Zitkála-Šá, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin – Women’s History Month: Honoring an Extraordinary Legacy

Zitkala-Ša in 1898, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Zitkála-Šá in 1898, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Zitkála-Šá’s Early Life and Journey to Activism

Zitkála-Šá, (“Zit-kal-uh sah”) meaning “Red Bird” in the Lakota language, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota on February 22, 1876. She belonged to the Yankton Sioux Nation. Her mother was of Sioux Dakota heritage and her father was of Euro-American decent. She was rised by her mother and aunts after her father abandoned them. Zitkála-Šá’s life took a turn when she was recruited by missionaries to attend a boarding school. She left for Indiana at the age of eight. Despite her mother’s initial reluctance, Zitkála-Šá was eager to go. At this residential school, she was given the missionary name Gertrude Simmons. Her time at the Quaker-run boarding school would eventually become very difficult, as Zitkála-Šá was abused for embracing her Sioux culture and language.

I remember being dragged out, though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair. I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit.

Zitkála-Šá

In these schools, children of different ages had to obey strict rules that limited their use of Indigenous languages and banned them from practicing their traditions and customs. If they broke the rules, they faced severe punishments, as former students have shared stories of “terrible mistreatment by residential school staff: physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological,” according to Indigenous Foundations.

Between 1879 and 1918, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School saw the enrollment of over 10,000 Native American children from 140 different tribes.
Between 1879 and 1918, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School saw the enrollment of over 10,000 Native American children from 140 different tribes. (Photo: Cumberland County Historical Society)

As reported in 2021, over 1,000 unmarked graves at Indigenous residential schools in Canada have brought focus to the disturbing history of similar institutions in California and other parts of the United States. State-run boarding schools for Indigenous children operated in Canada between 1863 and 1998.


Trailblazing Violinist, Composer, Poet and Author

From 1897 and 1899, Zitkála-Šá attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, studying and performing on the violin. After that, in 1899, she began teaching music to children at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

Against her family’s wishes, at age 19, she enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, also a Quaker school. and graduated in 1897. She then transferred to The New England Conservatory of Music to study violin. In 1900, she performed a violin solo with the Carlisle Indian Band in Paris, and performed at the White House for President William McKinley. These experiences sparked a dilemma within her, driving her to express the delight she felt while mastering the skills of reading and writing in English, playing the violin, and the anguish of losing touch with her native heritage. That same year, she started writing articles about Native American life, which were featured in prestigious magazines like Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly. Her honest critique of the American Indian boarding school system and realistic depiction of Indian displacement stood out from the more optimistic writings of her peers.

In 1913, she merged her artistic talents with her passion for preserving her culture by co-composing The Sun Dance Opera, the first American Indian Opera, incorporating traditional Yankton rituals, dance, and melodies. The Sun Dance was the most important ceremony for the Lakota and almost all tribes of the plains. After relocating to Washington D.C., she and her family joined the Society of American Indians. Eventually, she became the Society’s secretary.

The history and meaning of the The Sun Dance.

Zitkála-Šá played a significant role in crafting the show’s narrative, refining the musical compositions, creating the stunning costumes, and coaching the dancers and singers to embody the noblest aspirations of her community. The opera would eventually premiere on April 27 1938, at the Broadway Theater. She was not involved in the Broadway production, or in the revisions that were made. Zitkala-Sa was not credited for her work, nor was she credited when William F. Hanson, her co-composer, registered the opera with the U.S. Copyright Office.

She also wrote autobiographical essays and short stories under her Sioux name, “Zitkála-Šá.” Her works were published in prestigious magazines, and her first book, Old Indian Legends, translated numerous Sioux myths into English. Her book American Indian Stories has been published multiple times since it was first printed in 1921, sharing her childhood experiences.


Advocate for American Indian, and Women’s Rights

After leaving Carlisle, Zitkála-Šá was employed as a clerk for the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) at Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Despite her job, she continued writing and published: “Why I am a Pagan” in the Atlantic Monthly in 1902. She married Captain Raymond Talephause Bonnin, who shared her heritage and moved to Utah with him. They lived and worked at the Uintah and Ouray Reservation Agency, where their son was born.

Zitkála-Šá had witnessed the discriminatory treatment of Native Americans, which fueled her criticism of federal policies. In 1911, she became a member of the Society of American Indians (SAI), a group established by and for Native Americans to challenge the guardianship status of Native Americans and their lack of U.S. citizenship. Zitkála-Šá was among the many women in the SAI who supported women’s suffrage. In 1917, she was appointed as the secretary of the SAI and relocated to Washington, D.C., playing an important role in the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the city.

Footage of the women’s suffrage movement, 1910s-20.

Zitkála-Šá captivated her audience with a powerful speech at the National Women’s Party headquarters in 1918. In her address, she shed light on the profound injustices endured by Indigenous peoples and nations across the United States. With eloquence and insight, Zitkála-Šá illuminated how the federal government wielded control over Indigenous communities, denying them a voice in managing their land and finances. She poignantly underscored the irony of the “First Americans” being politically voiceless and called fervently for the empowerment of Native Americans, irrespective of gender, advocating for their rightful place in shaping their own destinies.

The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in August 1920, removed the barrier of sex for citizens to vote. However, a significant number of Native adults, around one-third, still did not have U.S. citizenship and were unable to vote. Zitkála-Šá persisted in her fight for Native American citizenship and suffrage. She urged American women who now had the right to vote to support an Indian citizenship bill. Traveling across the United States, she appealed to white women to utilize their newly acquired suffrage rights to empower Native peoples. Thanks to Zitkála-Šá’s advocacy, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. This granted full citizenship rights to all native-born individuals in the country.

On August 19, 1920, The Tennessean reported on Tennessee's ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

On August 19, 1920, The Tennessean reported on Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

In 1926, Zitkála-Šá and her husband established the National Council of American Indians to unite Native political activism nationwide. They journeyed, listened to issues, deliberated on policies and laws, and encouraged voter registration. Despite some states implementing tactics reminiscent of Jim Crow laws to marginalize Native individuals, Zitkála-Šá persistently championed for Native rights, voting rights, and self-rule until her passing on January 26, 1938. After her passing she was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, where she shares a headstone with her husband.


Indigenous Cultural Champion of the 20th. Century

When she appeared at public meetings, Zitkála-Šá made a point of wearing traditional clothing and braiding her hair. She understood that her audiences had a view of Native people that was decades old. She dressed as they expected. But when she spoke, she brought them into the present by speaking about “the Indian woman of today.”
Editorial on the Paris Peace Conference, 1919.

The eyes of the world are upon the Peace Conference sitting at Paris. Under the
sun a new epoch is being staged! Little peoples are to be granted the right of
self determination! . . . The world is to be made better. . . .

Paris, for the moment, has become the center of the world’s thought. Diverse
human petitions daily ascend to its Peace Table. . . . Many classes of men and
women [are] clamoring for a hearing. . . . Women of the world, mothers of the
human race, are pressing forward for recognition. . . . The Black man of
America is offering his urgent petition. . . . Their fathers, sons, brothers and
husbands fought and died for democracy. Each is eager to receive the reward
for which supreme sacrifice was made. . . .

The Red man asks for a very simple thing, — citizenship in the land that was
once his own, –America. Who shall represent his cause at the World’s Peace
Conference? The American Indian, too, made the supreme sacrifice for liberty’s
sake. He loves democratic ideals. What shall world democracy mean to his
race?

There never was a time more opportune than now for America to enfranchise
the Red man!

–Gertrude Bonnin, “Editorial Comment,” The American Indian Magazine, 1919.

Zitkála-Šá emerged as a pivotal figure in 20th-century reform efforts. Through her writings, she empowered Indigenous communities by illuminating their culture, history, personal narratives, and struggles. Her poignant work prompted all Americans to contemplate the richness of Indigenous culture and the challenges endured by both Native and non-Native peoples in the United States. Zitkála-Šá’s activism epitomizes the unwavering dedication of American women to advancing human rights. Beyond securing citizenship rights, her endeavors sought to enrich educational opportunities, bolster healthcare access, and foster cultural recognition and preservation for Native American communities. In her relentless pursuit of justice and equality for Native Americans, she served as a guiding light amidst the broader struggles for human rights confronted by all women and minorities throughout the nation.


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Read Our Reviews

Amazing Destinations, LTD is rated 4.88 out of 5.0 stars based on 25 review(s).

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Good afternoon, The trip was planned perfectly as far as timing and logistics were concerned. The activities were great and kept the attention of the students. Plenty to eat for all and some fun with the educational aspect, we greatly appreciated the organization from your company and look forward to the other trips we have booked with you! Sybil Harry S. Truman H.S.

- Sybil

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Hi Steve, The restaurant was nicely set up and they were ready for us even though we were a little early... Kudos to the bus driver, Jesse. His service to our seniors was excellent. The play was great so much so, that one of the stars came on board our bus before we left to thank us for coming and how much they enjoyed our being there. Looking forward to our trip in September! Ruth 55+ Club

- Ruth

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Cathy, The kids had a great time and it was a good experience for all. The drivers were efficient and very kind to the kids. They were always on schedule and very safe. The school is very happy and we are already talking about Boston in the fall. A. Murry Bergtraum H.S.

- A. Murry

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On behalf of the seniors from Fred Samuel Resident Association, Inc and the Upper Harlem seniors, Ôthank youÕ for a glorious trip. We were most impressed with the bus ride there and back (with Abraham our driver) and the service that you provided us throughout the contract and beyond. We look forward to working with you again next year.Ó D. Blackwell Fred Samuel Resident Association, Inc.

- D. Blackwell

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Good afternoon Cathy, Our group had such an amazing time. Thank you so much for such a smooth, fun trip. We will definitely be using Amazing Destinations in the near future.Ó J. Garcia Selfhelp Community Services

- J. Garcia

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Good Afternoon, I want to take time to say Thank You for all you have done for myself and the Seniors here at Highbridge Garden Senior Center. We had a great summer and I hope things will continue. Steve And Cathy you guys are the best!Ó N. Smith Highbridge Garden Senior Center

- N. Smith

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Amazing Destinations is the best. They work with you in all ways possible to make sure you have a great trip. They have top of the line buses n driversÉ After working with Cathy n Steve you will have gained new friends besides. K. Giannone St. Adalbert

- K. Giannone

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We finally went on our Group Bus trip to Sight & Sound Theater to see Queen Esther this past weekend, we had cancelled this trip due to Covid and our church group of 37 were extremely excited to get back on the road and Amazing Destinations came through for us. Amazing Destinations had every COVID-19 measure in place to ensure a safe experience from the time the Bus arrived to restaurant and theater. B. Simpson First Baptist Church

- B. Simpson

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Our family of 28 total passengers wanted to get out and travelÉ we called Amazing Destinations and they put together a fabulous day trip for usÉ Hand sanitizer was available for all of us. We felt extremely safe on the busÉ I will continue to use Amazing Destinations for all future travel plans. Thanks to Cathy you are amazing. M. Jones Custom Family Tour

- M. Jones

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Cathy, Hi Cathy! I just wanted to thank you Ð we had a great trip! Students and teachers all had a blast. On another note, I wanted to say how happy I was in particular with the bus company, especially my driver Benitio. I have an infant at home that I am breast feeding. He gave me full range of his busÉ and was very accommodating. We will talk next year! Thank you! T. Johnson Assistant Principal

- T. Johnson

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Good morning, Thank you again for another wonderful trip. Everything was flawless as always and everyone had a great time. Looking forward to more trips in the future. D. Stewart St. Paul's Community Church

- D. Stewart

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Hello Cathy,É Thank you again for booking us to see Moses, all our guests were very pleased. So now we want to see DanielÉÓ Destination: Sight & Sound Theatre H. Smith Church of the New Vision

- H. Smith

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On time and on schedule

- Kevin O’Keefe

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Timely and professional service!!

- Jennifer Mitchener

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Hi Cathy hope all is well! Everyone had such a wonderful time yesterday during the Joseph trip. Now that we have finished with this trip, I would like to get information regarding the Samson show. Also, with the response being so great from this trip, I'm actually considering booking two buses if that's at all possible. Looking forward to hearing from you. Best wishes, Arianny

- Arianny

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Good Afternoon, Just wanted to let you know...on behalf of my staff, students and parents...THANK YOU!! We had an INCREDIBLE TIME in Washington DC! The drivers were very respectful and courteous to all our needs. Our parents and students really enjoyed the food and hospitality at Golden Corral. Mr. Scott the tour guide, truly enhanced the experience of the tour with his knowledge and friendly nature. We must, must do it again! Next yea, we are thinking about touring Philadelphia! Once again, Thank You! R. Peay

- R. Peay

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Good evening Steve and Kathy, I just wanted to say a very big 'Thank You'!!! Our trip was truly 'AMAZING'. From beginning to end the trip was awesome. Our driver, Mr Benito arrived on time and was perfect through out the trip. He drove with ease and got us to all of our destinations on time. The bus was perfect and everything we discussed was given to us. Our group had a beautiful time at the museum and the MLK memorial. Our tour guide Ms. Lynette was awesome. Her knowledge of Washington DC was phenomenal. As a first time trip planner you both helped me plan a trip that was just awesome. A great time was had by all. Even when we had a little 'bump in the road' you both made it your priority to contact me and the restaurant and speak on our group's behalf to solve the problem and to apologize for the restaurant's error. I really want to thank you both for that. Sincerely, D. Brewster

- D. Brewster

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Hi Cathy & Steve, A great big 'Thank you' to both of you for working with me and organizing my weekend getaway to the Baltimore Crabfeast on July 29-30. We had a blast!!! From beginning to end, everything was wonderful. The bus, the hotel, the service. You guys rock. I definitely want to book the trip again for next year. As soon as you get your dates and rates for next year, please let me know so that I can start early. Thanks again. V. Proctor

- V. Proctor

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Cathy, The kids had a great time and it was a good experience for all. The drivers were efficient and very kind to the kids. They were always on schedule and very safe. The school is very happy and we are already talking about Boston in the fall. Thank you very much! A. Pajares

- A. Pajares

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Hi Cathy! I just wanted to thank you - we had a great trip! Students and teachers all had a blast. On another note I wanted to say how happy I was, in particular, with the bus company especially my driver Benitio. I have an infant at home that I am breast feeding. He gave me full range of his bus so that I could pump. He took his stuff and napped on one of the other guy's busses, showed me how to work the door and was very accommodating. We will talk next year! Thank you! T. Johnson

- D. Boody

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Dear Steve and Cathy, Before I begin my day here, I just had to take a moment to thank you for a LOVELY Trip. The buses were absolutely Gorgeous, the food on the boat was somewhat better than last year, the music was so much better, we danced and danced. Everyone complimented me on this trip even when I went to church yesterday. I really enjoyed this this year, and I am certain they will talk me into doing this again next year, but we must have the SAME BUSES. Thank you both for making this trip a TOTAL SUCCESS, can’t wait to plan our next adventure. Diana

- Diana

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Cathy, Marie is elated at how well everything went! We had a great time and everything worked out perfectly. The bus driver and tour guide were fabulous. We are looking forward to our next trip in October. Thank you so very much. Beth

- Beth

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Good morning Steve, Thanks for an excellent trip, not one problem. The bus and driver was top notch. The driver was one of the best I have encountered during my forty odd years of coach traveling. Four stars for Amazing Destinations! Thanks and have a great day. R. Scotto

- R. Scotto

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Hi Cathy, Just an update of our trip to Holiday Hills. We had a ball and my seniors had a wonderful time, Our driver Henry was the best and we are requesting him for our September 17th trip to MT. Airy Casino. We already spoke to him and he said he would be more than happy to be our driver. Please see what you can do and I will remind you ahead of time. Again thank you for all your help with our trips. We still want to go to Villa Roma in December. Have a wonderful day. Thank you, D. Johnson

- D. Johnson

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Hello Steve & Cathy, Hope all's well. Just a short note to thank you for all you've done to make our Lake George trip enjoyable. You are the best.....courteous, reliable, and accommodating. ...all in all, everything was great. Our driver Kevin was very nice. Again, thank you and we are certainly looking forward to doing more business with you next year. Best regards, C. Springer

- C. Springer