Zitkala-Ša

Lived:February 22, 1876—January 26, 1938 (aged 61)

Zitkala-Ša, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was a Native American suffragist, writer and activist.

Born Gertie Eveline Felker on February 22, 1876 near the Yankton Agency in Dakota Territory, Zitkala-Ša took her mother’s surname as a young woman and changed her name to Gertrude Simmons. When her sister-in-law accused her of abandoning her Native American heritage, she took the name Zitkala-Ša – which translates into English as “Red Bird” – and used it primarily in her writing, her work with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and personal correspondence. She attended White’s Manual Labor Institute, a Quaker boarding school, on and off from 1884 to 1895. The brutality of forced assimilation at many of these boarding schools has been well documented. Native children were often forced to dress in Western clothing, speak English exclusively, and abandon all of their indigenous practices, resulting in a devastating loss of culture and community.

She attended Earlham college from 1895 to 1897, then taught at Carlisle Industrial School for 2 years until attending the New Conservatory of Music in Boston to study violin in 1901. During her time there, she published her writing in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly Magazine. In 1902, she married Raymond Telephause Bonnin and had a son with him. She and her husband worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and she joined the Society of American Indians in 1913 which motivated her to increase her activist activities.

Zitkala-Ša and her family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1917 and she began to press for suffrage for women and Native Americans. She eventually became the Secretary-Treasurer of the SAI and editor of the American Indian Magazine. She also joined the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and addressed their annual meeting in 1921, convincing them to start the Indian Welfare Committee. She also worked tirelessly to advocate for Native Americans in Washington, writing to legislators and testifying before Congressional hearings. In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act which granted citizenship rights, including suffrage to Native Americans, though individual states could – and did – still place limits on voting rights. In 1926, Zitkala-Ša and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians, in which she served as president until her death.

Zitkala-Ša died on January 26, 1938.

Sources:
“Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed February 3, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/people/zitkala-sa.htm.

Chiarello, Barabara. “Deflected Missives: Zitkala-Ša’s Resistance and Its (Un)Containment.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, Series 2, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Fall 2005), 1-26.

Conley, Paige Allison, "Stories, Traces of Discourse, and the Tease of Presence: Gertrude Simmons Bonnin as Orator and Indigenous Activist" (2013). Theses and Dissertations. 675. https://dc.uwm.edu/etd/675

Susag, Dorothea M. “Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin): A Power(full) Literary Voice.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, Series 2, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter 1993), 3-24.

Speeches