Gertrude “Zitkala-Sa” Simmons-Bonnin (1873-1938)
A Euro-American man and a Lakota Woman gave birth to Gertrude on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in 1873. At the age of 8, Gertrude attended White’s Manual Labor Institute in Indiana. The Institute’s assimilation policies only resulted in Gertrude’s determination to use her reading and writing skills to fight for Indian rights.
In 1895, Gertrude enrolled at Earlham College and further enhanced her talents. Then, she began teaching at Carlisle Industrial Training School in Pennsylvania. As a teacher, Gertrude believed in the power of education for Indians. However, she disagreed with the school’s assimilation policies, which forbid Natives from speaking their languages and forced religious intolerance upon the students. She resigned after two years.
After Carlisle, Gertrude won a scholarship to study the violin at New England Conservatory of Music. While studying there, she worked for The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine writing short stories under her Indian name, Zitkala-Sa (“Red Bird” in Lakota). Her writings recounted memories of childhood, school, and her past teaching experiences. She also put together a collection of Sioux myths in a book entitled, “Old Indian Legends”.
Gertrude met and almost married Carlos Montezuma, a Native activist and Yavapai physician. Their engagement ended when Gertrude decided to return to her reservation and Carlos refused to leave his work in Chicago.
Gertrude returned to her reservation and later married Captain Raymond Bonnin, another mixed-blood Yankton Sioux. They bore one son, named Alfred Ohiya (“Winner” in Lakota). Gertrude followed her husband and his BIA work to Utah where she worked with Ute women and continued writing. In Utah, she and William Hanson, a Mormon professor, composed the first Native American Opera, entitled “The Sun Dance”.
Gertrude and Montezuma reconnected after Carlos founded the Society of American Indians, a political group that sought to promote Indian education and obtain US citizenship for Indians. As the group’s secretary, Gertrude edited and wrote articles for their magazine addressing issues on education, treaty rights, land claims, and the use of peyote.
In 1924, Gertrude wrote Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians, which exposed the robberies and murders in Oklahoma of Native American people and led to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, reestablishing a trust for Indian lands.
In 1926 Gertrude and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians to lobby congress for Native rights. Gertrude died in 1938. Both she and Raymond are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.