Commemorating National Native American Heritage Month

By JENIFER LEIGH VAN VLECK on 11/19/2020

During National Native American Heritage Month, we are proud to honor the life and legacy of Zitkála-Ša (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), who is buried in Section 2, Grave 4703. Zitkála-Ša, whose name means “Red Bird,” was one of the most important American Indian activists and writers of the 20th century.

A member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux, Zitkála-Ša was born on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota in 1876. When she was eight years old, she was sent, against her mother’s wishes, to a Quaker missionary school in Wabash, Indiana. The Indiana Manual Labor Institute was one of many boarding schools founded in the late 19th-century not only to educate American Indian children, but also to assimilate them into white Christian culture. There, she was given the name Gertrude Simmons. While Zitkála-Ša enjoyed learning to read, write and play the violin, she resented being forced to pray and to cut her hair, and she grieved the loss of her own culture—feelings that she chronicled in her autobiographical story, “The School Days of an Indian Girl.”

Zitkála-Ša’s formative experiences at Indian boarding schools, and her growing political consciousness of her ethnicity and gender, set the stage for her later activism. After graduating from the Indiana boarding school—and giving a commencement speech on women’s rights—Zitkála-Ša attended Earlham College and the New England Conservatory of Music. She was then hired to teach music at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the flagship Indian boarding school in the United States. However, Zitkála-Ša was fired from her job after writing an article for “Harper’s Monthly” that criticized the school’s polices of forced assimilation. She returned to the Yankton Reservation, where she began collecting and publishing traditional Dakota stories; her first book, “Old Indian Stories,” was published in 1901. Meanwhile, she worked as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), where she met U.S. Army Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin, who was also of Dakota descent; they married in 1902. The BIA assigned Capt. Bonnin to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Utah, where the couple lived and worked for the next 14 years.

While in Utah, Zitkála-Ša continued her cultural and political advocacy work. In 1910, she wrote the libretto for the first American Indian opera, “The Sun Dance Opera,” which was based on a sacred Sioux ritual that had been banned by the U.S. government. Co-written by composer William F. Hanson, a professor at Brigham Young University, the opera premiered in Utah to critical acclaim in 1913. Zitkála-Ša also joined the Society of American Indians (SIA), an organization founded in 1911 with the twin goals of preserving American Indian cultures and advocating for their full U.S. citizenship rights; she became secretary of the SIA in 1916. Both she and her husband became increasingly outspoken critics of the BIA’s assimilationist policies, and as a result, the BIA dismissed Capt. Bonnin in 1916. The Bonnins then moved to Washington, D.C., where they continued working on behalf of American Indian cultural sovereignty and citizenship rights. Zitkála-Ša became the editor of the SIA’s journal, and she frequently wrote about American Indian issues for high-profile national magazines such as Harper’s and The Atlantic.

In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted full U.S. citizenship rights to all American Indians. Although the act represented a major legal milestone, it did not guarantee equality in practice. For one thing, states retained the authority to determine who could or could not vote, meaning that many states continued to restrict American Indian suffrage. In 1926, Zitkála-Ša and Capt. Bonnin founded the National Council of American Indians, which played a leading role in advocating for all Indians’ right to vote. Serving as the Council’s first president, Zitkála-Ša organized voter registration drives and gave speeches across the country. A longtime advocate of women’s suffrage, she specifically campaigned for American Indian women’s right to vote, and she organized an Indian Welfare Committee of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, a prominent national women’s suffrage organization.

Additionally, formal citizenship rights did not necessarily affect American Indians’ economic status. In 1924, the same year that the Indian Citizenship Act became law, Zitkála-Ša co-authored an article, “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians, an Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery,” which exposed how oil interests exploited and defrauded American Indians for access to resource-rich land. The article led to federal investigations and reforms, culminating in a landmark 1928 report of the Interior Department’s Meriam Commission, to which Zitkála-Ša was appointed as an adviser. This, in turn, led to the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (the Wheeler-Howard Act), which promoted tribal self-government and gave tribal governments greater sovereignty over their lands.

In 1925, the Bonnins purchased a home in Arlington’s Lyon Park neighborhood, just a couple of miles west of Arlington National Cemetery. When Zitkála-Ša died in 1938 at age 61, she was buried in Section 2, beneath a headstone that reads: “Gertrude Simmons Bonnin/“Zitkala-Ša” of the Sioux Indians/1876-1938.” In 1942, Raymond Bonnin was laid to rest in the same grave. An image of a tipi is carved into the back of their headstone.

The life of Zitkála-Ša exemplifies the fascinating, diverse stories that can be told at Arlington National Cemetery. Although she was eligible to be buried at Arlington as the spouse of an Army soldier, Zitkála-Ša was a national figure in her own right, who worked throughout her life to uphold ideals of equality, justice and dignity for all.