Gertrude Simmons Bonnin

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Date: 1995
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,421 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1430L

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About this Person
Born: February 22, 1876 in Yankton Reservation, South Dakota, United States
Died: January 26, 1938 in Washington, District of Columbia, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Native American rights activist
Other Names: Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons; Bonin, Gertrude Simmons; Simmons, Gertrude; Bonnin, Gertrude; Red Bird (American activist)
Updated:Dec. 27, 1995
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Staunchly independent, an accomplished writer and musician, and an activist for Native American rights, Gertrude Bonnin was perhaps the most dynamic Native American of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Her stature as a feminist encouraged and occasionally disconcerted her contemporaries such as Charles Eastman, Carlos Montezuma, and Arthur C. Parker. As a writer she shared her storytelling traditions, especially for young readers, while also contributing essays and personal reflections that expressed chagrin at the betrayal and denigrations created by the white man's social and educational institutions. Her life came to exemplify the almost irreconcilable difficulties confronting educated Indians who must live in both the red and the white worlds.

Particular details of Gertrude Bonnin's early life seem to have been self-generated. Critic Dexter Fisher, a Bonnin scholar, and Agnes Picotte, a Lakota educator, offer the following clarifications: Bonnin's mother, Tate I Yohin Win ("Reaches for the Wind"), also known as Ellen, was a Yankton Sioux of the Nakota cultural and linguistic group. Ellen was married three times to white men; her husband Felker was Gertrude's father. Before Gertrude's birth on February 22, 1876 (not 1873 as Gertrude would later indicate) on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota, Felker abandoned his wife, who then returned to the Yankton Agency, where she eventually married John Haysting Simmons. Young Gertrude grew up as a Simmons. As a young woman she gave herself the name Zitkala-Sa, which means "Red Bird" in the Lakota language. The suffix "Sa" is most often printed with an accent above the S for a "szhea" pronunciation, but some printings of the suffix place an umlaut above the vowel.

As a child at the Yankton Agency, Gertrude listened to the traditional stories of Iya, the notorious glutton, Iktomi, the foolish one, Blood Clot Boy, and the various animals that she would write about in her first book, Old Indian Legends. She lived according to traditional Yankton ways as much as the reservation permitted. In 1884, she accepted an opportunity to get a white child's education by attending White's Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. This development began a lifelong struggle between traditional ways and progressive endeavors. Ellen Simmons distrusted missionaries' efforts to educate Indian children and fiercely opposed her daughter for being attracted to a school "in the land of red apples." Upon her daughter's return from White's Institute, the rift between them widened when Gertrude announced her decision to again leave the reservation to continue her schooling. In 1888- 1889 she attended the Santee Normal Training School in Nebraska. She returned to White's later, before moving on to another Quaker institution, Earlham College in Indiana, in 1895. She lived in a social milieu of Christian acculturation, which she bravely maintained in balance with her traditional upbringing and knowledge. At Earlham she applied herself vigorously to studying music, becoming a respectable violinist. In early 1896 her oration, "Side by Side," gained her second place in statewide oratory honors among students, and the March issue of The Word Corner, the school paper at the Santee Agency, printed the oration as her first publication. Gertrude's educational precocity took her to study briefly in Boston at the New England Conservatory of Music. By the end of the century she was teaching at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, performing along with the many Sioux musicians in its orchestra.

First Collection of Stories Published

Despite the strained relations with her mother, Gertrude Simmons frequently returned home to stay in touch with her heritage. Around 1900 she felt a surge of obligation to recall and preserve her Nakota culture, and in 1901 Ginn and Company, located in Boston, published 14 of her stories as Old Indian Legends, under her chosen name of Zitkala-Sa. Meanwhile, she wrote and published in such sophisticated periodicals as the Atlantic, Harper's, Everybody's, and Red Man and Helper the essays and reflections that gave her a wide readership and also brought notoriety for her relentless exposures of the hypocrisies whites espoused about Indian education and the bitter experiences schools created for Indian youngsters. She disagreed with Carlisle founder Richard Henry Pratt, who advocated teaching Indians agrarian skills and domestic responsibilities. Her position, which was that Indian youths should be taught academic subjects, was remarkably similar to that of her African- American contemporary, scholar and educator W. E. B. DuBois. On the subject of religion, her essay, "Why I Am A Pagan," used the storytelling technique to defend her way of life to a Sioux preacher who had traded his traditions for the doctrines of Christianity.

Sometime also in 1900 Gertrude Simmons met Carlos Montezuma, who although nicknamed the "fiery Apache," was actually a Yavapai Indian from Arizona and an 1889 graduate of the Chicago Medical College. Montezuma was so impressed by her that in 1901 he asked her to marry him. Both were strong-willed individuals, and although they broke the engagement that summer, they continued corresponding--sometimes with fierce debate--for decades. For instance, she once rebuked his idea of creating an Indian organization that would be all-male. Her letters to Carlos Montezuma are in his collected papers at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, but none of his letters to her seem to have survived. By means of the Montezuma collection's letters, Montezuma biographer Peter Iverson interprets her indecision about marriage as a disinclination toward the institution, but he also considers that Gertrude Simmons wanted to marry a man who shared her Yankton cultural heritage. On a visit to her mother in late 1901, she met Captain Raymond Bonnin, a Nakota like herself who was on the staff of the Indian Bureau. They married in 1902, and the following year their son, Raymond Ohiya Bonnin, was born. (Similar to Charles Eastman's Sioux name, Ohiya in the Nakota dialect means "Winner.")

The active writing and musical career of Zitkala-Sa, as she had begun signing her prose, declined for several years as she and her husband worked on various reservations, including the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah between 1903 and 1916. She did, however, take time in 1913 to collaborate with classical music composer William Hanson on an opera, "Sun Dance," that premiered in Vernal, Utah, that year. Indians and whites avidly enjoyed this opera, and it was occasionally performed elsewhere in Utah and in neighboring states. After the work lay dormant for nearly two decades, the New York Light Opera Guild premiered it in 1937, selecting it as its American opera for that year. Operas about American folk life gained popularity during the twenties and thirties, yet none about Native Americans except this one were co-authored by a Native American.

Bonnin's Activism and Organizations

Gertrude Bonnin was not a founding member of the Society of American Indians (SAI), a self-help organization that began in 1911 at Ohio State University. But she became one of its earliest supporters and active correspondents, rising eventually to positions on its staff. The organizers of the SAI, the most important of the pan-Indian groups during this time, wanted a forum that would reach beyond issues affecting individual tribes; they saw themselves as advocates for issues affecting the greater number of Indian reservation and community populations. The SAI began issuing its quarterly, the American Indian magazine, in 1916, and Bonnin's poem, "The Indian's Awakening," appeared in it. At its conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that September, Gertrude Bonnin was elected secretary. She also began corresponding with Arthur C. Parker, the Seneca ethnologist who was SAI's president.

Bonnin also joined non-Indian national civic organizations such as the League of American Pen Women and the General Federation of Women's Clubs. Her work in Native American issues proved exciting, useful and challenging for her. She was among several progressive Indians and white religious leaders and public officials who debated the merits of peyote with Indian religious traditionals, some educated Indians, and white anthropologists. While in Utah, Bonnin opposed the usage of peyote as a spiritual practice, which the Utes had initiated. In keeping with her opposition to peyote usage, Bonnin supported the Congressional Indian bill of 1918, which was designed for the suppression of the plant. The defenders of peyote ostensibly lost when the bill was passed, but enforcement of the bill proved ineffectual. Eventually, peyote usage precipitated the establishment in 1924 of the Native American Church, which used and defended peyote as a sacred medicine.

Another endeavor that Bonnin began while living in Utah was her support for both the Indian Service and the Community Center movement. The Indian Service consisted of Native Americans, many of whom were educated in mission and trade schools on or off reservations, who worked on the reservations or in similar Indian communities performing the kind of support services work that Bonnin and her husband were doing. These Indians could have pursued alternatives that would have given them personal advantages, and Bonnin sympathized with and lauded their devotion to community and tribal ties and encouraged those who remained as they made their career sacrifices. As for the Community Center movement, Bonnin believed that community centers such as the one at Fort Duchesne in Utah could contribute to fostering the improvement of Indians if Indians themselves, along with whites, educators and missionaries, were willing to work together. She encouraged nonpartisanship at the centers. The movement failed during a time when tribalism increased and pan-Indian agendas were set aside.

With Gertrude's role in the SAI, the Bonnins relocated in 1916 to Washington, D.C., where "Gertie," as she was affectionately called, continued to help Native Americans make adjustments to white society as best as they could. Although she was a respected leader, she continued experiencing the distrust of reservation Indians because she straddled the Native American and white communities. Professional challenges for Bonnin in the SAI came about in 1918. One involved her role in the peyote controversy. A second had to do with growing "personal and religious" differences with Marie Baldwin (Ojibway), the SAI treasurer. At the SAI's annual meeting, where Bonnin was re-elected as secretary in addition to being elected treasurer, Bonnin joined the chorus of Indian voices calling for the abolition of the Indian Bureau, the federal organization despised for its paternalism and autocracy. Factionalism and individual tribal issues that drew members to their home reservations and communities accelerated and as a result the viability of the SAI weakened. Bonnin's commitment to its principles and her desire to make it fulfill its promise as an effective organization increased as the enthusiasm of its other members waned or they became otherwise preoccupied. She successfully pushed the American Indian magazine to devote a special issue to the Sioux in 1917, an issue for which she wrote "A Sioux Woman's Love For Her Grandchild" and the editorial in which she attacked the Indian Bureau as "unAmerican." Eventually, Bonnin assumed the editorship of this periodical, writing editorials addressing the importance of land retention and Indian self-determination. She served with the SAI in this capacity until 1920, when, opposed to the declining organization's new political direction under Thomas Sloan (Omaha), a lawyer who defended peyotism, she resigned from her activities and membership.

As if in partial summation of her activities, Bonnin gathered several of her writings for a new book, American Indian Stories, published by Hayworth Press in 1921 under the name, Zitkala-Sa. These autobiographical essays and stories had already appeared at the beginning of the century, and "A Warrior's Daughter," a fiction, was among them. Four entries had never been published, although one, "America's Indian Problem," was simultaneously printed in the book and in the December issue of Edict magazine. Bonnin probably felt her early writings were still timely for their pro-Indian self-determination stance. In 1924 the Indian Rights Association, an organization that Bonnin supported for many years, published a small volume, Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians, an Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery, which Bonnin co-authored with Charles H. Fabens and Matthew K. Sniffen. This study reported on Indians being murdered and swindled out of the recently discovered oil-rich land on which they had been living since forced there from the southern states in the nineteenth century.

Fights with New Vigor for Indian Rights

Otherwise relegated to peripheral influence among her former pan-Indian associates, Bonnin fought with new vigor for Indian rights, encouraged by the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. She helped found the National Council of American Indians in 1926 and became its first president; her husband was elected secretary-treasurer. The National Council's main objective was to make "a constructive effort to better the Red Race and make its members better citizens of the United States." It became Bonnin's platform for calling upon Indians to support rights issues, to encourage racial consciousness and pride, and promote pan-Indianism. Despite Bonnin's efforts, educated Indians during the period between the two world wars continued to be involved with tribal issues rather than national Indian concerns. As a pan- Indian organization, the NCAI thus languished for many years, and because of Bonnin's charismatic self-reliance and overt leadership, potential Indian allies felt their participation precluded. (After the demise of the National Council, a new reform organization, the National Congress of American Indians--which would have an identical acronym--was established in 1944.) The stasis of her organization and the criticism confronting her from time to time did not lessen her interests. She supported the ideas of John Collier (excepting his tolerance of peyote usage) before and during his celebrated tenure as Indian Commissioner under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, because he respected the integrity of Native American cultural traditions.

Gertrude Bonnin continued lecturing on Indian reform and Indian rights until her health began to fail. The NCAI dissolved when she died on January 26, 1938, in Washington, D.C. Later that year the Indian Confederation of America, a New York City-based group, honored her memory at its annual pow wow. Her reputation as an incisive writer and activist at the forefront of the struggle to gain respect for Native Americans has gained wider appreciation since the efforts of Dexter Fisher, author of a 1979 doctoral dissertation about her, the republication of her two books, and scholarly articles on her writing style and narrative strategies. Whether under her "American name" or the Zitkala-Sa sobriquet she used for much of her writing, Gertrude Bonnin remains one of America's outstanding human rights activists.



  • (As Zitkala-Sa), Old Indian Legends (originally published 1902), Lincoln, Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
  • (As Zitkala-Sa), American Indian Stories (originally published 1921), Lincoln, Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1985.



A Biobibliography of Native American Writers, 1772-1924 (Native American Bibliography Series No. 2), compiled by Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., and James W. Parins, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1981.

A Biobibliography of Native American Writers, 1772-1924: A Supplement (Native American Bibliography Series No. 5), compiled by Daniel F. Littlefield, Jr., and James W. Parins, Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1985.

Fisher, Dexter, "Foreword," in American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa, Lincoln, Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1985; v-xx.

Fisher, Dexter, "The Transformation of Tradition: A Study of Zitkala Sa and Mourning Dove, Two Transitional American Indian Writers," in Critical Essays on Native American Literature, edited by Andrew Wiget, Boston, G. K. Hall, 1985; 202-211.

Hertzberg, Hazel W., The Search for an American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1971.

Indians of Today, edited by Marion Gridley, Crawfordsville, Indiana, 1936.

Iverson, Peter, Carlos Montezuma and the Changing World of American Indians, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

Notable American Women--1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Edward T. James, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Picotte, Agnes, "Foreword," in Old Indian Legends by Zitkala-Sa, Lincoln, Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1985; ix-xviii.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown, American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography, New York, Modern Language Association, 1990.

Stout, Mary, "Zitkala-Sa: The Literature of Politics," in Coyote Was Here: Essays in Contemporary Native American Literary and Political Mobilization, edited by Bo Scholer, Denmark, Seklos, 1984; 70-78.


Cutter, Martha J., "Zitkala-Sa's Autobiographical Writings: The Problems of Canonical Search for Language and Identity," MELUS, 19:1, spring 1994; 31-44.

Fisher, Dexter, "Zitkala-Sa: The Evolution of a Writer," American Indian Quarterly, 5:3, August 1979; 229-238.

Zitkala-Sa, "Why I Am a Pagan," Atlantic, December 1902; 801-803.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|K1626000025