From Sioux Reservation to Violinist, Author, and Activist: The Story of Native American Zitkala-Ša

Zitkala-Sa, as photographed by Joseph Keiley in 1901_2Zitkala-Ša, “Red Bird,” also known as Gertrude Simmons (1876-1938), was a Yankton Sioux woman of Native American and white mixed ancestry.

She was also an accomplished writer, violinist, editor, teacher and political activist.

Born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota she was raised solely by her mother.

In 1884, at just eight years old, Zitkala-Ša left the reservation that she loved to start an education at White’s Manual Labor Institute—a Quaker missionary school.

The sadness of losing her Sioux heritage—being forced to have her hair cut short and pray as a Quaker—was balanced by the joy of learning to read, write and play violin.

She eventually graduated from White’s and attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana on a scholarship.

A string of successes followed.

In 1897, her skill with the violin enabled her to move to Boston and play with the New England Conservatory of Music for two years. She also played violin at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris, France.

That same year, she had articles on Native American life published in Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly.

Long Fox-To-Can-Has-Ka, Tachana, Yankton Sioux, 1872Her writing style reveals the conflict between wanting to stay true to the traditions of the Yankton Dakota while being educated by the dominant white culture.

For untold ages the Indian race had not used family names. A new-born child was given a brand-new name. Blue-Star Woman was proud to write her name for which she would not be required to substitute another’s upon her marriage, as is the custom of civilized peoples.Zitkala-Ša, American Indian stories.

In 1902, she worked on the score for the opera The Sun Dance along with composer and Brigham Young University professor William F. Hanson.

The opera debuted to high praise. It was the first opera to be co-authored by a Native American.

From humble beginnings, Zitkala-Ša became an accomplished author, musician, composer, and dedicated worker for the reform of United States Indian policies.

Zitkala Sa, “Red Bird,” also known as Gertrude Simmons, a Yankton Sioux woman of Native American and white mixed ancestry.
"Zitkala-Sa" wearing a white long-sleeved dress and holding violin and bow, floral wallpaper in background. Credit: Gertrude Kasebier (Smithsonian Institution)
“Zitkala-Sa” wearing a white long-sleeved dress and holding violin and bow, floral wallpaper in background. Credit: Gertrude Kasebier (Smithsonian Institution).
Zitkala Sa holds either her violin or a book, indicating her interests
Zitkala Sa holds either her violin or a book, indicating her interests.
Zitkala Sa in tribal dress and western clothing, clearly identifying the two worlds in which this woman lived and worked
Zitkala Sa in tribal dress and western clothing, clearly identifying the two worlds in which this woman lived and worked.

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