Isabel Jess is author of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s Anonymous series.
“For most of history, anonymous was a woman” – Virginia Woolf
Recognising Overlooked or Forgotten Voices in History
Zitkala-Sa, or Gertrude Bonnin was a woman of two names and two worlds. Yet, no matter by which name she is recognized, her bold and tireless work as an advocate for the rights of Native Americans from the late 19th to the early 20th century remains unfortunately forgotten in the pages of history.
Zitkala-Sa was born as a full-blooded Yankton Sioux in South Dakota, yet early on in her life, she found herself caught in a sphere of cultural ambiguity. Having been educated at a Quaker missionary school for Native American children, Zitkala-Sa soon found that her education distanced her from her Native American roots. While her education had provided her with the tools to survive in the “white man’s world”, her family viewed her as less connected to her Sioux heritage. As she noted in her 1900 publication, “The School Days of an Indian Girl”, she was now “neither a mild Indian, nor a tame one”.
Zitkala-Sa continued her education, graduating from Earlham College and briefly becoming a teacher. She then attended the Boston Conservatory of Music and eventually travelled to Paris in 1900 as a student with the Carlisle Indian Industrial School as a violin soloist. It was during this time that she began to transform her immersion in two worlds into a tool of empowerment.
In order to overcome a deep sense of cultural alienation, she began to use the tools learned from her education to represent her Native American heritage. In 1901, she published her first collection entitled “Old Indian Legends”, and began contributing autobiographical essays to The Atlantic Monthly and writing a series of Indian legends for Harper’s Magazine. Through her works she was able to convey her indignation over the treatment of Native Americans, while expressing her sense of personal cultural estrangement due to white Christian influences.
Gradually, Zitkala-Sa shifted towards a more explicitly activist direction, becoming a clerk at Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota and Ute Reservation in Utah. There, she began to boldly advocate for political recognition and justice for Native American populations. This included supporting government reform related to just law codification, the employment of Native Americans at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the redress of land settlements at the Court of Claims, and the continued preservation of Native American history. Her work greatly increased her political profile and in 1916 she moved to Washington D.C. to work as the secretary of the Society of American Indians.
In Washington D.C., Zitkala-Sa continued to be relentless as leader within the Society of American Indians, and as the editor of American Indian Magazine, through which she commented on the disenfranchisement of Native Americans in the U.S., service of Native Americans in World War I, and ongoing corruption within the all-white Bureau of Indian Affairs. And her fervent activism did not go unheard. Under President Hoover, two Indian Rights Association representatives were appointed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congressman Charles Curtis was influenced to introduce the Indian Citizenship Bill, which granted full citizenship rights to Native Americans of the United States. From 1930 onwards, Zitkala-Sa formed and led the National Council of American Indians, continuing to relentlessly lobby for Native American rights and representation until her death.
Zitkala-Sa was undoubtedly a bold activist and fearless leader in her lifelong work as an advocate for the rights of Native Americans. In a time when native people were being physically erased from their homelands through genocide and forced migration, Zitkala-Sa was a voice that fought against that erasure through defiant visibility. By refusing to be invisible, she gave her people a voice to express their political and cultural presence within American society. Yet, despite the progress she helped create, the invisibility of indigenous people is still a pattern that continues today, as evidenced by a disregard of the current epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women.
In 2016, the National Crime Information Centre received 5,712 cases of Native American women, and on some reservations, indigenous women are ten times more likely to be murdered than the national average. Yet, the issue has rarely received fair attention in both the media and in politics. This lack of just attention perpetuates a message that Native Americans are second-class citizens, politically and socially, despite their historical contributions to the fabric of American society.
This issue also reinforces the need for adequate representation of Native Americans, and especially Native American women, within politics. Just as Zitkala-Sa became a much needed voice that yielded Native American representation for the purpose of fighting indigenous disenfranchisement, the indigenous women of the United States require a voice specifically within the American justice system to battle violence against Native women. As Native women work to receive their due recognition and respect, the brave and wise words of Zitkala-Sa offer a source of inspiration, “I fear no man. Sometimes I think I do not even fear God”.
“Zitkala-Sa.” Hoefel, Roseanne. ” Zitkala-Sa: A Biography.”,Bucknell University, www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/gcarr/19cUSWW/ZS/rh.html.
“Camille Erikson.” The Circle News,12 Apr. 2018, thecirclenews.org/news/working-for-missing-murdered-indian-women/.
Picture credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NNiQiPG40k