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Gertrude Bonnin, who was also known as Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird), was a Native American writer best known for her collections of traditional tribal stories. Strongly independent, a talented writer and musician, and an activist for Native American rights, Bonnin was one of the most dynamic Native Americans of the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Between Two Worlds
Bonnin was born at the Yank ton Sioux Agency in South Dakota. She was the third child of Tate i Yohin win (Reaches for the wind), a full-blood Dakota, and a white man who left the family before Bonnin’s birth. As a child at the Yankton Agency, Gertrude listened to the traditional stories about the various characters and animals that she would write about in her first book, Old Indian Legends. She lived according to traditional Yankton ways as much as was possible on the reservation.
In 1884 she took the opportunity to get an education usually offered only to white children by attending white’s Manual Labor institute in Wabash, Indiana. This began a lifelong struggle between traditional ways and modern social causes. Her mother distrusted missionaries’ efforts to educate American Indian children and fiercely opposed her daughter’s decision to go to the school. when Gertrude returned from white’s institute and announced her decision to again leave the reservation to continue her schooling, she and her mother grew apart. In 1888 and 1889 she attended the Santee Normal Training School in Nebraska but returned to white’s before moving on to Indiana’s Earlham College in 1895.
At Earlham she applied herself vigorously to studying music and became a respectable violinist. in early 1896 her speech ”Side by Side” gained her second place in statewide oratory honors among students and was printed in the March issue of the Word Corner, the school paper at the Santee Agency. Bonnin also studied briefly in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music. By the end of the century, she was teaching at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, performing with the many Sioux musicians in its orchestra. After she decided to leave her position at Carlisle, she studied at the New England Conservatory during 1900 and 1901.
Tales of Tradition and Assimilation
Moving to Boston put her in touch with an intellectual and artistic community that supported her career as a writer and liberated her from the assimilations demands of her teaching experience at Carlisle, which aimed to bring Native Americans into mainstream American culture even if it meant the loss of their traditional culture. Under the Lakota name Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird) she published her autobiographical stories in the first three monthly numbers of the Atlantic Monthly in 1900 and rapidly developed a literary reputation among readers of the magazine. Its publication of articles by Zitkala-Sa showed the influence of a popular movement that had begun in the 1880s and continued into the first decades of the twentieth century to reform U.S. policy toward Native Americans.
Despite the strained relations with her mother, Bonnin frequently returned home, wishing to stay in touch with her heritage. She dedicated herself to recalling and preserving her Sioux culture. In 1901 Ginn and Company, located in Boston, published fourteen of her stories as Old Indian Legends. In addition to her Atlantic Monthly stories, her essays and reflections were published in such periodicals as Harper’s Magazine, Everybody’s Magazine, and Red Man and Helper.
Move to Utah
Soon Bonnin’s romance with the acclaim of the white eastern mainstream diminished: she wanted to live near her mother again and she needed to support herself. After trying unsuccessfully to secure a reservation teaching job, she became an issue clerk at the Standing Rock Reservation, where she met Raymond Talesfase Bonnin, also a Yankton Sioux. She and Bonnin were married in May 1902. Later that year they transferred to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation—homeland of the Northern Ute tribe—near Fort Duchesne, Utah, where they spent the next fourteen years. Their son, Raymond O. Bonnin, was born there early in 1903. Her move to Utah brought a hiatus in her writing career, as she found herself in a political and artistic backwater for nearly a decade. She was frustrated by the demands of motherhood and discouraged by conditions on the Ute reservation.
Although Bonnin was not a founding member of the Society of American Indians (SAI), a self-help organization that began in 1911 at Ohio State University, she became one of its earliest supporters and active correspondents, rising eventually to positions on its staff. The organizers of the SAI, the most important of the pan-Indian groups, which was open to all tribes, wanted a forum that would reach beyond issues affecting individual tribes; they saw themselves as advocates for issues affecting many different Indian reservation and community populations.
One endeavor that Bonnin began while living in Utah was her support for both the Indian Service and the Community Center movement. The Indian Service was run by Native Americans, many of whom were educated in mission and trade schools on or off reservations, who worked on the reservations or in other American Indian communities performing the kind of support services work that Bonnin and her husband were doing. Bonnin encouraged nonpartisanship at the centers, but the movement failed as tribalism (loyalty to individual tribes rather than American Indians in general) increased and attempts to bring them together under the banner of pan-Indianism fell by the wayside.
New Writings and Activities
With Bonnin’s role in the SAI, the Bonnins relocated in 1916 to Washing ton, D.C. There Bonnin continued to help Native Americans make adjustments to white society. Although she was a respected leader, she continued experiencing the distrust of reservation Indians because she was part of both the Native American and white communities.
As if to sum up one side of her activities, Bonnin gathered several of her writings for a new book, American Indian Stories, published by Hayworth Press in 1921 under the name Zitkala-Sa. Bonnin probably felt her early writings were still timely for their pro-Indian self-determination stance. Meanwhile, in 1924 the Indian Rights Association, which was an organization that Bonnin had supported for many years, published a small volume, Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians, an Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery that Bonnin wrote with Charles H. Fabens and Matthew K. Sniffen. This study reported on American Indians being murdered and swindled out of the recently discovered oil-rich land on which they had been living since forced there from the southern states in the nineteenth century.
Pushed to a less important position among her former pan-Indian associates, Bonnin fought with new determination for Native American rights, encouraged by the Indian Citizenship Act of1924. She helped found the National Council of American Indians (NCAI) in 1926 and became its first president; her husband was elected secretary-treasurer. The NCAI became Bonnin’s platform for calling upon Indians to support rights issues, to encourage racial consciousness and pride, and to pro mote pan-Indianism. Despite Bonnin’s efforts, educated American Indians during the period between the two world wars continued to be involved with tribal issues rather than national Indian concerns. Even the organization’s lack of progress and the criticism confronting Bonnin from time to time did not lessen her interest in Indian rights.
Bonnin continued lecturing on Indian reform and Indian rights until her health began to fail. The NCAI dissolved when she died on January 26, 1938, in Washington, D.C. Later that year the Indian Confederation of America, a New York City-based group, honored her memory at its annual powwow. Her reputation as an effective writer and activist at the forefront of the struggle to gain respect for Native Americans has gained wider appreciation, thanks to the reprinting of her first two books and various scholarly articles analyzing her writing.
Works in Literary Context
White Oppression and the Celebration of Tradition
Bonnin was one of the first Native American women among her contemporaries to publish a collection of traditional tribal stories. Her command of English is refined, and her works are characterized by vivid imagery. She does not mince words, and her stories are emotion ally charged, often angry, sometimes strident in directing accusations against white oppression of American Indi ans. With her sense of her audience shaped largely by the Christian missionary schools she attended, her work expresses her discomfort in holding the status of a white-educated Indian, her love for Native American culture, and her concern for Indian self-determination. In particular, Bonnin notes the hypocrisy of Christians and specifically those Native Americans who have adopted Christianity in calling her traditional beliefs superstitious; from her viewpoint, Christianity is superstition. She also remarks upon the fear she felt upon hearing some specific details of Christianity, such as the notion of the devil.
Bonnin’s spirit encouraged other prominent Native Americans of her time, such as Charles A. Eastman, Carlos Montezuma, and Arthur C. Parker. As a writer she shared her storytelling traditions with young readers; her essays and personal reflections voiced her anger at the suffering of native people caused by elements of white society. Her life serves as an example of the hardships faced by educated American Indians trying to live in both the red and the white worlds.
Works in Critical Context
Bonnin’s works have only recently begun to receive critical attention. Bonnin wrote to revise the dominant white assessment of tribal culture. Bonnin compares Sioux and white cultures and, through the comparison, shows the cruelty, ignorance, and superstition of the invading white nation. As Zitkala-Sa, Bonnin wrote with the clear purpose of re-creating in the imagination of her mostly white audience the cultural identity of the people she had left behind her. Her life and letters exemplify the condition of a Native American writer in transition between two cultures. However, her literary achievement never overshadowed the truth that the source of her inspiration was in the traditional oral culture of the Sioux.
Though little critical opinion of Bonnin’s work was generated upon publication, this excerpt from a letter to the author written by Helen Keller seems to effectively express popular opinion of Old Indian Legends (1901):
Your tales of birds, beast, tree and spirit cannot but hold captive the hearts of all children. They will kindle in their young minds that eternal wonder which creates poetry and keeps life fresh and eager. I wish you and your little book of Indian tales all success.
- Dockstader, Frederick J. Great North American Indians. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.
- James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1971.
- Medicine, Beatrice. The Hidden Half: Studies of Plains Indian Women. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1983.
- Rappaport, Doreen. The Flight of Red Bird: The Life of Zitkala-Sa. New York: Dial Books, 1997.
- Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected References. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.
- Welch, Deborah. American Indian Leader: The Story of Gertrude Bonnin. PhD diss., University of Wyoming, 1985.
- Wiget, Andrew, ed. Critical Essays on American Indian Literature. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.
- Cutter, Martha J. ”Zitkala-Sa’s Autobiographical Writings: The Problems of a Canonical Search for Language and Identity.” MELUS (Spring 1994).
- Fisher, Dexter. ”Zitkala-Sa: The Evolution of a Writer.” American Indian Quarterly (August 1977).
- Susag, Dorothea M. ”Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin): A Power(full) Literary Voice.” Studies in American Indian Literatures (Winter 1993).
- Willard, William. ”Zitkala-Sa, A Woman Who Would Be Heard.” Wicazo Sa Review (1985).
- University of Pennsylvania Digital Library. A Celebration of Women Writers: American Indian Stories. Edited by Mary Mark Ockerbloom. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from http://digital.library.upenn.edu/ women/zitkala-sa/stories/stories.html.
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