Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Women of Wednesday: Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala Sha)

Today is the birthday of Zitkala Sha, born Gertrude Simmons. Born in 1876 on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, she was the daughter of a Sioux woman who was abandoned by her white husband. Simmons was the name of her mother’s second husband.

Gertrude’s mother distrusted the missionary schools but Gertrude was a bright girl who insisted on getting the best education she could. She attended a Quaker school off-reservation as a child and then, after trying the local normal school (teacher’s college) and finding it too limited, she earned a scholarship to Earlham College in Indiana. She was a talented violinist and won a scholarship to the Boston Conservatory of Music. 

In 1899, Gertrude was hired to teach music at the Carlisle Indian School. This set the stage for her life’s crusade. The forced “civilization” of Indian children at the Carlisle school (and others that followed its model) has been well-documented. Gertrude worked simultaneously to give her students  the best education she could (her school band won a trip to the Paris Exposition in 1900) while writing articles under her Sioux pen name which decried the treatment of the students in the Indian school.

Her writing eventually cost her the teaching position, but she obtained a contract from the Ginn Publishing company in Boston to record and compile Sioux legends. Back on the reservation she met a young Lakota artist, Angel de Cora. Angel illustrated Zitkala Sha’s book, and with Zitkala Sha’s encouragement, also wrote and published a number of her own stories.

Zitkala Sha married a Lakota man, Raymond Bonnin, in 1902 and had a son in 1903. Her husband worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the family was frequently relocated. She continued to write and kept up with her music – in 1913 while living in Utah she collaborated on an opera.

Zitkala Sha opposed many BIA policies and encouraged Indians to work together across tribal lines, rather than dissipating their political strength in fighting about tribal identities and prerogatives. Her activism cost her husband his position, and together they moved to Washington DC and became activists for Native rights and women’s suffrage . Zitkala Sha wrote and edited for numerous publications. Her book Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft, Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery (published over the names of two white men) contributed to the political shift that eventually resulted in the Indian Reorganization Act – a law that prevented continued selling-off of Indian lands (which had suddenly become valuable for the oil underneath them). Late 20th-century Native sovereignty movements can be directly traced to her work. In 1926 she co-founded the National Council of American Indians and was president of that organization until her death in 1938. The Council was based on her desire to see all Native American working together: a major focus of the group during her lifetime was the campaign for voting rights for Indians, which many states denied until the 1950s.

Gertrude wrote that music was her first love, but she felt the obligation to work for the rights of American Indians was more important. It is good to know that she had the chance to see her opera, The Sun Dance, performed on Broadway in 1938, shortly before she died.

Raymond Bonnin had been a Captain in the United States Army and so Raymond and Gertrude are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


Diane Mayr said...

A fascinating story!

Andrea Murphy said...

There are so many unsung women out there! Thanks for this, Sally.

Caroline said...

Fabulous and inspirational and gorgeous to boot!