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The Extraordinary Life of Zitkala-Ša

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What makes this person worthy of notice is not simply the accomplishments of their life as a writer, author, musician, composer, editor, teacher, and successful political activist, as well as having the honours of both being buried in the Arlington National Cemetery and having a Venusian crater named in their honour (Bonnin), but the fact that this person was a Native American woman born in a time when American indigenous peoples were still being trampled down, forced into assimilation, ignored, exploited and abused by the insurgents to their lands – the palefaces – and a time when even white women in general had no say in public life.

Born in 1876 as Zitkala-Ša (Sioux for Red Bird) in South Dakota, before the age of seven her family and tribe were driven by white men from their lands “like a herd of buffalo”; her uncle and younger sister (among many others in the tribe at the time) were sick, and died on the way or on arrival at their new territory1.  Her father died shortly thereafter.  She was taken from her mother at the age of eight to be educated in a Quaker school for three years.  Throughout her life she showed spirit, defying the prevailing trends of the dominant white culture which tried to suppress, supplant or kill off any signs of independent, indigenous cultures (she was also given a white name, Gertrude Simmons-Bonnin – the latter being the name given to her future husband, a Yankton Indian by the name of Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin).  Not all of her education was a misery, however:  She learned to speak publicly, to read, write, and to appreciate a variety of musical styles; in 1891 she returned to white man’s education, studying the piano and violin, and began teaching music; by 1895 she was setting her mark, when she gave a speech about women’s inequality.  She earned her first diploma in that year, and began gathering native American legends and stories, translating them first to Latin, then English.

Zitkala-Ša, Credit - Charcoal by S Campos, Flickr

Credit:  Charcoal by S Campos, Flickr

 

From 1897 to 1899 she played violin with Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music.  Eventually she returned to the reservation where her mother still lived, and the poverty and gradual encroachment of white settlers on Indian allotted lands dismayed her, reminding her of the chasm between who she was, and the world around her.  She joined the Society of American Indians in 1911; it was dedicated to preserving the Native American way of life, while at the same time (ironically) fighting for full American citizenship.  Eventually she saw fruits of her political efforts, through the congressional passing of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934; she continued to work toward civil rights and equality until her death in 1938.

To read more about her fascinating life, click on the following links:

Wikipedia:  Zitkala-Ša

Amazon Kindle: Zitkala-Ša

1 American Indian Stories, by Zitkala-Ša

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