Native American Advocate and Author
On January 26, 1938, Zitkála-Šá, life-long advocate for Native American rights and a resident of 261 North Barton Street in Lyon Park, died at age 61. She was buried under the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, in Arlington National Cemetery.
Image of Zitkála-Šá ca. 1921, courtesy of the Library of Congress
A nationally recognized Native American author and activist, Zitkála-Šá was a vocal proponent for citizenship rights for Native Americans. Born in South Dakota into a Yankton Dakota Sioux family, she thrived on the Yankton Indian Reservation until Quaker missionaries recruited some of the reservation’s children to attend a Quaker manual labor school where she was given the Christian name Gertrude Simmons. Although she enjoyed learning to read and write, she experienced first-hand the damage of having her heritage stripped away. Feeling torn between her life on the reservation and her forced assimilation into white mainstream culture, Zitkála-Šá pursued higher education and distinguished herself as a public speaker on social and political issues.
“Folded hands lie in my lap, for the time forgot. My heart and I lie small upon the earth like a grain of throbbing sand. Drifting clouds and tinkling waters, together with the warmth of a genial summer day, bespeak with eloquence the loving Mystery round about us.”
"Why I Am A Pagan," Atlantic Monthly, Volume 90, 1902
Her largely autobiographical work on indigenous life was published by the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly, including “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” and “The Trial Path” among many more. She collected tribal stories and legends into collections, and authored poems examining the intersection of nature, Native American life, and mainstream white American life.
In 1910, she began a collaboration with composer William F. Hanson, and the subsequent “The Sun Dance Opera” was the first opera authored by a Native American (under the name Gertrude Simmons).
“It was next to impossible to leave the iron routine after the civilizing machine had once begun its day's buzzing; and as it was inbred in me to suffer in silence rather than to appeal to the ears of one whose open eyes could not see my pain, I have many times trudged in the day's harness heavy-footed, like a dumb sick brute.”
"The School Days of an Indian Girl," Atlantic Monthly, Volume 85, 1900
As a member of the Society of American Indians, Gertrude Simmons (the name she used in records and public affairs) lectured nationally and lobbied for citizenship rights for Native Americans who were not naturalized U.S. citizens by birth but could apply through pathways such as military service, renouncing tribal affiliations, or accepting land allotments. As a previous clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, she criticized the bureau for its mistreatment of Indigenous children placed in national education systems that forced assimilation and Christian values.
In 1916, her husband, Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin (also of Yankton descent), lost his position at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Utah and they moved to Washington D.C. where, as editor of the Society of American Indian’s publication American Indian Magazine, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin wrote about and exhibited treatises on many controversial issues. In 1923, she co-authored “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribe, Legalized Robbery” which discussed theft and murder by corporations seeking access to Native American-owned oil-rich lands. The article is credited with influencing the development of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which returned government and land management to Native Americans.
On November 3, 1925, Gertrude and Raymond Bonnin purchased the stone bungalow at 261 North Barton Street in Arlington. from the first owners, Loyd and Bernice Claire. The Claires had built the house only one year earlier, having bought it from the well-known Lyon & Fitch real estate development. The Lyon & Fitch real estate team sold the Lyon Park subdivision properties with deed restrictions and covenants, including one preventing the property from being sold or rented to non-whites for a period of 99 years. The census recognized people of Native American ancestry as white and therefore the Bonnins were not prevented from purchasing the property.
In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all Native Americans, but did not automatically afford voting rights. In response, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin co-founded and presided over the National Council of American Indians to unify First Nations in the movement to gain voting rights, healthcare, legal standing, and land rights. She also created the Indian Welfare Committee of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, speaking often in Washington, Arlington, and Fairfax.
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin spent the remainder of her life in Arlington as president of the Council of American Indians, speaking and writing about the continuing political and social mistreatment of Native Americans. After her death, her husband continued to live in their home until his death in 1942 when the property was left in trust to their grandchildren.
United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.
Arlington County Land Records Office, various deeds pertaining to Gertrude S. Bonnin and R.T. Bonnin: Deed Book 609, p. 237, book 319, p. 64, and book 174, p. 152.
Zitkála-Šá, “The School Days of an Indian Girl”, Atlantic Monthly, Volume 85, 1900.
Zitkála-Šá, “Why I Am A Pagan”, Atlantic Monthly, Volume 90, 1902.
Lewandowski, Tadeusz. Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. (Available from the Library)
Susag, Dorothea M., Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin): A Power(full) Literary Voice, Studies in American Indian Literatures, University of Nebraska Press, Series 2, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Winter 1993), pp. 3-24.
Tsjeng, Zing, Forgotten Women: The Leaders. London: Cassell Illustrated, 2018. (Available from the Library)
Capaldi, Gina. Red Bird Sings: the Story of Zitkala-̈Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist, Carolrhoda Books, 2011. (Available from the Library)
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