Women Month March 2023

Zitkala-Sa is buried at Arlington’s National Cemetery beside her husband. I will be visiting the DC area this summer and will include this landmark location. I will also pay homage to this woman who continues to give hope to all her people.

  • Born on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the woman also known by her missionary name, Gertrude Simmons, was an incredible combination of writer, editor, musician, teacher, and political activist.
  • All her life, Zitkala-Sa (meaning: “Red Bird”), fought the prejudice and ignorance her people were subjected to; she had been removed from the protection of her reservation by white missionaries when she was eight years old, and this affected her the rest of her life. She was fiercely against the assimilation policies of the boarding schools of the time.
  • She learned violin and piano, and began collecting tribal stories, which she later compiled into a series of published books. In 1913, she wrote the libretto and songs for the first Native American opera, “The Sun Dance Opera”.
  • Becoming well-known for her advocacy of Native causes, as well as for her literary and musical talents, in 1926 Zitkala-Sa and her husband founded The National Council of American Indians (a fore-runner of today’s influential National Congress of American Indians). She was one of the most influential and important Native Americans of the 20th century.
  • Zitkala-Sa died in 1938 at age 61.
  • PHOTOS ~
  • L: By Gertrude Kasebier, 1898.

Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)

American Masters | Zitkála-Šá: Trailblazing American Indian Composer and Writer | PBS

The Making of The Sun Dance Opera

While Zitkala-Ša lived on the Uintah-Ouray reservation in Utah, she met American composer William F. Hanson, who was a professor of music at Brigham Young University. Together, in 1910, they started their collaboration on the music for The Sun Dance Opera, for which Zitkala-Ša wrote the libretto and songs. She also played Sioux melodies on the violin and flute, and Hanson used this as the basis of his music composition. She based it on the Lakota Sun Dance, which the federal government prohibited the Ute from performing on the reservation.

The opera premiered in Utah in February 1913, with dancing and some parts performed by the Ute from the nearby Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, and lead singing roles filled by non-natives. According to historian Tadeusz Lewandowski, it was the first Native opera. It debuted at Orpheus Hall in Vernal, Utah, to high local praise and critical acclaim. Few works of Native American opera since have dealt so exclusively with Native American themes. 

In 1938, the New York Light Opera Guild presented The Sun Dance Opera at The Broadway Theatre as its opera of the year.

“Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians  Zitkala-Ša’s most influential pieces of political writing, “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians”, was published in 1923 by the Indian Rights Association. The article exposed several American corporations that had been working systematically, through such extra-legal means as robbery and even murder, to defraud Native American tribes, particularly the Osage. After oil was discovered on their lands, speculators and criminals tried to acquire their headrights to leasing fees from development of their oil-rich land in Oklahoma. During the 1920s, numerous Osage were murdered.

The work influenced Congress to pass the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which encouraged tribes to re-establish self-government, including management of their lands. Under this act, the government returned some lands to them as communal property, which it had previously classified as surplus, so they could put together parcels that could be managed.

Zitkala-Sa, Red Bird, Yankton Sioux
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