origins. The text was published in Earlham College's magazine, The Earlhamite. After leaving college without a degree due to a serious illness, she went to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania as a teacher for two years . She left the school in 1899 because she did not agree with the restrictive educational policy of this boarding school. It was forbidden for Indian children to speak in their Indian mother tongues, even in their free time. She later worked through her time as a teacher in Carlisle in the autobiographical story "An Indian Teacher Among Indians".

Zitkala-Ša with her violin , 1898

From 1899 to 1901 she studied violin at the New Conservatory of Music in Boston . During this time she also began to publish various texts in renowned magazines. Her autobiographical texts appeared in Atlantic Monthly , further texts in Harper's Monthly Magazine . During this time she was also very active as a musician. In 1900 she took part in a USA-wide concert tour of the Carlisle school band as solo violinist; this tour was expanded to include an appearance at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900 , in which she also took part.

In 1901 the Boston publisher Ginn & Company published their book " Old Indian Legends ", which contained a collection of traditional Sioux stories and was illustrated by the Winnebago Indian Angel de Cora (Hinook-Mahiwi-Kilinaka).

In 1902 she married the Yankton Sioux Raymond Bonnin. In 1903 their only child, Ohiya, was born.

As early as 1902, the couple moved to Utah on the Uintah and Ouray reservation, where they spent the following 14 years teaching and administrative activities with the Ute Indians .

1913 newspaper article about the Sun Dance Opera.

In 1908 Zitkala-Ša met the music teacher William Frederick Hanson in Fort Duchesne, Utah. Over the next three years, both of them collected musical material related to the sun dance . These included both Ute chants and Sioux songs, which Zitkala-Ša Hanson played on the violin. Both wrote a libretto for an opera - a romantic love story against the backdrop of the sun dance. Hanson added harmonies to the unison Indian songs. This is how the "Sun Dance Opera" came about. The opera premiered in Vernal , Utah, in 1913 with great success . The actual opera was performed by white opera singers. However, the performance also included a large group of Ute Indians under the guidance of a centenarian Dakota named Old Sioux, who performed traditional chants and dances.

In 1917 Zitkala-Ša and her husband left Utah and moved to Washington. As early as 1913, she had joined the Society of American Indians, who campaign for the rights of native American Indians. In particular, it was about the recognition of American citizenship, which did not take place until 1924 - not least through the work of this pan- Indian- oriented organization - with the Indian Citizenship Act . In 1916, Zitkala-Ša became general secretary of the Society of American Indians; In this function she was also responsible for the contacts with the powerful authority for Indian affairs of the USA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs , of which she was harsh critic on many points. In 1918 and 1919 she published the organization's magazine, the American Indian Magazine, in which numerous stories and essays from her pen appeared. After the Society of American Indians collapsed due to internal contradictions, Zitkala-Ša and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians, of which she remained chairman until her death. This organization also fought to improve medical care, educational opportunities, job opportunities and, in general, the legal situation for the Indians of all tribes. Zitkala-Ša traveled almost continuously through the country, gave lectures, spoke with representatives of the tribes and authorities and wrote pamphlets in which she referred to grievances and ways to remedy them. Exemplary of the latter is a series of articles on the history and the present of the Californian Indians, which appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1922.

Since 1921 Zitkala-Ša was a member of the women's organization "General Federation of Women's Clubs". As part of this, she succeeded in founding the Indian Welfare Committee of the General Federation of Women's Clubs.

In 1921 Zitkala-Ša published the volume of short stories "American Indian Stories", which contained her autobiographical writings and a number of other stories as well as the essay "America's Indian Problem" in the appendix, which represented a sharp reckoning with American Indian policy.

On June 22, 1922, a memorial stone of the state of South Dakota was unveiled in the Washington Monument . Zitkala-Ša attended the celebration in traditional Indian clothing as a representative of this state, in which the large reservations of the Sioux are located, but above all as a representative of the American Indian peoples. There she presented her text “A Dakotah Ode to Washington”, in which she paid tribute to the democratic principles of George Washington and expressed the expectation that these apply to all Americans, including the Indians.

With its political activities and publications, Zitkala-Ša contributed significantly to the coming into existence of the Indian Reorganization Act , which strengthened the self-administration of the Indians in the reservations.

Death and inheritance

Zitkala-Ša died in Washington in 1938 and was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery there.

In honor of Zitkala-Ša, a Venus crater was named after her ("Bonnin").

In the 1990s, an extensive collection of unpublished stories from her hand, which were first published in 2001, was discovered in the Zitkala-Ša estate.


  • Zitkala-Ša: Red Bird Telling: The Stories of a Dakota . Palisander Verlag, Chemnitz 2015, ISBN 978-3-938305-70-6 .

Web links

Commons : Zitkala-Sa  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/zitkala-sa/stories/stories.html#impressions
  2. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/zitkala-sa/stories/stories.html#school
  3. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/zitkala-sa/stories/stories.html#teacher
  4. Zitkala-Ša: California Indian Trails and Prayer Trees; Lost Treaties of the California Indians; The California Indians of Today; Heart to Heart Talk in: Zitkala-Ša: American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Penguin Classics 2003.
  5. ^ Allison Conley, Page: Stories, Traces of Discourse, and the Tease of Presence: Gertrude Simmons Bonnin as Orator and Indigenous Activist. Dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, May 2013, p. 69 ff. Weblink
  6. Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) ( Memento from September 2, 2015 in the Internet Archive )
  7. Zitkala-Ša: Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera. Edited by Professor Jane Hafen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 2001.