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Zitkála-Šá: Trailblazing American Indian Composer and Writer

Premiere: 8/19/2020 | 00:11:39 |

Zitkála-Šá co-composed and wrote the libretto for the first American Indian opera and co-founded the National Council of American Indians to lobby for increased political power for American Indians.

About the Episode

Zitkála-Šá, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, (1876–1938) was born on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota, and left her community at age 8 to attend a Quaker missionary-run boarding school as part of a U.S. government policy to educate American Indian youth with the philosophy: “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” She went on to write about her childhood and boarding school experience, and American Indian struggles to retain tribal identities and resist assimilation into European American culture, in essays that were published in the prestigious magazines Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly. Trained as a violinist at the New England Conservatory of Music, she co-composed and wrote the libretto for what is considered the first American Indian opera, The Sun Dance Opera, in 1913. Zitkála-Šá became increasingly involved in the struggle for American Indian rights, lobbying for U.S. citizenship, voting, and sovereignty rights. She was appointed the secretary of the Society of American Indians, the first national rights organization run by and for American Indians, and edited its publication American Indian Magazine. In 1926, she co-founded the National Council of American Indians to lobby for increased political power for American Indians, and the preservation of American Indian heritage and traditions.

Interviewees: P. Jane Hafen (Taos Pueblo), Professor Emerita of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and editor of Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems and The Sun Dance Opera by Zitkala-Ša; Meg Singer (Navajo) who produced The Sun Dance Opera in 2013 and 2015; LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, historian, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and founder of the Sacred Stone Camp, the first encampment of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota.


Zitkála-úá is known for being the first Native person to write an opera. She was a prolific writer, and very involved in getting Native people citizenship.

1900, Washington, D.C. 24-year-old Zitkála-úá, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, performed at the White House for President William McKinley.

She was trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, and so she had a lot of choices that a lot of Native women at that time didn't have.

She was musically gifted.

People were fascinated with her because she was a performer, because she was articulate.

'I seem to be in a spiritual unrest.

I hate this eternal tug of war between being 'wild' or becoming 'civilized'... I am what I am. I owe no apologies to God or men.'. Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was born in 1876 on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota, to the Ihanktonwan Nation. She later renamed herself, Zitkála-úá, meaning 'Red Bird' in the Lakota language.

I don't think anything is known about her father except that he was a non-Indian, but her mother raised her up as an Indian girl, and she saw herself as an Indian.

'I was a wild little girl, with a pair of soft moccasins on my feet.

As free as the wind that blew my hair, and no less spirited than a bounding deer.'. The Yankton Sioux made a treaty with the United States in the mid 1850s.

They made peace early on and they were not caught up in the major conflicts that the other Sioux tribes had with the United States.

There were 60 million American Indians in 1491. In the census in 1910, there were 200,000.

A lot of that population loss is due to diseases, measles, smallpox, and so forth.

For the colonizers who were greedy for Indian lands, there were two ways to get it.

Either by killing people or by making them non-Indians.

In 1884, at age 8, like tens of thousands of other American Indian children, Zitkála-úá left the reservation to attend a boarding school run by missionaries in Indiana.

The boarding school system was an institutional way of trying to erase tribal identity. You had children from all these different tribes thrown in together, made to wear uniforms, lose their individual identities, forbidden to speak their native languages, forced to become Christians.

'Like a slender tree, I had been uprooted from my mother, nature, and God.

I was shorn of my branches.

Now a cold bare pole I seem to be planted in a strange earth, trembling with fear and distrust. Often I wept in secret.'. I was taken when I was young to this very strange place called boarding school.

The idea was they would take us from our parents and break down culture and history and language and tradition. My name is LaDonna Brave Bull Allard.

My real name is Ta Maka Waste Win, which means Her Good Earth Woman.

I am a historian and genealogist for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and I stand up for my people.

Nobody knows who we are in our own country, in our own land.

We became invisible in America. So for 35 years, I've compiled the history of my people. I've been trying to heal my people through language and culture and tradition and spirituality.

In 1897, Zitkála-úá became a teacher at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, one of the first federally-funded boarding schools for American Indian youth, founded by military officer Richard Henry Pratt.

The idea that Richard Pratt had was to kill the Indian to save the man. The way you look, the way you dress, the way you think, the way you talk, the way you pray. They had to cut that out.

Save the soul inside. It's tragic, really. Native people weren't even viewed as human beings at this time.

After disagreements with Pratt, Zitkála-úá left her job at Carlisle, and in 1900, published several exposés about the trauma of the boarding school experience in the Atlantic Monthly.

'Gazing upon the Indian girls and boys bending over their books, the white visitors walked out of the schoolhouse well satisfied: they were educating the children of the 'Red Man'! But few have paused to question whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization.'. The stories are published.

And the criticisms are that she bites the hands that fed her - that she's criticizing the boarding school education, which educated her to write the stories.

In 1901, Zitkála-úá also published a book of short stories based on the Sioux oral tradition.

'I have tried to transplant the native spirit of these tales into the English language, since America in the last few centuries has acquired a new tongue.'. She works very hard to make the disparate parts of her life fit together.

But she also sees herself as being a preserver of those stories.

In 1902, Zitkála-úá married Raymond Bonnin, another boarding school survivor from her tribe.

They lived for 14 years among the Ute Nation on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah, raising their son and working for the Bureau of Indian affairs.

There, in 1913, Zitkála-úá wrote the first American Indian opera, in collaboration with white composer William Hanson.

'The Sun Dance Opera' was inspired by a sacred ceremony of spiritual healing then outlawed by the U.S. Government.

Sun Dance is common among the tribes on the Plains.

And it is a dance of personal devotion and sacrifice. She is resisting the denial of religious ritual, and trying to elevate these tribal sacred dances and songs to what she knows is respected in Western society, which is grand opera.

The opera was staged across Utah 15 times by a mixed Native and non-native cast. With the major roles performed by trained white singers, some critics suggest the opera presented stereotypical depictions of American Indians.

The opera gave a space to perform sacred dances and songs in a public setting. It preserved those songs.

As she witnessed the quality of life on Indian reservations decline, Zitkála-úá moved to Washington, D.C. in 1916, to dedicate the rest of her life to political activism.

'Indians are virtually prisoners of war in America.

Treaties with our government are still unfulfilled... There is no doubt about the direction in which I wish to go: to spend my energies in working for the Indian race.'. As secretary of the Society of American Indians, the first civil rights organization created by and for American Indians, she edited its journal, and served as a lobbyist in Congress.

She gives public speeches, she writes editorials.

And one of her major causes was to help get citizenship for American Indians.

'Now the time is at hand when the American Indian shall have his day in court, and find his rightful place in our American life.

Wardship is no substitute for citizenship, therefore we seek enfranchisement.'. Zitkála-úá's work was significant to the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which granted U.S. citizenship to American Indians.

Zitkála-úá understood that there's these two worlds that you have to be a part of, and you want to have power in both of them.

In 1926, she and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians, to continue advocating for American Indians' rights and representation.

She served as its president for 12 years.

That to me is like somebody who has enough empowerment in herself and enough integrity that she didn't let them stop her.

In my culture, women have always been warriors.

In 2014, they called me and said, 'LaDonna, there's a pipeline being proposed. You gotta look at the map.

You're the closest land owner.' And I thought, how dare they, I buried my son on that hill. And I said, no.

So we started Sacred Stone Camp, and asked people to come stand with me.

People from the whole world came in a nonviolent resistance.

She would have stood with us, and she probably would have been one of the musicians playing.

Zitkála-úá died in 1938, three months before the New York premiere of 'The Sun Dance Opera.' Because of her husband's military service in World War I, she was buried at Arlington Cemetery.

She firmly believed that the answer to Indian issues lay in Indian people themselves.

Indians are still fighting for their rights - the theft of Indian land, missing and murdered indigenous women, voters rights - and that's where her voice is important.

'The American Indian must have a voice.

Let us teach our children to be proud of their Indian blood.

Let us stand up straight and continue claiming our human rights.'


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