Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala--

Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala--

by Tadeusz Lewandowski

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Red Bird, Red Power tells the story of one of the most influential—and controversial—American Indian activists of the twentieth century. Zitkala-Ša (1876–1938), also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was a highly gifted writer, editor, and musician who dedicated her life to achieving justice for Native peoples. Here, Tadeusz Lewandowski offers the first full-scale biography of the woman whose passionate commitment to improving the lives of her people propelled her to the forefront of Progressive-era reform movements.

Lewandowski draws on a vast array of sources, including previously unpublished letters and diaries, to recount Zitkala-Ša’s unique life journey. Her story begins on the Dakota plains, where she was born to a Yankton Sioux mother and a white father. Zitkala-Ša, whose name translates as “Red Bird” in English, left home at age eight to attend a Quaker boarding school, eventually working as a teacher at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. By her early twenties, she was the toast of East Coast literary society. Her short stories for the Atlantic Monthly (1900) are, to this day, the focus of scholarly analysis and debate. In collaboration with William F. Hanson, she wrote the libretto and songs for the innovative Sun Dance Opera (1913).

And yet, as Lewandowski demonstrates, Zitkala-Ša’s successes could not fill the void of her lost cultural heritage, nor dampen her fury toward the Euro-American establishment that had robbed her people of their land. In 1926, she founded the National Council of American Indians with the aim of redressing American Indian grievances.

Zitkala-Ša’s complex identity has made her an intriguing—if elusive—subject for scholars. In Lewandowski’s sensitive interpretation, she emerges as a multifaceted human being whose work entailed constant negotiation. In the end, Lewandowski argues, Zitkala-Ša’s achievements distinguish her as a forerunner of the Red Power movement and an important agent of change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806151786
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 05/26/2016
Series: American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series , #67
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Tadeusz Lewandowski is professor and head of the Department of American Literature and Culture at the University of Opole, Poland, and editor of Zitkala-Ša: Letters, Speeches, and Unpublished Writings, 1898–1929.

Read an Excerpt

Red Bird, Red Power

The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-?a

By Tadeusz Lewandowski


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5178-6



Gertrude was the last child of Taté I Yóhin Win (Reaches for the Wind, or Every Wind), a Yankton woman likely born sometime between the mid-1820s and 1830. In 1830, the Yankton began ceding their territory, which would be reduced by millions of acres over the subsequent two-and-a-half decades. As a result, Taté I Yóhin Win's life became one of transition and hardship. Her first marriage was to a French-Canadian fur trader named Pierre St. Pierre. The union produced two surviving children — sons Henry, born around 1849, and Peter, born approximately four years later — and perhaps other children who did not survive infancy. The St. Pierre family resided at the confluence of the Missouri and Big Sioux Rivers, where other French traders had settled with their Yankton brides. St. Pierre, who was likely older than his young wife, died in 1853, leaving his twenty-something widow and sons with no means of support. In the wake of this misfortune, firstborn Henry was taken in by white settlers, while Peter, just a baby, found refuge with Taté I Yóhin Win at her brother's camp.

For the next five years Taté I Yóhin Win remained unmarried. She took a new husband in 1858, the same year as another turning point in Yankton history. That year, her tribespeople signed a treaty with the U.S. government giving up 11.5 million acres of land in exchange for a 430,000-acre reserve, though they retained access to the pipestone quarries (see prologue). Taté I Yóhin Win's second husband, an Anglo named John Haysting Simmons, perhaps compared poorly with St. Pierre. Simmons eked out a living as a manual laborer and occasionally drank to excess. Nonetheless, Taté I Yóhin Win took the name Ellen Simmons and kept it to the end of her life. This second marriage was longer-lasting than the first. Over sixteen years the couple produced several offspring, two of whom survived: a boy named David, born around 1866, and a girl born some time after. What role Peter St. Pierre played in the family is unknown. Peter was about twenty when John Simmons died in 1874, leaving Ellen once more to appeal to her family for assistance. Her brother, now significantly older, could offer little help. Unable to survive by hunting game, he, his family, Ellen, and her two youngest children headed on foot to the Yankton Agency in Greenwood, Dakota Territory, to apply for U.S. government rations. They arrived there in 1874.

Once camped, Ellen Simmons's small daughter, exhausted from the four-day journey, became ill and died. Shortly after this all-too-common tragedy, Ellen married a Frenchman named Felker, described as a "worthless fellow" by his contemporaries. This assessment was likely accurate. Simmons soon dismissed Felker after he beat David — as the Sioux deemed corporal punishment of children inexcusable — but the brief marriage resulted in another pregnancy. Ellen gave birth to a girl in the winter of 1875–76. The birth date recorded in the notoriously unreliable Yankton census was February 22, though the year of birth varies. It is unclear whether Felker stayed (or even lived) long enough to witness his daughter's arrival. Regardless, he had no part in raising her. Ellen quickly erased Felker's faint memory by bestowing the surname Simmons on her child, Gertrude.

With the departure of Felker, Gertrude's childhood became female-dominated. Even the brother who had traveled to Greenwood with Ellen Simmons in 1874 seems to have perished before or shortly after Gertrude's birth, leaving a widow and one daughter. Gertrude's half-brother David, meanwhile, spent just two years or so near Greenwood before leaving for boarding school. In 1877, he enrolled in the Santee Normal Training School, thirty miles away in neighboring Nebraska. Founded by Alfred L. Riggs and dedicated to the education of the Sioux, Santee was a leading institution among missionary schools. In 1878, around age twelve, David left again, this time for a three-year course of study at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, an institution established for freed slaves after the Civil War. David was among the first group of American Indians to study there.

Despite no immediate fraternal or paternal presence, Gertrude thrived. Yankton elders provided a nurturing, communal atmosphere, as did Gertrude's aunt and older cousin. Though dependent on rations, these women and Ellen Simmons led a basically traditional lifestyle that Gertrude would later characterize as idyllic. At age six, not long after David had returned from Hampton, Gertrude began attending a Presbyterian bilingual school at the Yankton Agency. Two years later she made her own trip east. As she told the story later, Gertrude was seven when missionaries appeared at Yankton looking to recruit pupils for White's Manual Labor Institute, a Quaker-run boarding school in Wabash, Indiana. Her curiosity roused by their stories of boundless apple orchards and an exciting train ride, Gertrude gladly agreed to leave her mother's tepee on the banks of the Missouri. Though Ellen Simmons had allowed her son David to leave for Hampton and had likely converted to Christianity by this point, she had deep reservations about sending her last-born away. For obvious historical reasons Ellen generally abhorred and distrusted whites; yet her family's living situation offered few other options. The Sioux means of sustenance had been obliterated along with the buffalo herds, and those living at Yankton were largely confined. Government agents often pressured parents to give up their children to eastern boarding schools, withholding rations and using soldiers for purposes of intimidation. Ellen Simmons, aware that the future looked increasingly dismal, decided to relinquish her daughter temporarily in the hope that it would enable the girl's survival. By marking an "X" on consent papers furnished by the Quaker missionaries, Ellen signed away the right to raise her daughter for the next three years.

When Gertrude left for Indiana, seven hundred miles from home, she had no conception of what awaited her. Her destination, White's Institute, had been founded as an orphanage for children of both whites and Miami Indians, whose tribe had originally occupied the area around present-day Indiana and parts of Michigan and Ohio. Seeking financial stability during one of the economic recessions that plagued nineteenth-century America, the institute opened an Indian school in 1883, gaining it a federal subsidy of $167 for each pupil boarded. Instruction began with twenty-three students, the majority recruited from Yankton and Pine Ridge. Gertrude arrived in February 1884, expecting to exist happily under "a sky of rosy apples." Instead, the foreign environment and immediate homesickness reduced her to tears. The grounds at White's did in fact contain 150 apple trees, but a year after Gertrude arrived the orchard began to die off.

The semiautobiographical piece Gertrude later wrote for the Atlantic Monthly depicted White's unfavorably. She condemned the school's "iron routine" punctuated by random beatings. She described the violent cutting of her hair and how the faculty inspired fear of the devil in religion class. Most wrenching was the death of a friend, one of two girls from Gertrude's class who perished from the neglect inherent in the Quaker "civilizing machine." Unsanitary conditions and a lack of indoor plumbing often resulted in cases of trachoma, a potentially blinding eye disease, while malnutrition also contributed to illnesses. White's, unlike some other government-funded schools, was probably not an entirely nightmarish place, but it demanded levels of organization and discipline that Indian students found pointless. The children rose early in the morning to a day dominated by roll calls, ringing bells, and a tight schedule of instruction, house cleaning, and farmwork. This government-mandated curriculum was designed to produce male farmers and female homemakers skilled in the domestic arts. Meanwhile, the Quaker faculty actively sought to convert the students to Christianity and stamp out Native religious beliefs in order to "raise the religious character of the pupils to a higher standard." This ethnocentrism permeated all school instruction. Gertrude heard much about the supposed superiority of white civilization over Indian ways.

After three years at White's, eleven-year-old Gertrude finished her course of study. According to her later account, upon returning to Yankton in early March 1887, she resumed her old ways and style of dress. Gertrude continued her studies at the Presbyterian school for the next year and a half, then began boarding at the Santee Normal Training School in 1889, but returned home less than a year later. Now a teenager, Gertrude found it increasingly difficult to cope with life at Yankton. The years divided among her birthplace, Wabash, and Nebraska, and the clash between white schooling and long-established Sioux ways had taken a toll. Gertrude, caught between old and new, domestic and foreign, began to feel an alienation from her surroundings that strained her relationship with her mother. Ellen Simmons could not offer comfort to a daughter who felt she could not find a place at Yankton. Seeking escape, Gertrude left for White's again in December 1890 — the same month as Sitting Bull's killing and the Wounded Knee massacre. By then White's boarding school had grown into what the local paper called "the most important and interesting enterprise in Wabash County." During Gertrude's second stay she proved an exceptionally talented student, excelling in writing, oration, and music. Her abilities in voice, violin, and piano were likely discovered by a local Quaker woman, Susan B. Unthank, and fostered by private study. Gertrude also made friends. In 1891 a fifteen-year-old Lakota named Thomas Marshall enrolled at White's. Seven years later he would propose to Gertrude. At the start of 1893 school officials sent Gertrude on a recruiting mission to the Yankton and Pine Ridge Reservations, where she managed to sign up twenty-nine new students. There is no record of how she felt about removing them from their parents. The following year, 1894, a fourteen-year-old Yankton boy named Raymond Telephause Bonnin arrived at White's, perhaps as a result of Gertrude's recruitment efforts. Raymond, too, would later propose to Gertrude.

In her last year at White's, Gertrude's duties widened. The school had become insolvent, so much of the staff was let go. Gertrude and her friend Thomas Marshall, now age nineteen, stepped in to teach, care for the younger pupils, and tend to the bookkeeping. In June 1895, as her crowning achievement at White's, Gertrude gave a stirring commencement speech entitled "The Progress of Women." Her declaration of the necessity of granting equal rights to women reflected the belief in female equality that had long marked Quakerism. Gertrude exhorted, "half of humanity cannot rise while the other half is in subjugation." The Wabash Plain Dealer lauded her oration as a "masterpiece, never surpassed in eloquence or literary perfection by any girl in the country." Soon after Gertrude graduated, White's liquidated its Indian school. Meanwhile, Gertrude was soon set to enter another Quaker institution, Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana. Her mother, however, rejected the idea, pressuring her daughter to return home and make a life at Yankton. Gertrude neither obeyed nor even went back for a short visit. Instead, she spent the summer with the Unthanks while teaching music to earn money. The Unthanks were educated music lovers and evidently quite prosperous. They gave Gertrude much support. She addressed them affectionately as "Aunt Sue" and "Uncle Joe."

Miss Simmons arrived at Earlham College in the autumn of 1895, the sole Indian student on a campus with a little less than five hundred co-eds. Though this fact might have made matters uncomfortable at times, Simmons was in little danger of being ostracized. Native and black students had studied at Earlham before. The college, especially for its time, boasted a remarkably tolerant atmosphere rooted in a perceived history of friendship between Quakers and Native peoples. Also noteworthy was Earlham's attitude toward co-education. Male and female students, the vast majority coming from the educated middle classes, studied much the same curriculum, ate together, and even inhabited the same dormitory — albeit in separate, single rooms. This is not to suggest any relaxed, casual mingling between the sexes, however. Students were expected to conduct themselves with stiff formality and address one another as Mister or Miss. Yet Earlham had welcome advantages. The campus featured indoor plumbing, quality food, and what was likely an unprecedented degree of privacy for Simmons. At Earlham she had an expense account. Who furnished the funds is unknown, but perhaps it was the Unthanks. The increased comfort allowed Simmons to concentrate on her studies, which included courses in subjects from English and elocution to biology, zoology, Greek, and Latin. Simmons became almost a straight-A student the first trimester, excelling in English subjects but receiving a B in biology. For her thesis, Simmons planned to translate a series of traditional Sioux stories into Latin. In her spare time, she took up tennis.

Miss Simmons was a very sensitive young woman with a very slim figure. A fellow student, Chalmers Hadley, recalled that she was as "slender as Minnehaha," in a morbid reference to Longfellow's starving heroine in the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Hadley also remembered that Simmons did her best not to disturb the "fluffy dandelion heads which she did not wish to injure" as she walked across campus. Her sensitivity to nature extended to what other Earlham students probably regarded as pests. In the spring and autumn evenings Simmons, rather than studying, "sat in darkness to protect the moths, which fluttered through the open windows, from burning their wings in the lighted gas jet." Simmons later depicted her college years as lonely, trying, and marked with remorse over disobeying her mother. She wrote that when in her solitary room she spent most of her time weaving, close to tears, regretful at not returning home. She also lamented the "scornful and yet curious eyes of the students" and her decision to stay on "among a cold race whose hearts were frozen hard with prejudice." Hadley recollected that Simmons's "relations with other students were pleasant but somewhat distant."

A different picture emerges from the pages of the college newspaper, the Earlhamite. While Simmons likely felt a certain isolation on campus, on paper she was an extremely active and popular student. Judging from the Earlhamite, the sum of her activities must have left little time for weaving. Shortly after arriving, Simmons joined the G Clef music club and began appearing in school recitals, on and off campus. Her performances included the piano solo Rondeau Brillant, by Weber, and the vocal duet "Drift, My Bark." She also became a member of the Phoenix Society, a literary club at whose meetings she played piano. The only serious trouble Simmons seems to have encountered in her first semester was related to her eyesight. In December the Earlhamite mentioned that she and another student had made a trip to Cincinnati "to have their eyes treated." Otherwise, Simmons was, seemingly, an immediate and remarkable success. In the early winter of 1896 she entered Earlham's oratory contest with the women's rights speech delivered at White's, retitled "Side by Side." Though a female freshman competing against male sophomores, juniors, and seniors, Simmons decisively bested her opponents. The panel of judges, made up of Earlham alumni, awarded her 512 points (eighteen more than the second-place finisher) on the basis of thought, composition, and delivery. The February Earlhamite commented: "Her delivery was pleasing, and her voice, though not strong, was clear and distinct." Simmons's fellow freshmen, as an expression of pride in her accomplishment, hosted a reception for her following the win. Meanwhile, the senior class, stunned at their loss, "retired to the library ... and consoled themselves with oranges."


Excerpted from Red Bird, Red Power by Tadeusz Lewandowski. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Author's Note,
Prologue: An Indian's Awakening,
1. The School Days of an Indian Girl,
2. Carlisle and the Atlantic Monthly,
3. Montezuma and the Rebellion,
4. Uintah,
5. The Sun Dance Opera and the Peyote "Menace",
6. New Opportunities, New Trials,
7. In the Society of American Indians,
8. In Washington at War,
9. The Peyote Clash,
10. Forging a Plan of Resistance,
11. Oklahoma,
12. Princess Zitkala-Ša and the National Council of American Indians,
13. The Final Diaries,
Conclusion: Zitkala-Ša and Red Power,
Selected Bibliography,

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