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Outstanding Native Women

Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) 1876-1938


Last updated 6/15/2020 at 5:49pm

KB Schaller

• Activist • Author • Musician • Educator • Reformer

*Co-composed the first Native American Opera*

"For untold ages the Indian race had not used

family names. A new-born child was given a brand-new name...for which she would not be required

to substitute another's upon her marriage,

as is the custom of civilized peoples."

- Zitkala-Sa, from American Indian Stories

Her Dakota/Sioux name (Zitkala-Sa, also spelled Zitkala-Sha) means "red bird," but she was renamed Gertrude Simmons by Euro-American missionaries-a common practice by missionaries of the day.

Born on the Pine Ridge, South Dakota Reservation, Gertrude was reared by her mother, Ellen Simmons, a full-blooded Sioux. Her father, a Euro-American, abandoned the family while Gertrude was young. At age eight, missionaries took Gertrude and several other Native Indian children to White's Manual Labor Training Institute

Founded by Josiah White, a Quaker, its aim was to educate poor children regardless of race; the Quakers were themselves often persecuted for their pro-racial equality beliefs and also because they were said to tremble, or "quake," during their worship services.

Gertrude attended the institute for three years. In her autobiography, The School Days of an Indian Girl, Gertrude wrote of the pain she felt in having all of her Native heritage stripped away. But she also described the delight she felt in learning to play the violin and learning to read and write. In time she would also pen Impressions of an Indian Childhood, Old Indian Legends, and American Indian Stories.

At age eleven, Gertrude returned to the reservation only to discover she was caught between two cultures and did not fit fully into either.

By age fifteen, Gertrude decided to master the violin and piano and returned to the training institute. She succeeded in both, which qualified her to replace the music teacher after she resigned. When she received her diploma in 1895, she delivered a speech on women's inequality. It was a popular subject at the time and won her praise from the local newspaper. Gertrude received a scholarship upon graduation and decided she would not return to the reservation.

Instead, she enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and later took a position as music instructor at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Founded by Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, whose ambition and philosophy Gertrude would find were to "kill the Indian, save the man." Nevertheless, her accomplishment as a violinist qualified her to play with the Boston Conservatory of Music. In 1900, as a member of the Carlisle Indian Band, Gertrude traveled with the group to play at the Paris Exposition.

As she became more aware of injustices against Native Indian people, in the same year, she wrote articles on Native American life that were published in the prestigious periodicals Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Monthly.

When Pratt sent Gertrude back to the reservation to recruit additional students, she observed Euro-American settlers occupying lands promised to the Yankton Dakota through the 1887 Dawes Act. When she returned to Carlisle, she criticized the school's rigid programs to assimilate Indian children into Euro-American culture and questioned an education that prepared them for only manual or domestic careers.

In 1901, Gertrude published another article in Harper's, this time describing the alienation and loss of identity Native children suffered at Carlisle. Pratt-already under fire by some for abuse and exploitation of students' labor in spite of receiving funds to educate them-apparently did not appreciate such criticism of his leadership; soon after Gertrude's article was published, she was dismissed from her teaching position.

It could be said that her being fired was Gertrude's destiny moment-for in the same year she was commissioned by Ginn and Company to gather stories from reservation Indians for her book, Old Indian Legends. Soon after, in 1902, she took a job as clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There she met and married Captain Raymond Bonnin, a Nakota of European ancestry. She also gave birth to their only child, a son, whom she named Ohiya (Winner).

When Captain Bonnin was reassigned, the couple moved to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah, homeland of the Ute Tribe and second only in land area to the Navajo. For 14 years, Gertrude taught at Indian Service where she would meet Brigham Young University professor and composer William Hanson. Still a lover of music, in 1910 Gertrude Bonnin would collaborate with Hanson for the Native American opera, "Sundance".

Gertrude would write the libretto-the words that are set to music for an opera-and in 1913, the reservation's Utes would perform the first-ever opera co-authored by a Native American.

But Gertrude Bonnin's sense of obligation to fight for Native Indian rights through her writings and political activism overpowered her love for music. She and Captain Bonnin joined the Society of American Indians. Formed in 1911, it was the first national American Indian rights organization run by and for American Indians. In 1916, Gertrude was elected as the group's secretary.

In 1924, with two Euro-American co-authors, Bonnin wrote Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft, Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery.

Not only did it expose thefts and murders of Native Americans, it led to the Indian Reorganization Act that reestablished a trust for Indian Lands. It was signed into law on June 18, 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt and assisted American Indians in keeping their cultures and traditions rather than being forced to surrender them and assimilate into Euro society.

Gertrude Bonnin was also a strong voice in gaining citizenship and voting rights (1924) for Native Americans. Largely through her efforts, the National Council of American Indians was established on March 1, 1926 to ensure Native American representation before the United States government and to advocate for American Indian rights.

And Zitkala-Sa-Gertrude Simmons Bonnin-ever the advocate for all American Indian people, served as its president for the remainder of her life.


Arlington National Cemetery, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala-Sha, Red Bird), Army Spouse

The Editors, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Zitkala-Sa , American Writer

Wikipedia, Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin)

A version of this article appears in 100+ Native American Women Who Changed the World by KB Schaller, winner, International Book Award, Women's Issues Category. Other KB Schaller books are available through and other booksellers. Website:


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