In 1923, Zitkala-Ša, a Dakota woman, wrote an unpublished essay titled “Our Sioux People,” tracing the U.S. government’s relationship with the tribe. She described a scene where delegates from the Pine Ridge reservation met with Mr. E. B. Merritt of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC. Zitkala-Ša quoted: “through all the pathos of their sad story, the sight of thier gaunt faces, their cheap and shabby civilian clothes which bespoke their poverty more than words, Mr. E. B. Merritt, Assistant Commissioner sat unmoved in his luxurious office, where walls were hung with bright colored paintings of primitive Indian folk and their teepees.” Zitkala-Ša’s complex political writing and activism added American Indian perspectives to women’s political activism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We do this episode in honor of Elizabeth’s new book, The Sentimental State: How Women-Led Reform Built the American Welfare State.

Sarah: In 1923, a Dakota woman named Zitkala-Ša wrote the first draft of an essay that she labeled “Our Sioux People.” The essay was ultimately never published, but in her manuscript, Zitakla Ša traces the history of the United States’s government’s relationship with the tribe. She tells the story of several delegates from the Pine Ridge reservation traveling to Washington, DC to meet with representatives of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After an arduous journey, they were brought into the office of Mr. E. B. Merritt, who listened, implacable, to the visiting Indians. Zitkala-Ša described the scene thus: “through all the pathos of their sad story, the sight of thier gaunt faces, their cheap and shabby civilian clothes which bespoke their poverty more than words, Mr. E. B. Merritt, Assistant Commissioner sat unmoved in his luxurious office, where walls were hung with bright colored paintings of primitive Indian folk and their teepees.”

Marissa: The contrast between the impoverished and suffering delegation from the Pine Ridge reservation and the lavish government office, decorated with paintings of Indians, captured something of the relationship between the Indian and the US federal government. Zitkala-Ša, a sharp activist and skilled writer, compared this paradox to “an old Sioux legend:” “There is an old Sioux legend about Double-face, a creature that had a face on both front and back of his head. It is told of him that he stole an Indian baby, and when the child cried from hunger he sang a lullaby to it, –while switching its little bare feet with a thorny rose bush.”

Sarah: The Sioux – and by extension, all Native Americans – were the baby in this metaphor, held by the paternalistic federal government, continuously inflicting the very pain that it then shushed and quieted. Zitkala-Ša compared Double-face to the evil slaver Simon Legree of the famous ninteenth century novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who whipped the people he enslaved “till their lacerated bodies were covered with blood.” At least Legree, she argued, was “frank in his brutality, and did not try to deceive by any pretense of humanitarianism. His face was single and not double.”

Marissa: Zitkala-Ša knew intimately the tension that came from the American Double-face. When she was a child, she was recruited to attend a school run by missionaries in Indiana, and from that moment onward, spent the rest of her life caught between Sioux culture and Anglo-American culture. She had two names – a Lakota name, Zitkala-Ša, and her American name, Gertrude Bonnin. Zitkala-Ša developed a talent for writing which she used to describe in powerful detail the plight of the American Indian in the late 19th and early 20th century and to further her political activism. In 1926, she became a co-founder of the National Council of American Indians, an activist lobbying group intended to advocate for Indian citizenship and voting rights. She served as the president of that group until her death in 1938. She was also a women’s rights activist, and an active member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and went on a cross-country speaking tour on behalf of the organization, during which she called for the abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Sarah: In this series, we’re exploring issues and topics that extend and complement our beloved Elizabeth Masarik’s fantastic new book, The Sentimental State. Today, I want to talk more about one woman whose complex political writing and activism added the perspectives of American Indians to women’s political activism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Gertrude Bonnin, also known by her Dakota/Lakota name, Zitkala-Ša. 

I’m Sarah

And I’m Marissa

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig


Sarah: I first encountered Zitkala-Ša when we were working on our book, Spiritualism’s Place. As you might recall, I wrote a chapter on how Spiritualism and New Age religion appropriate Native American spirituality. But within that chapter, I was also trying to unravel a little mystery about two Indian people that are claimed by Lily Dale as important figures in their past: Oskenonton and Princess Chinquilla. They were singing partners, traveling around to communities like Lily Dale performing operatic music and delivering lectures, during the 1910s. But while I was able to learn quite a bit about Oskenonton’s life – he was born in Ontario, Canada, was Mohawk, and became an opera singer as a young man and traveled around the United States and Europe performing – I was never really able to quite pin Chinquilla down. She claimed to be a princess, and while she usually identified herself as Cheyenne, after she performed with Oskenonton, she said she was Mohawk. In my own quest to unravel this little mystery, I happened upon a really interesting article by a scholar of Native American studies named Cari Carpenter, about Zitkala-Ša’s quest to unravel the mystery of Princess Chinquilla.

Marissa: Zitkala-Ša and Charlotte Jones, an acquaintance that she met through her work with the National Council of American Indians (which we will refer to as the NCAI) were suspicious of Chinquilla. In the 1920s, Chinquilla had a fairly high profile, and Zikala Ša had invited her to join the NCAI. But when Chinquilla aligned herself with another activist named Red Fox James, who many also suspected to be an imposter, Zitkala-Ša, her husband Raymond Bonnin, and their acquaintance Charlotte Jones began an unofficial investigation into Chinquilla’s background. They were especially concerned with exposing ‘fake Indians” because, as Raymond Bonnin described it, “If she really is one of them [Cheyenne] she should inform herself better as to their needs and try honestly to work for their benefit. For anybody to fool the people like this only makes it harder for real Indians to help their own people for everybody [to] get suspicious of them too.”[1]

Sarah: Scholar Cari Carpenter, in her article exploring this debate over Chinquilla’s “Indianness,” isn’t interested in whether or not Chinquilla was really Cheyenne or Native American at all. Instead, she examines how – in their quest to unmask Chinquilla – Zitkala-Ša, her huband Raymond, and Charlotte Jones – debate what it actually meant to be Indian in the early 20th century. Charlotte Jones, for instance, grapples with her own identity in a letter to Zitkala-Ša from 1927, writing: “I am of mixed blood – white and Indian (in what proportion I do not know, but the greater part is Indian). My ancestors were Delaware or Lenni Lenape from Maryland and vicinity. They are not mostly scattered as a tribe, and very much mixed. The white blood is in part Irish. I do not think the amount of white blood is sufficient to limit my membership, as I am pretty sure it is less than one-third.” Zitkala-Ša also accused Chiquilla of masquerading as an Indian while “made up,” wearing inauthentic Indian dress. In 1927, Zitkala-Ša speculated to Jones that something was off in Chinquilla’s appearance, writing: “Her pictures in Indian dress are not right, and as I remember from that momentary meeting over a year ago, I believe she ‘painted’ her face all over with some kind of stuff, attempting to copy the “Indian complexion,” for I remarked to Capt Bonnin that “Chinquilla” has a most peculiar yellowish color, and that her eyes didn’t look right. They weren’t black or brown…She wore ‘beads’ and colors that night that seemed to be a ‘labored’ effort to appear ‘Indian.’ It was not natural.”

Marissa: But, as scholars have demonstrated, throughout her career, Zitkala-Ša herself played with her  presentation, especially when it was useful in performances before white people. A talented musician, Zitkala-Ša had been invited to perform a piano recital at a white church in California, with the specific request that she wear “Indian dress.” She explained to her friend, the archaeologist Arthur C. Parker (Seneca): “No doubt, there may be some, who may not wholly approve of the Indian dress. I hope it does not displease you. Even a clown has to dress differently from his usual citizen’s suit.” Early in her life, Zitkala-Ša had been a model for photographer Gertrude Käsebier, posing wearing clothing that historian Tadeusz Lewandowski characterized as “mock Indian garb.”

Sarah: I start with this story instead of at the beginning of Zitkala-Ša’s life because it not only explains my interest in her, but also because it serves as a really interesting introduction to Zitkala-Ša’s complex life, activism, and decisions. Born in 1876, Zitkala-Ša lived through a tremendously difficult, complicated, and eventful era in American Indian history. The fact that she was skeptical of Chinquilla’s authenticity when she knew that she had also worn inauthentic clothing is illustrative of just how in flux the concept of “Indianness” was during this era.

Zitkala-Ša was born in 1876, the last child of her mother Taté I Yóhin Win (Reaches for the Wind, or Every Wind). Taté I Yóhin Win was Yankton Dakota.

Marissa: Let’s take a time out for a moment to talk about terminology. The names Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota all refer to language dialects used by peoples who historically lived in the area that we now call Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Colorado. This larger group is sometimes called Oceti Sakawin, which means “People of the Seven Council Fires.” But like using the term “Six Nations” to refer to the Haudenosaunee, this is a term that is specific to a moment in time – before the formation of this larger organization, that name isn’t quite accurate. The Oceti Sakawin is much more commonly known as the Sioux, which is the name first used by the French based on the words that other tribes, specifically the Ojibwe, used for them. Now, many use either the term Dakota or Lakota to refer to the overarching tribe. Following the example of the scholars we consulted, we will use the term Dakota to refer to the tribe as a unit – but will use Sioux when the historical actors themselves used that term. Further, the Dakota consist of multiple regional bands, such as the Santee, Yankton, Oglala, Blackfeet, Miniconjou, and others. Also, I’m choosing to use Zitkala-Ša’s Dakota name here. She was also named Gertrude Simmons and Gertrude Bonnin, but when she published, she chose to use a Dakota name, so that’s what we’ll use, too.

Sarah: Taté I Yóhin Win was Yankton Dakota, born sometime between 1820 and 1830. She married several times, first to a French fur-trader named Pierre St. Pierre (lol). They lived in a community of other fur traders, many of whom also had Yankton wives. Pierre St. Pierre died in 1853, leaving Taté I Yóhin Win with their two young sons. Seeking refuge, she went to live with her brother. She remarried in 1858, this time to an Anglo-American man named John Haysting Simmons. During the intervening period, the Yankton – under significant pressure – signed over 11.5 million acres of land for 30 cents an acre in what had just become the state of Minnesota, and agreed to live on a reservation. Without access to this vast hunting ground, the Dakota relied on payments for the land to survive – payments that often didn’t arrive or arrived late. After her marriage, Taté I Yóhin Win started to use the Anglo-American name Ellen Simmons. The couple had several more children until John Simmons’ death in 1874. Again, Taté I Yóhin Win had to rely on her brother for support, but by now, it was hard to live independently on the reserved land without the ability to hunt sufficiently to support a family. They were forced to move to the Yankton Indian agency in the town of Greenwood in the Dakota territory. (Agencies were kind of akin to embassies – this was the headquarters of the US government in Indian territories who acted as the contact for Indians in that area.) As a result of the journey to the agency, Taté I Yóhin Win’s youngest child, a little girl, died of exhaustion and illness. Not long after, one of her young sons also died. Two years later, in 1876, Taté I Yóhin Win had remarried briefly, this time to another French man, and gave birth to another daughter: Zitkala-Ša, English name Gertrude Simmons.

The Episcopal Mission at the Yankton Reservation, no date | Stephen A. Schwarzman Building and Photography Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library

Marissa: Zitkala-Ša’s family was scattered. Sometime before her birth, her French father took off, never to be heard from again. Then, her older half-brother David went away to boarding school at a missionary school Nebraska, followed by study at Hampton Institute, now the HBCU Hampton University, which accepted Indians. Things weren’t easy – Zitkala-Ša and her mother relied on the rations distributed by the agency to survive – but Zitkala-Ša recalled these days as wonderful and loving. She wasn’t just raised by her mother, but by the elders in the Yankton community, as well as an extended kin network. She began attending a bilingual school at the agency at the age of six, and two years later, missionaries came to the agency looking for children to take back to their Quaker missionary school in Indiana. Taté I Yóhin Win wasn’t thrilled about the idea – she had little reason to trust white people, and while she’d let her son go off to school, she likely had very different, gendered reservations about sending away her daughter. But, as Zitkala-Ša’s biographer Tadeusz Lewandoswki writes, “Ellen Simmons, aware that the future looked increasingly dismal, decided to relinquish her daughter temporarily in the hope that it would enable the girl’s survival.”[2] Zitkala-Ša was excited to attend the school, which she’d been told was surrounded by apple trees. But in short order, she realized the school was not what she had hoped.

Sarah: The teachers used cruel physical discipline. They cut off the childrens’ long braids, instead requiring that they wear their hair cropped short in acceptable American styles. The facilities were dirty and food was scarce, leaving children weak and sick. The curriculum reinforced American cultural ideals, including gender roles in which men did farm work and women kept clean, moral homes and raised children. Students were strongly encouraged to convert to Christianity and let go of their culture. Zitkala-Ša returned home at 11 after finishing the course of study at the Quaker school. She then bounced between a couple of different schools and living back at home in Yankton, but as she became a teenager, it was increasingly difficult to live at the agency. She now experienced a tension between the Americanized life she had while at school and the Dakota life she had at home, and felt caught between the two worlds. She eventually returned back to White’s (the Quaker school), and became a favorite pupil. A Quaker woman recognized her musical talents, and fostered her talents in singing, violin, and piano. Eventually, she was actually used in recruiting more students to the school, including a fellow Yankton boy named Raymond Telephause Bonnin, the man destined to later become her husband. When the school had to lay off staff, she became a teacher and administrator. In 1895, she was invited to be the year’s commencement speaker, and she delivered a speech entitled “The Progress of Women,” about the need for women’s rights.

Marissa: In 1895, Zitkala-Ša was accepted to Earlham College, a small Quaker college in Richmond, Indiana. Her mother wasn’t happy, hoping instead that Zitkala-Ša would return home and live with her at the Yankton agency. But Zitkala-Ša was eager for a new life, continuing her education and studying music. She was an active student, earning high grades, performing recitals, and joining clubs. In 1896, Zitkala-Ša was invited to participate in a multi-college oratory contest. When she entered the hall in Indianapolis, some of the students from Butler College had hung banners from the upper balcony decorated with images intended to embarrass and enrage their competition. The Earlham banner was decorated with a caricature of an Indian woman (she later wrote it was meant to be a ‘squaw’) with the word “Humility” under it. When the other speakers gave their orations, they extolled Christianity and American democracy. Then Zitkala-Ša, going by Gertrude Bonnin, rose to speak. Her speech, called “Side by Side,” railed against the invasion of North America by Europeans and criticized the suggestion that Indians were savages: “The charge of cruelty has been brough against the Indian, but the White man has been witness and the judge. Anglo-Saxon England with its progressive blood, its long continued development of freedom and justice, its eight centuries of Christian training, burned the writhing martyr in the fires of Kenith field…Let it be remembered, before condemnation is passed upon the Red Man, that, while he burned and tortured frontiersmen, puritan Boston burned witches and hanged Quakers, and the Southern aristocrat beat his slaves and set bloodhounds on the tracks of him who dared aspire to freedom.” 

Sarah: She went on to criticize the idea of the ‘disappearing Indian” and explained that signs of Indian ‘savagery’ were the results of “civilization:” “Civilization is not a an unmixed blessing Vices begin to creep into his life and deepen the Red Man’s degradation. He learns to crave the European liquid fire. Broken treaties shakehis faith in the newcomers. Continued aggressions goad him to desperation The White Man’s bullet decimates his tribes and drives him from his home. What if he fought? His forests were felled; his game frightened away; his streams of finny shoals usurped. He loved his family and would defend them. He loved the fair land of which he was the rightful owner. He loved the inheritance of his fathers, their traditions, their graves; he held them a priceless legacy to be sacredly kept he loved his native land. Do you wonder still that in his breast should brood revenge…? Is patriotism a virtue only in Saxon hearts?” Reflecting ideas of racial uplift common in Black political circles in the late nineteenth century, Zitkala-Ša ended the essay by saying that Indians were “seeking the White Man’s ways.” With assistance, “the warm hand of friendship,” Native Americans could stand “side by side” with the white Americans, “ascribing royal honor to our nation’s flag. America, I love thee.” She finished with a quote from the Biblical book of Ruth: “Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

Marissa: The speech was a huge hit. Ultimately, she placed second – thwarted by a Southern judge who was insulted at her depictions of enslavement. The speech was powerful in its criticism of white Americans’ treatment of Indians, but also ended the speech on an assimilationist note. This reflected her own experience – deeply affected by the mistreatment of Native people, but also invested in living a life assimilated into white society. The oratory contest itself was an example of that: the sole Indian woman standing in an auditorium full of white people, mostly men, who objectified and mocked her, railing against their mistreatment … while also trying to get into the club by winning the contest. But while she was highly praised at Earlham, Zitkala-Ša left early, partly because of a long illness and partly because she needed to start supporting herself financially. Instead of going home to Yankton, in 1897, the twenty-one year old Zitkala-Ša traveled to Pennsylvania to become a teacher at the Carlisle Indian school.

Sarah: The Carlisle Indian school wasn’t the only boarding school dedicated to the education of Native Americans, but it was probably one of the most well known. Located in a decommissioned US Army barracks in Carlisle, PA, and founded by Richard Henry Pratt in 1879, the school was federally funded and dedicated explicitly to the assimiliation of Indians. Early experience educating imprisoned Indians in St. Augustine, Florida had convinced Pratt that Indians could be assimilated into American society with strict classical, moral and cultural education. A typical explanation of Carlisle’s mission was summed up in the school magazine, Indian Helper, in 1898 like this: “It is this nature in our red brother that is better dead than alive, and when we agree with the oft-repeated sentiment that the only good Indian is a dead one, we mean this characteristic of the Indian. Carlisle’s mission is to kill THIS Indian, as we build up the better man.”[3] Carlisle teachers enforced strict rules – children were disallowed from speaking their own languages, were forced to cut their long hair and wear it in American styles, wear American clothing, and become Christians. The content of their education constantly reinforced the notion that their cultures were inferior, immoral, and a barrier to progress. For Indian girls like Zitkala-Ša, they were trained specifically to become Victorian, American housewives, rejecting the “wanton sexuality” that white Americans believed Native women possessed. When she arrived at Carlisle, the slim, lovely, and cultured Zitkala-Ša seemed like living proof of the success of this process.

Marissa: Zitkala-Ša was used almost immedialely in recruiting students to Carlisle, and was sent back to Yankton for that purpose. She found her mother living in abject poverty and the reservation winnowed down as a result of the Dawes Act, which gave land allotments to each head of household and relinquished the rest to white American settlers. She returned to Carlisle distressed about life at home at Yankton. She continued to study music, write, and deliver speeches while teaching at Carlisle. Around this time, she met a woman named Gertrude Käsebier, who was a celebrated photographer (likely the best known woman photographer of the day). Käsebier was interested in Indian subjects, and around the time she met Zitkala-Ša, she spent time with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show to photograph many of the Plains Indians who traveled with the troupe. In 1898, Käsebier arranged to photograph Zitkala-Ša, along with her friend, photographer Joseph Keiley. The pair took a number of photographs of the twenty-two year old woman, in most of them wearing mock Native garb and draped with beads. In one taken by Keiley, she leans back on a couch, staring off to the side, her very long, black hair is shiny, and flows over her shoulders. One hand is gently touching her hair, and the other rests in her lap, decorated with rings.

Zitkala-Ša, photographed by Joseph Keiley in 1898 | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Sarah: When I was first learning about Zitkala-Ša, I came across these photographs, and they are truly breathtaking. She looks striking and powerful; she takes up space in the image; her body in poses that would have been considered unladylike, or even downright masculine. I’ll try to embed them in the shownotes – they are very worth seeing.

Marissa: During this time, Zitkala-Ša was living in Boston, continuing study of the violin privately with the Austrian violinist Eugene Gruenberg. Gertrude Käsebier encouraged her to apply to the New England Conservatory of Music, where Gruenberg was on the faculty. She never made it into the school. While she was in Boston, Zitkala-Ša learned that her fiance, a Yankton man named Thomas Marshall who she had attended the Quaker school with and who studied at Dickinson College in Carlisle, had died suddently of measles. Biographer Tadeusz Lewandoswki speculates that it was this experience – feeling disconnected in the east coast city, losing her fiance – that sparked her desire to process her thoughts about Indian life in writing. Through her connection to Gertrude Käsebier, Zitkala-Ša met Joseph Edgar Chamberlain, a successful New England journalist, who welcomed her to his home so she could write, and then encouraged the editor of The Atlantic Monthly to read her submissions. The result was a series of essays published in The Atlantic in 1900, when Zitkala-Ša was twenty-four. It was in the byline of these essays that she first used her Dakota name – Zitkala-Ša – professionally, instead of Gertrude Bonnin.

Sarah: Zitkala-Ša was a sharp and incisive writer, channeling the strong criticism of her speech “Side by Side.” Her first essays for The Atlantic explored her childhood on the Yankton reservation and skewered the boarding school system of Indian education. Rather than simply criticizing the system, she explicitly connected the realities of boarding schools to her own experiences. Her essay “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” is a semi-autobiographical account of her experience at the Quaker school. In it, Zitkala-Ša describes the long train ride to the Quaker school in Indiana, then she recalled that when she arrived, a white woman playfully tossed her into the air. “My mother had never made a plaything of her wee daughter,” she wrote, describing her sense of cultural alienation. Later, she wrote that she was dragged out from a hiding place and tied to a chair while her braids were cut off. She was alone and isolated: “Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.” The story traces her growing sense of isolation and disconnection from her family in Yankton. By the end of the story, she describes her triumph at the oratory contest, but while she’s pleased (largely because she triumphed over that banner of the squaw) she is left feeling somewhat hollow. “The rest of the night I sat in an armchair and gazing into the crackling fire. I laughed no more in triumph when thus alone. The little taste of victory did not satisfy a hunger in my heart. In my mind, I saw my mother, far away on the Western plains, and she was holding a charge against me.”

Zitkala-Ša, photographed by Gertrude Käsebier, 1898 | Smithsonian Institution

Marissa: In the next story, “An Indian Teacher Among Teachers,” she further describes this sense of alienation. In her pursuit of a white education, she had lost her connection with the earth. She began to see the walls of the Carlisle Indian School as a kind of “white walled prison:” “For the white man’s paper, I had given up my faith in the Great Spirit. For these same papers, I had forgotten the healing in trees and brooks. On account of my mother’s simple view of life, and my lack of any, I gave her up, also….Like a slender tree, I had been uprooted from my mother, nature, and God. I was shorn of my branches, which had waved in sympathy and love for home and friends. The natural coat of bark which had protected my oversensitive nature was scraped off to the very quick.” These weren’t exactly endorsements of the assimilationist policy of boarding schools – where Zitkala-Ša worked. Pratt, superintendent of the Carlisle school, was enraged by Zitkala-Ša’s disloyalty. “But for those she maligned,” Pratt wrote, referencing the missionaries and teachers in Zitkala-Ša’s past, “she would be a poor squaw in an Indian camp, probably married to some no-account Indian.”[4] Still, Zitkala-Ša went on tour with the Carlisle Indian School band, performing excerpts from the famed Longfellow epic poem, Hiawatha, while wearing beaded buckskins.

Sarah: Side note, this is really interesting to me, because Lily Dale has clippings showing that Oskenonton and Chinquilla also performed excepts from Hiawatha on their tours, sometimes set to music. It’s such an interesting example of the dynamic facing many American Indians of the age – facing cultural, linguistic, and literal genocide from oppressors who are also fascinated with the remnants of your culture, paying money to listen to you sing a white man’s version of Indian history and legend while wearing a mishmosh of vaguely Native clothing.

Marissa: In 1901, Zikala Ša continued her writing career with a story in Harper’s Weekly called “The Soft Hearted Sioux.” In this fictional story, a teenaged Dakota boy returns home to his reservation after years away at boarding school, changed by his time away: “Nine winters I hunted for the soft heart of Christ, and prayed for the huntsmen who chased the buffalo on the plains.” He tries to convert his family and tribe, but they reject his attempts and express their disappointment in his rejection of his culture. Insulted by his attempts to convert them, most of the band leaves with the tribal medicine man (rejecting Christianity for their ancestral faith), leaving him and his parents behind. His father, sick and hungry, laments that his son is now too ‘soft-hearted’ to hunt, and will allow him to die before he kills a buffalo to keep the family alive. Desperate to prove himself and to keep his ailing father alive, he kills the only thing available – a cow that belongs to a white rancher. In the process of trying to escape, the boy kills the rancher, too, only to discover that his father has died while waiting for him to return. In the end, he faces his impending execution at the gallows stoicly, wondering whether he will experience a Christian afterlife, with a “soothing sleep” granted by Jesus, or be met by his father, finally proud of his son. The story, while fictional, captures again the reality that Indian children educated in boarding schools were trapped, unable to truly join white society and unable to be part of life on the reservation.

Sarah: This story enraged Pratt and the Carlisle camp even more than her earlier essays. All her literary skill was the result of the white people who educated her, a Carlisle publication insisted, not her own merits. Zitkala-Ša wrote to her friend Carlos Montezuma (Yavapi-Apache), “I must live my life I must think in my own way (since I cannot help it) I must write the lessons I see … I have a place in the Universe, and no one can cheat or crowd me by a single hair’s breadth.”[5] Pratt, however, didn’t have patience to deal with Zitkala-Ša’s rebelliousness anymore, and dismissed her from the Carlisle school. No longer linked to Carlisle, Zitkala-Ša traveled back to the Dakota territory where she hoped to focus on her writing. She spent time interviewing Dakota elders about tribal stories and legends, which she planned to compile into a volume. She had mixed feelings about living with her mother again – their relationship was strained. But she also became reacquainted with Raymond Bonnin, a young man she had known at the Quaker school. Also the child of a white father and Dakota mother, Raymond had a very similar experience to Zitkala-Ša, with the exception that he had been baptized Catholic. The two began riding together, talking together in Dakota. Their relationship was only complicated by the fact that she was also sort of dating her friend from Carlisle, Carlos Montezuma. (Montezuma was in Chicago, so it was mostly a penpal thing.)

Marissa: While juggling her busy dating life, Zitkala-Ša published her book, Old Indian Legends. The book is a collection of legends and stories, generally aimed at young readers but with a strong subtext intended for a wider readership. The stories are translated from the original Dakota language, taken from the oral histories she conducted with Dakota elders. In it, stories reflect modern day realities for Dakota people. Badgers, stand ins for Indians, are robbed by bears, clearly symbolic of white Americans; Double-Face sings while he tortures babies with thorns; a rabbit gives up his eyes in order to accept a life made easy by technology. The final story, “The Warlike Seven,” tells the story of seven warriors: the Ashes, the Fire, the Bladder, the Grasshopper, the Dragonfly, the Fish, and the Turtle. They are under attack from different powers even as they try to fight – the wind blows the Ashes away, the Fire goes out, the Bladder is burst by a thorn, the Grasshopper is stuck in the mud, the Dragonfly dies of sorrow – but the Turtle and the Fish go on to outwit those who try to kill them. When somme villagers try to kill the Fish and the Turtle by drowning them, they take to the water happily and then taunt them: “This is where I live! This is where I live!”

Sarah: I tried to find some analysis of this story, and I’m sure it exists, but I couldn’t find it. But to me, the story seems like a statement about the persistence of the Lakota-Dakota (or Sioux) people, of which there are “Seven Council Fires,” or tribal groups/bands. The Lakota/Dakota also had a strong warrior culture. As white Americans encroached, the ‘warlike seven” try to fight, but some fall away. Perhaps for Zitkala-Ša, this meant less that they actually were eradicated or conquered, but more that they were forced to ‘give in’ or make concessions to the US government. Yet, in the end, two remain, having outwitted the villagers who were certain they could kill them – perhaps this is the Lakota-Dakota, continuing to survive, defiant in their ancestral homes – “This is where I live!”

The book was a success, and the publisher wanted her to write more books for them. She did write a couple more articles, published in The Atlantic Monthly, Everybody’s Magazine, and Harper’s Monthly, which grappled with feminism and religious faith. One essay in particular, “Why I Am a Pagan,” was a rebuttal to the criticism she received for her essays about boarding schools. In the essay, she talks about returning to Yankton and considering her faith, questioning the Christian doctrines she was taught at boarding school. She seeks “the loving mystery” that encompasses all races. The essay ends,”I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the tittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.” Here, Zitkala-Ša isn’t rejecting God or religion or really, even Christianity, but instead describing something far bigger. This has sometimes, I think, been interpreted as maybe a bad faith argument – even maybe a lie – because of some decisions that Zitkala-Ša makes later in her life, but I don’t agree with that interpretation, as we’ll discuss in a minute.

Marissa: While the press hoped she would write more books, Zitkala-Ša stepped away from writing in her mid-twenties. In 1902, she married her old friend Raymond Bonnin, who took a job working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs posted at the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah. Life there was hard. As Yankton Dakota, the Bonnins were cultural strangers, trapped between the white American agency leadership and the Ute tribe. From this point, Zitkala-Ša’s work became more explicitly political than literary, focused on intertribal organization and cooperation for Indian rights. In 1903, she gave birth to her son and only child, Raymond Ohiyah Bonnin, who the couple called Ohiya. They also took in another child, an orphaned Ute boy named Oran, and an elderly Dakota man known as Old Sioux. Raymond’s work in Utah was incredibly challenging. The Episcopal Church sent a mission to the territory that quickly tried to control the running of the government school. With their quick rise to control, Raymond took a job with the Episcopal school, but white employees resented working under an Indian man. Frustrated, Raymond quit and the family moved back to Dakota territory, this time to the Standing Rock reservation, where Zitkala-Ša took up work as a clerk. It was during this time that the couple met several Catholic nuns and priests working on the reservation, helping to host large gatherings known as Sioux Congresses. One priest, Father Martin Kenel, became a close friend and spiritual advisor, and soon, Zitkala-Ša converted to Catholicism.

Sarah: Now, this is what could be easily construed as Zitkala-Ša being hypocritical or false in her defenses of “pagan” Indian religions and a rejection of Christianity. I don’t see it that way. As Tadeusz Lewandoswki points out, Catholics tended to be more progressive in their methods of missionizing, allowing for generous overlap between Native cultural practices and religious traditions and Catholic teaching and criticizing federal Indian policies. On the Dakota-Lakota reservations, the organization of the Congresses helped to replace the now-banned tribal dances, such as the Sun Dance, that brought the various bands of the Lakota-Dakota together periodically. It’s true that these were still Catholic events, with catechism, the eucharist, and homilies, but they at least worked with existing cultural practices instead of trying to entirely stamp them out. As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, there is a long history of Indians and Catholics finding common ground in ritual – though within limits. 

Marissa: Her new religious practice did not take away Ziktla Ša’s devotion to preserving Indian culture, though it did create some strange tensions. The Bonnins moved back to Utah in 1910, and in a series of letters to Father Martin, she expressed the need for a Catholic  church on the reservation, because the Utes had no active Christian presence and did not observe the Sabbath but did perform their traditional dances. In the letter, she didn’t explicitly condemn the dances, but rather the lack of a Catholic Church to supplement. She clearly didn’t completely reject the dances, because later that year, Zitkala-Ša met William Hanson, a Mormon music teacher and former missionary from Brigham Young University, at a Sun Dance gathering. The two discussed their shared passion for music and interest in the Sun Dance at length, and soon, Zitkala-Ša raised the possibility to combining their musical, literary, and cultural talents to write an opera based on the Sun Dance. Though it might seem surprising, opera was not an uncommon art form for Native people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Oskenonton, the Mohawk who lived for a time in Lily Dale, was an incredibly talented and classically trained opera singer, and Chinquilla was famous for performing operatic pieces. Several operas of the 1910s featured storylines about  indigenous people, such as Poia, Natoma, and La Fanciulla de West. All of these operas, however, were more about white people’s imaginings of Native people and cultures, not depictions of actual cultural practices, and almost never featured Native American performers. Some, like Puccini’s La Fanciulla de West, feature harmful stereotypes. The Sun Dance opera, when it debuted in 1913, was very different.

Zitkala-Ša and William Hanson in Plains Indian dress, promoting The Sun Dance Opera | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: The opera was named for the sacred ritual of the Sun Dance, a ceremony practiced across the Great Plains. A central group of dancers perform the ceremony while others watch on. Dancers prepare rigorously for the ceremony, fasting and refusing water for days. Sometimes the ceremony involves other events, such as a hunt, military raid, or time in a sweat lodge. But the central experience is a dance that takes place within the hoop or sacred circle. In Lakota/Dakota ceremonies, the dancers are pierced with hooks and tethers, sometimes dragging a buffalo skull, othertime anchored to a sacred tree, that the dancer pulls against until either the tether breaks or the flesh rips. The physical commitment is understood as a sacrifice committed on behalf of the community, heightening spiritual connection and resulting in answered prayers. It’s unsurprising that many white Christian Americans saw this as grotesque, barbaric, and potentially dangerous. Many whites saw such dances as proof that Indians were resisting assimilation and Christianization, and even as precursors to violence against whites. Similar dances, such as the one central to the Ghost Dance religion, had resulted in harsh crack downs from the US army, and dances were tightly regulated and often banned on reservations. In 1881, the Sun Dance was banned on the Pine Ridge reservation, and in 1883, it was federally banned. The following year, all such religious practices had been banned by the federal government, but dances persisted, adapted, and changed to survive. The opera is set near the Yankton reservation and focuses on a love triangle between the hero, the Dakota Ohiya, a ‘princess’ (daughter of a Ute chief) Winona, and a Shoshone man named Sweet Singer. Ohiya decides to earn Winona by taking part in the Sun Dance ceremony, while Sweet Singer tries to win over the chief with gifts to earn his daughter. In the end, Ohiya is triumphant, successfully completing the dance, and Sweet Singer drops dead. It’s a fascinating, very Indian story, one that features different tribes coming together in shared ceremony. (Hear some music from the opera here and here!)

Marissa: The time commitment that Zitkala-Ša put into the opera, on top of the difficulties of keeping themselves afloat in the frustrating Bureau of Indian Affairs, put strain on the Bonnin’s marriage. Zitkala-Ša had a renewed desire for her own professional pursuits and wanted to ensure that her son, Ohiya, received a Catholic education, which wasn’t necessarily available in the agency towns where the Bonnins lived. In the summer of 1913, she took back up with her correspondence with her former lover, Carlos Montezuma, and not long after, wrote to one of her priest confidantes that a “private family misunderstanding” had resulted in charges of domestic violence against Raymond, which in turn infuriated the BIA, who saw Raymond as a liability. The altercation, Zitkala-Ša wrote to the priest, was the result of Raymond’s jealousy – perhaps he had found her letters to his old rival, Montezuma? Things did eventually settle and the couple remained married.

Sarah: Her experience with the opera, and perhaps her years supporting Raymond’s career in the BIA, and with her son away in a Catholic boarding school, Zitkala-Ša then threw her energy into the burgeoning Indian rights movement. In 1914, she joined the advisory board of the Society of American Indians, an organization focused on pan-Indian organizing and activism. At the SAI conference in 1915 in Lawrence, Kansas, Zitkala-Ša presented a paper describing her work, doing community organizing for women at the Fort Duchesne agency in Utah. Her work introduced her to Indians from around the country, including Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca, related to former commissioner of the BIA and US Army officer Ely S. Parker, born on the Cattraugus reservation just down the road from Buffalo, NY. Parker encouraged her to write, and helped her publish a lengthy poem in American Indian Magazine. During this period, Ziktala-Ša also began a campaign against a new religious trend that had recently appeared among the Utes: peyote.

Marissa: Peyote, derived from cacti, was a drug that was popularized as part of a religious ceremony in the ninteenth century by Quanah Parker (Comanche) and John Wilson (Delaware/Caddo). Peyote was immediately criticized by white Americans, and many Christian Indians agreed with their condemnation, including several members of the SAI and another organization, the Indian Rights Association. Peyote, the IRA argued, “brought out the baser passions” of Indians, and caused them to “reject the teachings of the church.”[6] The response was not unlike a moral panic. Zitkala-Ša even wrote one letter that sounded an awful lot like, “but think of the children!”, claiming that children were suffering at school because their parents were keeping them out at peyote ceremonies. Here again, we see her torn between worlds. Advocates of peyotism saw it as a pan-Indian, syncretic faith combining aspects of Christianity and Native American practices, but critics saw it as dangerous drug use at odds with Christianity. Zitkala-Ša put her literary talents to work in criticizing peyote in a story called “Chipeta, Widow of Chief Ouray with a Word About a Deal in Blankets,” which told the story of Chipeta and her husband Chief Ouray, who had been strong leaders of their people in dealings with white people. But then after Ouray’s death, Chipeta began using peyote, who was then convinced by whites to trade over a quarter million acres of land in exchange for two shawls. The story was a bad faith rendering of the real story of a Ute woman named Chipeta, who Zitkala-Ša had met not long before. According to Tadeusz Lewandoswki, Chipeta was actually a “woman of keen political shrewdness” who was a “harsh critic of the federal government.” Zitkala-Ša saw peyote, and nothing else, as the reason for the Ute’s land loss.

Sarah: In 1918, Zitkala-Ša actually appeared before Congress to testify against peyote. Dismissing the religious freedom argument made by peyote supporters, she stated that peyote is “used in a way which outrages decency and induces intoxication and degeneracy.”[7] Here, she made a powerful enemy: the enthnographer James Mooney, who had studied peyotism for decades. (Weird coincidence, Mononey had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, where Zitkala-Ša had attended college.) Sharp listeners might recall that James Mooney was the ethnographer who interviewed Wovoka, the Ghost Dance prophet, and wrote the definitive study on the Ghost Dance religion. Based on his extensive enthnographic study, Mooney believed that peyote was a religious sacrament. Mooney testified: “The Indians are now largely civilized; they are educated, and they travel about and take an interest in each other…The result is that the young men, not the older uncivilized ones, but the younger, middle-aged and educated men, have taken up the peyote cult and organized it as a regular religion, beyond what they knew before among various tribes. In some tribes they have their own church houses, built at their own expense.”[8] Because the religion was formalized, structured, and created by educated Indians, Mooney deemed it “real” and worthy of recognition. Mooney saw peyotism as a step toward, rather than away from, assimilation.

Marissa: Mooney attacked Zitkala-Ša for her opposition to the drug, questioning whether she was even ‘really’ an Indian. He referred to a recent article about her, in which the journalists had bungled several facts about her biography. “The article,” Mooney said, “is accompanied by a picture of the author, who claims to be a Sioux woman, in Indian costume. The dress is a woman’s dress from southern tribe, as shown by the long fringes; the belt is Navajo man’s belt; the fan is a peyote man’s fan, carried only by men, usually in the peyote ceremony.”[9]  Zitkala-Ša, on the other hand, questioned what authority a white ethnographer had over Indian cultures, when the events he observed were staged for his benefit. Lewandoswki summed up her position: “Only someone in close contact with reservation life, such as herself, could accurately judge peyote’s influence.” She went on to testify about things she had witness, such as how a man named Lone Bear sold fake peyote permits for exorbitant prices and used the religion to dupe others into taking the drug as a miracle cure. She also claimed it had killed dozens of Utes.

James Mooney in 1901 | Internet Archive Book Images

Sarah: Again, this can really look like Zitkala-Ša was making anti-Indian, assimilationist arguments in her quest against peyote. But her arguments never referenced Catholicism, and didn’t really make assimiliationist arguments, suggesting that peyote stood in the way of Indian progress. Instead, she seemed to suggest that peyote itself was an outside influence, something that was preying on the trauma and desperation of Indians. She was worried that the drug would threaten traditional Dakota culture and exacerbate the problems facing Indians. When it was issued, the Congressional report on peyote took Zitkala-Ša’s testimony very seriously and dismissed Mooney, urging Congress to act to ban peyote. Ultimately, no law was passed in 1918, and Mooney worked with believers to help them establish the Native American Church, a formalized church, that used peyote as a sacrament, in hopes of protecting the drug from bans. But despite this strategy, Zitkala-Ša and her allies in the Catholic Church help to get James Mooney banned from performing ethnographic work in the Oklahoma reservation and helped push through an anti-law in South Dakota. While it was never outright banned as a federal level, Between the late 19 century and the first quarter of the 20th century peyote was criminalized on the state level and drug use in the Native American Church remains legally thorny.

Marissa: Zitkala-Ša then turned her attention to greater Indian civil rights, focused in particular in the promise of US citizenship and – radically – the abolition of the United States Indian Bureau. World War I had been galvanizing. Increased surveillance of critical speech made some of her writing – especially her story “A Sioux Woman’s Love for Her Grandchild,” which was explicitly anti-US military – dangerous. When a draft was instituted in 1917, the exemption for non-citizens (including Native Americans) was soon waived to encourage as much enlistment as possible, and Indian men responded positively, enlisting in relatively large numbers. War service meant a soldi paycheck and allowed for the channeling of an otherwise suppressed warrior culture. The Society of American Indians, and Zitkala-Ša, were enraged, though, when the US military decided that Native American men would have to serve in segregated units. Zitkala-Ša saw this as a way of turning Indian men into cannon fodder, easily placed in the most dangerous positions and therefore quickly annihilated. The Army soon backed away from this policy, though, and American Indian men were allowed to enlist to fight alongside whites. Both Arthur C. Parker and Raymond Bonnin enlisted, seeing the war as an opportunity to prove their masculinity and honor.

Sarah: Internal squabbles about leadership and directions to prioritize weakened the Society of American Indians during the war years. Members like Zitkala-Ša, Raymond Bonnin, and Carlos Montezuma, were becoming more radical than the much of the rest of the membership. In 1918, Montezuma gave a speech entitled “Abolish the Indian Bureau” that energized some members and upset others, many of whom stll worked for the government agency and didn’t relish the thought of losing their positions. To spread her message of Native American equality and the need for citizenship, she worked with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, who helped her go on a speaking tour. While Zitkala-Ša had been working for what might be labeled progressive reforms for years, this is when we see her align with mainstream, white capital-P Progressives, and with the types of women-activists that Elizabeth’s book examines. She used Raymond’s military service as further evidence of the need for civil rights in a way that many Black Americans did following the Civil War, World War I and World War II: “If the Indian is good enough to fight for America, he is good enough to be considered an American.”[10] Her writing was far more powerful than her speeches, though, and she continued to write essays and stories for various publications criticizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal government, and insisting on Native American political equality. In one essay, entitled “America, Home of the Red Man,” she wrote about being called a ‘foreigner’ by a white man on a train. Reflecting on that word, she thinks about Indian men wearing the uniform of the United States marching into battle and Native mothers volunteering for the Red Cross. The white man doesn’t listen to her explanation and walks away, rendering Zitkala-Ša, and therefore the sacrifices of American Indians on behalf of the United States, invisible.

Marissa: Soon after the war, the SAI started to fall apart, and Zitkala-Ša’s old friend and former lover Carlos Montezuma passed away of tuberculosis. Around the same time, undaunted by the splintering of this group that had been so important to her political life, she published another book, American Indian Stories. Stories from this, and from Old Indian Legends, made their way into classrooms and textbooks, and Zitkala-Ša traveled around the country speaking to schools and lecturing on Native American culture. American Indian Stories included her autobiographical essays from early in her life, plus many of her other essays, such as “The Soft Hearted Sioux,” followed by new essays that traced an arc of increasing criticism of the policy of cultural assimiliation. The story “Blue Star Woman” argues that the real power in America to fight assimilation and corrupt agencies like the BIA comes from women. Here, Zitkala-Ša was making an explicit plea to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, stating “Now the time is at hand when the American Indian shall have his day in court through the help of the women of America.”[11] In 1921, she gave a speech at the GFWC’s biannual conference railing against the paternalism of the BIA. The organization responded by creating a National Indian Welfare Committee, which would investigate reservation management and work in Washington on behalf of Native Americans. Apparently, Zitkala-Ša wept and declared “It has begun. Nothing can stop it. We shall have help.”[12]

Sarah: With the help of the GFWC, Zitkala-Ša published a pamphlet called “Americanize the First American,” which lays out the failings of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and contrast them with progressive reforms that she wanted from Washington. For instance, she hoped for an Indian citizens association and a reservation executive committee to replace the DIA overseeing programs that would aid Indian farmers and teach them modern agricultural practices and financial programs that would spur business. Again, it might be easy to understand this as simply an assimilationist project. But Americanize the American Indian laid out what sounded very much like progressive reform while also underscoring the need to preserve Native American cultures and religions. The way to earn these things was United States citizenship, which Tadeusz Lewandoswki argues, Zitkala-Ša equated to self protection and sovereignty.

Marissa: Her work with the GWFC took her all around the United States. Between 1921 and 1927 gave hundreds of public lectures. Meanwhile, Raymond went to George Washington University law school and became a legal clerk, then began representing Indians in claims before tje Congressional Committee on Indian Affairs. The 1920s were a particularly perilous time for Indian rights in the United States, especially as the Osage were targeted for their oil wealth – the subject of the recent movie killers of the flower moon. Zitkala-Ša together with several other activists, travel to Oklahoma in 1923 to investigate the states mistreatment of its many native residents. Their results were published in a pamphlet called Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: an Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized TribesLegalized Robbery, published in 1924. They discovered a horrific culture of exploitation in the state. For example, it was common for “guardians” to seek out an Indian who had a claim to land, declare them incompetent and name themselves guardian, and then extort money out of them. Others, such as lawyers, squeezed desperate Indians, for money they didn’t have for services that were never rendered.

Sarah: Congress did investigate but almost entirely dismissed the evidence gathered by the activist in their time in Oklahoma. Influenced by Oklahoma congressman Charles D. Carter, who wanted to preserve the reputation of the state, the investigations went nowhere. Chairman of the investigation Homer P. Snyder outright rejected Zitkala-Ša’s pamphlet saying: “we do not want hearsay evidence; we do not want long stories or legends about Indian law or anything of that sort.” This was clearly a dig at her history of writing books about the stories central to Dakota culture.

Marissa: The Oklahoma investigations may not have led to much success, but in January 1924, another congressional act offered what many American Indians had lobbied long and hard for: American citizenship. Not only were American Indians provided citizenship in the bill,  the bill also declared that said citizenship would not affect tribal status. The Oklahoma investigations raised Zitkala-Ša’s national profile even further. With Raymond now a lawyer (it’s not clear whether he was ever admitted to the bar) the couple began to undertake legal challenges to treaty violations. And in 1926, Zitkala-Ša and Raymond founded a new national organization to replace the society of American Indians the National Council of American Indians. Zitkala-Ša served as its president, and Raymond served as secretary, treasurer, and legal counsel. (Like, is that not sort of badass?) The aim of the NCAI was legal rights and protections. She described their mission thus: “a time there was when the protest of our race against injustice was voiced in the war cries that rose from the primeval forest. No less audibly, this protest rebounds through the hills and vales of our father land, echoing the far carrying appeals of Justice and reason, never to be silenced until the pledge of the nation, made to us by the Great Grandfather, and sealed by our blood on the field of France, is redeemed.” To quote Tadeusz Lewnadowsky here: “this formal statement of opposition to decades of federal policy, contained the hallmarks of a Red Power ideology, rooted in organization, racial pride, assertion of rights, and determination to gain freedom and recognition.”[13] (Great Grandfather here refers to the US Presidents.)

Sarah: the NCIA launched programs designed to investigate conditions on reservations, educate, Indian voters, and circulate information. The NCIA also established “tribal lodges“ that acted as headquarters of the organization across numerous reservations. They also continued their quest to abolish the BIA. When the BIA was granted extra emergency powers during the beginning of the Great Depression, the NCIA accused superintendence of starving their Indian charges, misappropriating funds, and administering physical punishments. in 1933 a new commissioner of the Bureau, John Collier, who had worked for the GFWC and alongside Zitkala-Ša on that Indian Welfare Committee, and who was a tried and true ally for Indian rights, helped push through the Wheeler-Howard Act, colloquially known as the Indian New Deal. This law superseded the Dawes Act, which subdivided reservation land into allotments, and returned much tribal land to its ancestral owners who would oversee distribution among tribal members. The law also listed the federal bans on traditional religious practices, such as the Sun Dance. It required that Indians be appointed to the upper echelons of the Bureau of Indian affairs, and that Native American children would attend Day schools on their home reservations.   

Marissa: while this was undoubtedly an improvement, it wasn’t enough for Zitkala-Ša and tensions great between her and Collier. He hadn’t fully abolished the BIA, and the law still allowed authorities in Washington to intervene in sovereign tribal governments. When the Yankton went to create a new constitution and form of tribal government, it was written by Zitkala-Ša and Raymond, but it did not meet the expectations of the BIA. Their constitution created a tribal council that had the power of veto over the secretary of the interior and a over local reservation projects, rather than Washington. It also allowed for voting rights to all Yankton tribal members, even those who did not live on the reservation. This was unacceptable to the BIA, and the Yankton reservation remained categorized as a sub-agency rather than an independent tribal government until 1963.

Sarah: Zitkala-Ša deid in 1938, of kidney and heart disease. Her final diaries revealed that the end of her life was difficult and stressful as she tried to help her son, Ohiya, raise his children as he suffered from uncontrolled diabetes. The year she died, her old collaborator William Hanson staged a revival of The Sun Dance Opera, but did not involve Zitkala-Ša or even name her as a collaborator, instead claiming the credit for the work himself. The NCIA limped along until Raymond Bonnin died in 1942, leaving no plan for a transition of power to new leadership. In the years after, her legacy was mixed. Some later activists interpreted her work as too assimilationist, or even too conservative. For instance, her patriotism during World War I and fight for citizenship and voting rights may seem like giving in to colonizing power, but scholars like David Myer Termin, Tsianina Lomawaima and Philip Deloria argue that this was “a strategic necessity,” a move toward sovereignty rather than wardship, in which tribes were treated like ‘wards,’ not constituents, of the federal government.[14] Even the NCIA, which died with the Bonnins, helped lead to later pan-Indian movements, particularly the National Congress of American Indians, a new NCAI, which was modeled on the earlier NCIA and continues to be a powerful advocate for Indian rights. Zitkala-Ša presaged the later 20th century Red Power movement, a pan-Indian civil rights movement spearheaded by the Yankton scholar Vine Deloria. Zitkala-Ša, her biographer Tadeusz Lewandoswki points out, was “a woman whose culture, nation, and identity had been violently marginalized” yet “fought the dispossession of Indians with every tool of white society she had mastered.” She was politically savvy, used her networks and connections, and had no fear of publicly calling out people in positions of power when they failed to effect change, even when it might make for interpersonal friction or draw the ire of powerful, even dangerous, people.


Carpenter, Cari. “Detecting Indianness: Gertrude Bonnin’s Investigation of Native American Identity,” Wíčazo Ša Review 20 (Spring 2005): 139-159.

Deloria, Philip J. “American Master Narratives and the Problem of Indian Citizenship in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 14 (2015): 3-12.

Lewandowski, Tadeusz. Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša. University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.

Lewandowski, Tadeusz. Zitkala-Ša: Letters, Speeches, and Unpublished Writings, 1898-1929. Brill, 2018.

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. “The Mutuality of Citizenship and Sovereignty: The Society of American Indians and the Battle to Inherit America.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 25 (Summer 2013): 331-351. 

Termin, David Myer. Remapping Sovereignty: Decolonization and Self-Determination in North American Indigenous Political Thought. University of Chicago Press, 2023.


[1] Cari Carpenter, “Detecting Indianness: Gertrude Bonnin’s Investigation of Native American Identity,” Wicazo Sa Review 20 (Spring 2005), 149.

[2] Tadeusz Lewandoswki, Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 19.

[3] Lewandoswki, Red Bird, Red Power, 29.

[4] Lewandowky, Red Bird, Red Power, 46.

[5] Lewandoswki, Red Bird, Red Power, 52

[6] Lewandoswki, Red Bird, Red Power, 133.

[7] Lewandoswki,Red Bird, Red Power,  137.

[8] Lewandoswki, Red Bird, Red Power, 139-140

[9] Lewandoswki, Red Bird, Red Power, 141

[10] Lewandoswki, Red Bird, Red Power, 151.

[11] Lewandoswki,Red Bird, Red Power, 159.

[12] Lewandoswki, Red Bird, Red Power, 159.

[13] Lewandoswki, Red Bird, Red Power, 176.

[14]David Myer Termin, Remapping Sovereignty: Decolonization and Self-Determination in North American Indigenous Political Thought (University of Chicago Press, 2023), 42.


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