Native American activist and writer of the Sioux tribe Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, also known as Zitkala-Sa, (1876-1938) was prominent in the Pan-Indian movement of the 1920s and 1930s. She devoted her life to lobbying for the rights of Native Americans.
One of the most outspoken voices raised on behalf of Native Americans during the early twentieth century was that of Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, a granddaughter of the famous Sioux chief Sitting Bull. As a writer, she produced a number of essays and short stories that established her as a significant figure in Native American literature. Her enduring legacy, however, is that of a reformer and activist devoted to improving the lives of Native Americans both on and off the reservation. Calling upon her skills as an orator, Bonnin made numerous appearances before government officials in Washington and ordinary citizens throughout the nation to draw attention to the plight of Native Americans trapped in poverty and despair.
Bonnin was born to a Native American mother and a white father at the Yankton Sioux Agency in South Dakota on February 22, 1876. She spent her early childhood on the reservation, immersed in traditional Sioux ways. But when she was about eight, she left to attend a Quaker missionary school for Indians located in Wabash, Indiana. After a difficult and unhappy adjustment period, young Gertrude finally settled in and completed a three-year term, then returned home for four years before going back for another three-year course of study. Following her graduation in 1895, she went on to Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, earning recognition as the winner of a state-wide oratory contest.
After leaving college in 1897, Gertrude Simmons, as she was then known, secured a teaching position at Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian School. While the time she spent there was not pleasant, she did manage to make some contacts in the eastern literary establishment that enabled her to begin publishing some of her work (under her chosen Sioux name, Zitkala-Sa, meaning Red Bird) in such well-known magazines as Harper's and Atlantic Monthly. In 1899, she resigned from the Carlisle faculty and enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston to study violin. Free to pursue her writing and her music in a cultural milieu she enjoyed, she was happier than she had been in many years. In 1901, she published her first full-length book, Old Indian Legends, a collection of Native American stories. But she still felt somewhat torn between two worlds, and she very much wanted to do something for those she had left behind on the reservation.
Returning to South Dakota around 1902, she met and married a fellow Yankton Sioux, Raymond Talesfase Bonnin, who worked for the Indian Service. They soon moved to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah, where Gertrude Simmons Bonnin worked as a clerk and a teacher. During this same period, she also became involved with the Society of American Indians, a Native American reform organization founded in 1911 at Ohio State University. The first group of its kind to be established and managed solely by Native Americans, it operated on the principle that assimilation was ultimately the best course for the country's Native American population. To that end, the Society focused its efforts not only on government reforms but on activities such as increasing Native American employment in the Indian Service (the federal agency charged with managing Indian affairs), codifying laws pertaining to Native Americans, achieving Native American citizenship, opening the courts to all just claims regarding land settlements between Native Americans and the government, and preserving Native American history.
In 1916, Bonnin was elected secretary of the Society of American Indians, and not long after, she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C. From her new base in the nation's capital, which she would call home for the rest of her life, she continued to serve as secretary of the Society (until 1919) and editor of its major publication, American Indian Magazine. She also joined forces with a number of other organizations spearheading Native American rights and reform, including the American Indian Defense Association and the Indian Rights Association. In addition, she began lecturing extensively from coast to coast, speaking to women's clubs and other groups on Indian affairs and lobbying for Indian citizenship. Her work on behalf of the latter met with success in 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Bill.
Both Bonnin and her husband devoted a great deal of their time to meeting with officials of the federal government on behalf of individual Native Americans and tribes. They also testified before various congressional committees on a wide variety of issues. Many of their findings were the result of their own investigations and travels throughout the country visiting reservations and noting the need for improvements in areas such as health care, education, conservation of natural resources, and preserving Native American cultural traditions.
In 1926, following the disbanding of the Society of American Indians, the Bonnins formed the National Council of American Indians (NCAI). Like the Society, the NCAI was made up exclusively of Native Americans; Gertrude Bonnin served as its president. Its focus was also on reform, and to that end, Bonnin directed her energies toward lobbying for Native American legislation in Congress and calling attention to the deficiencies of the Indian Service.
The spirit that motivated these efforts finally prompted some government officials to take a closer look at the Indian Service. In 1928, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work commissioned a group of scholars to study living conditions among Native Americans, focusing in particular on economic activity, education, health, and the federal government's administrative policies and practices. Under the direction of Dr. Lewis Meriam, the Institute for Government Research conducted an exhaustive survey and published the results in a landmark report entitled The Problem of Indian Administration, more commonly known as the Meriam Report. Its description of the "deplorable" state of life on the reservations-the high death rate among all age groups, the failure of the educational system, the widespread poverty and malnutrition-focused national attention on the plight of Native Americans and increased pressure on the government to take immediate action.
In mid-December of 1928, Bonnin voiced her thoughts on the findings of the Meriam Report at a meeting of the Indian Rights Association in Atlantic City, New Jersey. According to the text of the speech, as furnished by the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, which houses the Gertrude Simmons Bonnin Collection, Bonnin declared: "As an Indian, speaking earnestly for the very life of my race, I must say that this report by the Institute for Government Research, The Problem of Indian Administration, is all too true, although I do not always concur in their conclusions, which tend to minimize the responsibility of the Bureau [of Indian Affairs]." Bonnin described the conditions on most reservations as below poverty level, with food being scarce and very few educational and employment opportunities. In the speech, Bonnin detailed provisions available in reservation schools: "The subcommittee of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is holding hearings right now, and sworn testimony reveals horrible conditions - rotten meat, full of maggots, and spoiled flour which mice and cats had defiled, are fed to children in government schools. Sworn statements amply show that the report of the Institute for Government Research could all be transformed into the superlative degree and not begin to tell the whole story of Indian exploitation."
Bonnin also commented on the quality of education available to young Native Americans in her address: "The Indian race is starving - not only physically, but mentally and morally. It is a dire tragedy. The government Indian schools are not on a par with the American schools of today. The so-called 'Indian Graduates from Government Schools' cannot show any credentials that would be accepted by any business house. They are unable to pass the Civil Service examinations. The proviso in Indian treaties that educated Indians, wherever qualified, be given preference in Indian Service employment is rendered meaningless. Indians are kept ignorant and 'incompetent' to cope with the world's trained workers, because they are not sufficiently educated in the government schools."
While it did not bring about major improvements, the Meriam Report did exert some influence on government policies regarding Native Americans during the administrations of Herbert Hoover (1928-33) and his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45). Hoover, for example, appointed two leading members of the Indian Rights Association as commissioner and assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As part of his Depression-era reforms, Roosevelt pushed for the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 and its promised "Indian New Deal," which granted Indians more self-government and the right to keep observing their own cultural ceremonies and other events.
As for Bonnin, she remained active in the reform movement throughout the 1930s. She continued lobbying Congress, particularly on behalf of the Sioux and the Utes, and frequently lectured across the United States, often appearing in native dress to dramatize her message. While she devoted less time to her writing, she renewed her interest in music and even composed an Indian opera entitled Sun Dance. After her death in 1938 at the age of only sixty-one, Bonnin was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons, Old Indian Legends (reprint of original 1901 edition), University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons, American Indian Stories (reprint of original 1921 edition), University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Gridley, Marion E., American Indian Women, Hawthorn Books, 1974.
Jones, Louis Thomas, Aboriginal American Oratory: The Tradition of Eloquence Among the Indians of the United States, Southwest Museum (Los Angeles), 1965.
American Indian Quarterly, winter, 1988, pp. 27-40.
Journal of the West, July, 1984, pp. 3-6.
New York Times, January 27, 1938, p. 21.
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin Collection, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.