Episode 13: Zitkála-Šá

Nation of Writers
Nation of Writers
Episode 13: Zitkála-Šá

In this episode, we’ll discuss the life and work of Zitkála-Šá, who also went by the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. Zitkála-Šá was a member of the Yankton Dakota, also known as Sioux, tribe. An accomplished violinist, writer, and activist, she co-founded the National Council of American Indians, lobbied Congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act, and wrote articles for The Atlantic and Harper’s, as well as two books and an opera.

We’re joined today by scholar Dr. P. Jane Hafen.

Dr. Hafen, Taos Pueblo, is a Professor Emerita of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She serves as an advisory editor of Great Plains Quarterly, on the editorial board of Michigan State University Press, American Indian Series, and is an Associate Fellow at the Center for Great Plains Studies. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters about American Indian Literatures, Dr. Hafen has edited two books about Zitkála-Šá: Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems and The Sun Dance Opera by Zitkála-Šá and her critical edition “Help Indians Help Themselves”: The Later Writings of Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.

Dr. Hafen is interviewed by Nate King, Content and Communications Coordinator for the American Writers Museum.



Christopher Burrow 0:00
Hello, and thank you for joining us for this episode of the Nation of Writers. This podcast is presented in conjunction with our new virtual exhibit American Voices which you can explore at nationofwriters.org. In this episode, we’ll discuss the life and work of Zitkála-Šá, who went by the name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. Zitkála-Šá was a member of the Yankton Dakota, also known as Sioux, tribe. An accomplished violinist, writer and activist, she co-founded the National Council of American Indians, lobbied Congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act, and wrote articles for the Atlantic and Harper’s, as well as two books and an opera. We’re joined today by scholar Dr. P. J. Hafen, please see the show notes for Dr. Hafen’s bio. Dr. Hafen is interviewed by Nate King, Content and Communications Coordinator for the American Writers Museum.

Nate King 0:49
Alright, Dr. Hafen, thank you very much for being on this episode of Nation of Writers with me. I want to start with, could you just tell me a little bit about yourself and what you’ve been up to this past pandemic?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 1:00
Well, thank you. Thank you. It’s my pleasure to be with you. I’m speaking to you from the land of the Southern Paiutes. I am a guest here. I have lived here for almost 30 years, I taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and worked in American Indian literature. So I have recently retired. My ancestral home is Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. And in the pandemic, I… Well, for one thing, I sorted my father’s papers that was kind of interesting, legal, legal work. And thanks to technology, I’ve been doing several zoom interviews about Gertrude Bonnin, and due to her political participation, the suffragettes seem to have claimed her. And she was involved in that. So the centennial of the suffrage movement is important. But of course, it affected American Indians quite differently than it did the ability of women to vote.

Nate King 2:03
So you mentioned that Gertrude Bonnin, and she also had, another name for her is Zitkála-Šá, right? Am I saying that correctly?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 2:10

Nate King 2:12
Could you just talk a little bit about what, what names she preferred? Or if she preferred both or, or sort of the different settings? Was it a different name that she went with or? That was always a fascinating aspect of her life, to me, the dual name part of it.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 2:28
It is and I think there’s a lot of self recognition that comes with her renaming. She was born Gertrude Simmons in 1876, which is the same year as the Battle of the Greasy Grass or the Battle of Little Bighorn. But the Yanktons had made a treaty early on with the United States. So she’s in a little bit different situation than a lot of the Sioux tribes. Because of that, she as a young woman, named herself as Zitkála-Šá, which is, means Redbird, but it’s in Lakota. And by all probability, she grew up speaking Nakota, which is the language of the Yankton Sioux. But she wrote in Dakota, which makes sense because the Bible was first translated into Dakota that would have been her language of literacy. But anyway, as a young woman, she gave herself that name, Redbird, and for her creative writings around that young age, her early 20s, and so forth. She used Zitkála-Šá, and she continued to use it. But eventually, as she married Raymond Bonnin, she used Gertrude Bonnin. And her later writings, much more seem to have dropped Zitkála-Šá.

Nate King 3:57
It’s interesting. You mentioned as well, the, you know, multiple languages that she, you know, wrote in and that’s one thing that fascinated me was, I mean, her ability to write in English and but then also her her native use, it was a Lakota language.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 4:16
Her writings that I’ve seen are in Dakota.

Nate King 4:19
Dakota, okay. Yeah, yeah. If you if, you know, perhaps was there like, a difference in her writing that you could tell based on the language she used? If that makes sense, like, would the language affect her writing in any way?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 4:35
Yes. She, in the early 1900s, between the time she left teaching at Carlisle Industrial School, she went to Boston to study music and then she went back to the reservation to collect stories. And as far as we can tell, she wrote those stories in their original language, Dakota. And there is an example in Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and the Sun Dance Opera, of a story that she wrote in Dakota. And then I had the good fortune to meet Gary Cavinder, who did a pretty literal translation. And then you compare that to the story that she wrote out of the original script. And it’s, it’s interesting to see how she had a literary sense to shape the story, to shape the sentences, instead of just doing a literal translation.

Nate King 5:34
Yeah, that’s an interesting point. Because that’s, you know, without that literary sense, that’s when you know, the phrase lost in translation comes about right? It’s a special sort of, I don’t know, instinct to have maybe, you know, obviously, she practiced at it, too, but… And what do you think that does for a people, her people to be able to translate their, that work into a different language and then to perhaps reach a wider audience? And what I don’t know, what sort of what do you think that sort of action does for, you know, people’s stories and in their history?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 6:13
Well, I think it’s really important coming from an oral tradition to be able to record those stories. Clearly, but to also see her voice in it. There’s a lot of her, because she’s a product of her age, and she trends toward sentimentality and, and drama a little bit.

Nate King 6:35
Could you expand on that a little? Like, like, you said a lot of her voice in those translations and in her writing, what, what, uh, if you could characterize her her writing voice, how would you describe it?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 6:45
It’s very sentimental. It goes for the heart. Yeah. But it goes for the heart with a purpose. Like one of her most melodramatic stories is Softhearted Sioux, about the young man who goes away to a boarding school education, he comes home and he can’t provide for his family. And you think, okay, that’s the basis of a good story, but then it goes on, he goes to a rnach and he is going to steal a cow. And in the process of doing so he kills the rancher. And it just keeps going on and it gets more and more dramatic. And when he gets home, he finds his grandfather’s dead, and he has to pay the consequences of his crime.

So, the plot itself is is quite melodramatic. But what she’s saying is look at what’s happened to our people, they’re starving, there’s no way to provide for them, which leads us to commit acts that we would not normally commit that violate our standards as a community. And it still is a terrible situation. So she’s, she’s appealing to the sense of sympathy, and emotion, to say, look at this injustice, what can we do to resolve it?

Nate King 8:06
Yeah, I just read that story this morning. So it’s fresh and fresh in my mind as well. Yeah.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 8:12
Did I get the details right?

Nate King 8:13
Yeah. Nailed it. No, I noticed that too, as I’ve been reading her work. I like how you phrased it, you know, sentimental, but with a purpose, you know. And tugging at your, tugging about the reader’s heartstrings to make them realize something that they might not be aware of. I’ve also, I also found, you know, as I was reading it, like I like I was right there in the middle of the story, you know, like I, you know, the description, her descriptions of the surrounding world are just are spot on, or not, spot on, but like, just make me feel like I’m there. And so, definitely tell I think the nature and the, you know, the natural world. And then against against the civilized world, if you will, which she talks about, quote unquote, civilized world, no one I can see my quotes. And just in I mean, I read American Indian Stories so far, but I just sensed a lot of the y’know, a lot of the tension that she felt within herself comes through in her writing, too, I think. Between, you know, her world, you know, the world she was born into, and then, you know, once she goes to the boarding school, she starts the path of sort of entering that the, the, as she says, the pale faced world,

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 9:36

Nate King 9:38
So, I don’t know if you could speak to that tension. That seemed to be a really driving force in her in writing and just in in her life, it seems to me as well, based on you know, what she did after boarding school in between and all that?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 9:51
Well, I think you’re right. I think that the early writings really show a binary. The American Indian Stories, the innocence, her childhood life, she presents a very Edenic world.

Nate King 10:05

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 10:06
And I used to always ask my students, how do you feel when she talks about those pale faces? You know, and she’s able to, to insult you without insulting you.

Nate King 10:20

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 10:21
By referring to, to the pale faces and the things that they have done, because she sets up her argument. And again, she’s appealing to the emotion and, and look at this young girl who’s so innocent and free and carefree, roaming across the plains. And if you look at those stories carefully, you see that she’s presenting an argument that and remember, this is 1900’s, she’s presenting an argument that Indians are civilized.

She learns proper behavior from her mother. She learns how to respect visitors, she learns how to respect the earth, she learns how to respect stories, and she presents a situation which shows that young Native children are socialized and are civilized and have values, which is opposed to the savage imagery that’s still prevalent in a lot of popular literature and culture of the time. So she goes from this innocence to along and she uses such great metaphors to about riding on the rails and hearing the whining of the telegraph poles and so forth.

Nate King 11:42
The iron horse.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 11:44
Right, right, yeah. And, you know, she gets into the situation where hair is cut off. I mean, that’s such an assault, the person assault to her being, and where she’s confined and can’t speak her traditional language and has to learn things that are quite foreign to her. And she sees depth in the boarding school, and has to has to cope with that. And so, yeah, she said, she’s echoing the savage/civilized, binary, but she’s flipping it by saying who’s the savage and who’s civilized, who’s behaving well, and who’s behaving poorly in this boarding school situation? It’s really quite remarkable.

Nate King 11:45
Yeah, and yeah, and she flips that quite pretty, in pretty stark terms, you know, and then doesn’t, doesn’t hold anything back.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 12:38

Nate King 12:38
Which I think is pretty brave. At that, to do at that time, and correct me if I’m getting this wrong, but American Indian Stories was kind of a… kind of reads like a memoir-ish now, but when it was first released as sort of different articles and different newspapers, right, am I getting that right? Or magazines.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 13:02
Magazines, yeah the Atlantic Monthly.

Nate King 13:04
Atlantic? That’s right. Yeah.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 13:05

Nate King 13:07
And that brings me, I wanted to talk a little bit about her prolificness, as a writer. She has a lot of, a lot of work out there, a lot of articles, essays, poetry, these sort of like in American Indian Stories, I don’t you’d call them little vignettes kind of autobiographical. Some of them not, some of them just short stories. But that to me, as a writer is impressive. The ability to write in different forms and to do it so often. I don’t know if you could speak to that. And especially at a time when women, especially Native women weren’t necessarily, you know, as prevalent in that in that sphere?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 13:46
Well, Native people in general were not prevalent writers in the 1900s. I think you have to go back to her oratory winning speech, when she graduates from Earlham. And see that she speaks with high oratory, you know, a high rhetoric, and she appeals for justice. And that’s consistent through her whole life, all of her writings. And so there are a couple of observations I would make. One is that literary genres are a Western European construct. She is telling a good story, whether it’s in fiction or memoir, or expository writing. She is telling a story to meet her purpose, or, or even poetry. And that purpose is consistent throughout her life, and that is for justice for Native peoples. And so, yes, she’s really prolific early on, she does all these magazine publications, and she publishes the little book called Indian Legends, which is published by Ginn and illustrated by the Winnebago artist, Angela De Cora. And part of it is an appeal to the exotic. People want to know about American Indians, through their own voices, know their stories. And so there’s a certain quaintness going on, but she never strays from those objectives about justice.

All this happens really quickly. And then she gets married, and you don’t hear from her again in print for another 12 years or so. But in reality, she, she continued writing, and I had the good fortune to find those published stories. And those are in Dreams and Thunder, those are the stories that are there. And they’re traditional Sioux stories and I feel very fortunate to to be part of that recovery effort to find her voice. And then when she comes back, she gets involved with the Society of American Indians. And she submits some articles for publication. I think the first one is about her work among the Utes because she and her husband were living in Utah, in working with the Uintah Ouray Utes, they’re employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

And so it’s, it’s a narrative about her work there. But even in that narrative, she’s saying things like, look at how they tried to cheat Chipeta out of her, what was dessert for her. And look how they’re treating the Utes. And, you know, there’s this real sense of indignation. And if you’ve ever been around Sioux women, you know that they’re not going to be quieted. She had a very strong and fierce personality. And it led her into conflict sometimes with others. It reminds me of a woman I know, from a seminar at the Newberry, who wrote, the seminar was about feminism and Native peoples and the title of her paper was, “I Never Knew I Was Oppressed Until a Feminist Told Me,” because of the power of women in Native societies. So it’s, I think it’s quite natural that she would, I don’t think she ever lacked confidence.

Nate King 17:27
Yeah, even as even as a little girl, it seems, throughout the rest of her life, she had that.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 17:32
Yeah. And she’s shaping those memoirs. She’s really shaped. She’s telling you what she wants you to hear. And how she presents herself and how she presents her mother. Her relationship with her mother, all of those things. She’s shaping to, to make her points.

Nate King 17:50
Right. Yeah. You mentioned her work with the

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 17:54
Society of American Indians.

Nate King 17:55
Yes. Could you speak a little bit about that, and what that work was, and you know, what she was involved in during that time in her life?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 18:02
Sure. First of all, she hated living in Utah. She just hated it. And she wrote consistently to friends at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to the Catholic priests, that she interested, she and her husband became Catholics. And that’s another thing. Yeah, she writes this marvelous essay in American Indian Stories called “Why I am a Pagan” and later it’s called the Great Spirit. A lot of people look to that as an affirmation of indigenous beliefs. But she was a Catholic, she and her husband joined the Catholic Church and remained somewhat consistent Catholics, but you know. And she hated living in Utah, and she said, there are no Christians here, you need to come make a Catholic church. And she said terrible things about the Utes, and their bear dances and things that they were doing. And, of course, she didn’t believe that the Mormons out there were Christians, and she didn’t like the Episcopalians. So she was constantly appealing to the Catholic priests that she knew to come and make a Catholic Church in Utah.

And there were other political things going on. Her son wasn’t accepted by the local community, and she got in conflict with some of the Bureau people and they killed their donkey. And you know, that a lot of things like that are that were in the letters that aren’t even really published anywhere. But I think they’re a really important part of her biography because she wants to get out of Utah. She would like to go back to South Dakota, but there’s no employment, to go back and to be with the Yankton. And then her old fiance Carlos Montezuma was involved in the organizing of the Society of American Indians and he invites her. And she doesn’t go to the first meeting, which is in Columbus, Ohio, in 1911, but she starts to participate after that. And she submits these articles. And eventually she gets involved. She, she becomes the secretary of the organization. And she pushes Arthur Parker out to become editor of the magazine. And that’s where a lot of those mid teen writings. 19-teens come from are her editorship. And because of the people that she meets there, she starts giving speeches. And she starts promoting your causes. And, of course, one of those causes is for citizenship for returning soldiers, 12,000 American Indians fight in World War I without the benefit of American Indian citizenship.

Nate King 20:56

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 20:57
And so she argues that they deserve equal rights. And that’s where she gets caught up in the suffrage movement.

Nate King 21:03
Okay, yeah. That was goign to be my question is, you mentioned that earlier in our discussion, yeah. How they kind of that Suffrage Movement has kind of maybe you could speak to it, as it was happening was she as welcomed as it as she is now in the suffrage movement, if that makes sense? Like, like, during that time, was there any pushback to her joining it or anything like that, that you’re aware?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 21:26
Well, I wish Cathleen Cahill, were here to answer your questions, because she’s written a book about it. But I think it was easier for the white society of women suffragettes to accept Gertrude Bonnin, because she has this exotic air about her and she has a certain performativity. When she gives her speeches, she wears her traditional regalia. People love that, you know, they’re, they’re drawn to the exotic. Whereas their blatant racism toward the African American women who were trying to participate, really comes through. So I think there was kind of a double standard, what was going on there.

And of course, Gertrude Bonnin is not fighting for women’s right to votes as much as all American Indians, right? Male and female. So I’ve been really amused by the Utah campaign. It’s called Better Days, and they’ve done wonderful work, about educating about suffrage and so forth. And they claim Gertrude because she lived those 12 years in Utah, but Utah is the last state, in 1957, to give American Indians the right to vote. They’re the first state first to give women the right to vote, but the last to give American Indians the right to vote. So the the issues are, are quite complicated, and overlapping, embedded in in a whole bunch of other issues. So it’s not as simple as just suffrage movement. But Gertrude did know how to work an audience. And she knew how to appeal to, to her causes. And she did that well.

Nate King 23:22
Did she do a lot of speeches or, you know, performances in front of audiences?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 23:28
Yes, she did.

Nate King 23:29
Yeah. Yeah. She on the on the speaking circuit, if you will?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 23:33
She was. She was. She was affiliated with the general federated women’s clubs and got them to get an Indian committee and she did. She worked the circuit.

Nate King 23:45
Nice. Performance makes me think one thing I do want to ask you about and go into in your book, Dreams and Thunder, right?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 23:58

Nate King 23:59
So yeah, your book, Dreams and Thunder, has selected poems and writings that you said, but the big part of it is the Sun Dance opera, which I was researching. Zitkála-Šá was a fascinating subject to me. Again, kind of same, in a way translating that. Like we were talking about the old Indian legends, translating that into a different, to present it to a different audience. So yeah, I don’t know if you could speak to that a little bit about your process and putting that book together. And then also sort of just tell us a little bit about the Sun Dance opera, from your perspective.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 24:39
Well, the Sun Dance opera is a wild thing. You know, she’s stuck out there in Utah and y’know, no TV, no radio, personal entertainment. She meets a music teacher. She was a musician. She played the violin. She played the piano.

Nate King 25:00

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 25:01
And they, they entertained each other in the evenings. Kind of in a parlor way. And she met this music teacher named William Hanson. And I describe it as “let’s do an opera.” You know, like the Muppets go to Hollywood.

Nate King 25:21
Yeah, yeah. Why not?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 25:25
Yeah, why not? And they talked about doing an opera on the life of Chipeta, who was the widow of Ouray, the Ute chief out there and decided against it. Decided to do one on the sun dance. And this is fascinating. It’s really, really fascinating structurally. First of all, I’ve been told that the Yankton’s did not sun dance, but the Utes did.

Nate King 25:55

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 25:56
Yeah. And they have their sun dance arena, and the, the opera’s set up like a love triangle. They have the hero whose name is Ohiya. And that’s the name of her son. And he pledges to sun dance. But then his competition for the girl is in the form of the evil Shoshone because of the intertribal competitions between the Utes and the Shoshones. So you have this basic love triangle that’s going on, but it’s cast against the pledge of the sun dance. And there are some interesting set pieces. In a lot of ways, you know, opera is the plural of operas because it uses all the arts together, uses drama, uses theater, uses literature and use uses music altogether. And so I think what she was trying to do, along with William Hanson, is to elevate this traditional story to the heights of Western civilization. What better example of performance could there be than opera? It’s going to be better than a novel, it’s going to be better than short story or whatever. So it has that performative element to it.

And there are some really interesting things about some of the characters in there because there’s a trio of gossips, which is very tribal. You know, the value of gossiping and the value of storytelling. And so they set it up as three female singers set piece. And then another minor character is the heyoka. Who in traditional Sioux societies is somebody who does everything backwards. And so he doesn’t follow traditional norms. Particularly prudish, traditional sexual norms. Does everything backwards. So you have these characters that are part of the social structure of these traditional tribal societies. And then you have the love triangle, and then you have it set with the sun dance, they have to go get the trees, and he has to pledge himself to the sun dance and so forth. So, you know, those aspects of it are, are so interesting. And in the original performances, they have the, the libretto, and the orchestration. And then they have big pauses, because they used local Utes to sing their traditional sun dance songs.

Nate King 28:50
Oh cool.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 28:51
Keep in mind, the sun dance is forbidden legally, as a pagan ritual. The government has said you can’t do this anymore.

Nate King 29:00
And what, real quick, what time frame are we looking at here?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 29:03

Nate King 29:05

1912. Okay, yeah,

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 29:06
Yeah. And so you’d say, okay, and then they go sing their songs. They go sing their songs on stage, because that performance venue is legal, and acceptable. Yeah, so there, there are a lot of fascinating things about it. But then you get to the music and… have you ever heard of Nelson Eddie?

Nate King 29:31

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 29:32
Operetta, very sentimental music. Very unsophisticated. Very simple, in some ways.

Nate King 29:41

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 29:42
I mean, you think in 1912, Stravinsky’s writing Petrushka and the Firebird and all of these really sophisticated things. And Prokofiev’s writing symphonies and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and here you have these little, little pieces that are sentimental and not very sophisticated. But I will say this. There was a group of students at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, who, about six or seven years ago, there were three siblings who researched the opera. And they were Navajo. And they were classically trained musicians. And so they staged selections from the opera. And it was fascinating. I was really lucky to be part of that. The soprano, Sarah Singer, and their name was Singer, the soprano Sarah Singer, she’s fantastic. And she took this music, which is, in my opinion, not great music, and made it something better than it was because of her performance. And, and they really gave life to the Sun Dance Opera.

The opera was performed in Utah, and Utah has a great theater tradition, and people went to see it and they liked it. And William Hansen went on to become a music professor at Brigham Young University. And in 1938, he revives it through a former student of his at the New York City Opera. And it got panned. Totally panned by the critics. And he had removed virtually every aspect of Gertrude’s participation in the composition. He claimed it as his own. And he had written another opera later too about the bear dance by the Utes. But Gertrude wasn’t involved in that. And she, she passed away just a few months before it was performed. That’s kind of a long story.

Nate King 32:26
No, well…

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 32:27
It’s got a of a life of its own.

Nate King 32:28
Yeah, right. Yeah. And great to see that, even in recent history, it’s still being revived. And, and done well, like you said, and I guess that’s a good way to transition. Like, what about Gertrude’s work like, do you think makes it so endearing? Or, you know, you know, what, why, why should listeners to our podcast go and read some of Zitkála-Šá’s work today? What about it is impactful still?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 32:40
Well, the boarding school narratives are one of a kind. She seems to be the first Native writer to write without heavy editing and without a translator. It really is her own voice. And you can see that consistently through the writings throughout her life, that is her own voice. And the boarding school experiences are dramatic, and they cry out for social justice. And it’s still an issue today, you know, they’re finding bodies at boarding schools around. The legacy of descendants of boarding school survivors persist. At the boarding school, you lose a generation of Native speakers. And one of the reasons that Gertrude names herself, instead of being in a traditional naming ceremony back on the reservation, is because she’s removed from that traditional tribal practice. So she has to do it for herself. And the boarding school narratives, but then you look at the broader sense of what she’s written. And it gets into kind of wonky policy stuff, which I think is, it’s very interesting and it’s in the last book that I edited. And for example, one of the essays in there is called “Oklahoma’s Poor, Rich Indians.” And it’s about she and a group of people from the American Indian Defense Association went to Oklahoma because there was a lot of exploitation and grift going on, especially among the Osage, and so it gives case studies of that. So a couple of years ago, there was a book called Killers of the Flower Moon, which you may have heard of.

Nate King 34:34

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 34:34
And now Martin Scorsese is making a movie about this. But you find the original document, the original reports that were presented before Congress in this in her later writings.

Nate King 34:50
Oh, interesting.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 34:52
So yeah, there, there’s a lot of… a lot of the issues that are current today are evident in her writings from the 1920s when she’s spending a lot of time giving speeches and testifying before Congress. Native issues had to be resolved by Congress. They weren’t just local issues, they had to have hearings and, you know, be voted on and, and so forth. And so she and Raymond are are consistent presenters before Congress of individual cases.

Nate King 35:30
I think that kind of answers my, my next question, which would be if, you know, if the Zitkála-Šá were around today, yeah. How do you think she would be engaging with our current world? And I think, you know, unfortunately, she’d be doing the same, the same thing, right, like writing and advocating? And? Yeah, I don’t know, how do you think she would be in today’s world?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 35:52
Oh, I think she’d be right in the thick of things worried about murdered and missing Indigenous women, worried about land rights, water rights, the Keystone project, you know. I think she’d be right in the thick of those things. But I think another thing that is really important to know that she was the spokesperson, but her husband did the legal work behind a lot of this. And somebody really needs to do a dissertation or a biography of him and, and to see how that all spins out. Because land rights issues, those are current.

Nate King 36:34

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 36:35
And and they’re right in the thick of, of all of that legislation that is happening in the 1920s and the 1930s, that set up the series of events with tribes and their abilities to make land claims.

Nate King 36:51
Yeah. Do you see any literary lineage, if you will, like of current writers who are kind of who kind of write in the similar vein, maybe not same style or voice, but maybe contemporary writers who, you know, write, with the same sort of passion that Gertrude did, and kind of I don’t know, carry, carry that lineage on today?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 37:16
Well, two come to mind immediately. One is Winona LaDuke who’s very politically active in the rights for Indian causes. And the other is Layli Long Soldier who wrote the introduction to the version that you have of American Indian Stories. And just last week, she gave a reading at the Folger library, and she’s writing poems based on Gertrude writing. She sees herself as a Sioux woman as a direct descendant, literary descendant of Gertrude Bonnin. And the poetry that she’s writing that takes its inspiration from Gertrude’s writing, it’s just, it’s fascinating and amazing.

Nate King 38:02
Yeah, I think keep an eye out for that, then. I think you mentioned that last week, as well, as we were arranging all this. We did a program with Layli Long Soldier and Tanaya Winder and Mark Turcotte last year.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 38:16
Oh, yeah.

Nate King 38:17
With the Norton Anthology of Native Poets.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 38:21

Nate King 38:21
Yeah. They read their pieces from that. And that, yeah, that one was one of the programs that stuck with me. Just you know, they’re, you know, speaking their truths. And the poetry itself is just great. So yeah, definitely keep an eye out for Layli’s new new stuff coming out. Especially after doing all this research.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 38:40
Yeah. Because it is directly related to her work with Gertrude Bonnin, and I’m so glad that she’s doing it.

Nate King 38:46

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 38:47

Nate King 38:47
Yeah. That sounds great. So we talked a little bit about some other people and I I’m curious if you if you’re willing to share what… one, how you first encountered Zitkála-Šá’s work and and since that encounter, what, you know, what her work and what her as a person has meant to you personally.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 39:07
Um, thanks for asking that. It’s part of the reason I was asking about Chicago because I had a fellowship at the Newberry library.

Nate King 39:17
Oh, great. Yeah. We love them.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 39:20
Yeah. And so when I got the fellowship, my work at that time was mostly with contemporary American Indian literatures but I needed a historical project. And I remembered seeing at Brigham Young University, the opera, the Sun Dance Opera. I thought okay, I need to learn something more about that. And so I did a lot of work there at the Newberry because they, y’know, have tremendous resources. But it took me back to Brigham Young University and that’s where I found the unpublished stories and the libretto to the opera. And then the long term project of gathering her expository writing. I think, Dreams and Thunder was published in 2001. And Help Indians Help Themselves was published 2020. It was a long time coming, and I do a lot of other things in between.

But I did a lot of research, a lot of archival research. Like the things I was telling you about her experience in Utah, you know, that took a lot of archival research of correspondence and so forth. Brigham Young University was really great. Raymond studied to be a lawyer, but he never had a college degree and he never passed the bar. And so after a little spat with, between the commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, and Gertrude, Collier said that only lawyers could represent tribes. And Raymond had all of this legal work that he could not submit. So he contractually engaged with a law firm that was headed by a guy named Ernest Wilkinson, who becomes primary in establishing Indian legal claims. And Wilkinson later becomes the president of BYU for $1 a year. Well, because of the first claim, which was settled by the consolidate three consolidated Ute tribes, in the early 1950s, and of course, by then, Gertrude and Raymond had both passed away. And Wilkinson was concerned about keeping the legal lines straight. And so he just kept these boxes of all their papers, and that’s where the stories were. And that’s how I ended up at BYU. And what I didn’t know until I did my research is that the government required the Utes to show what they were going to do with their settlement monies. And they started in the education project, and they hired, they hired these college graduates to help them with adult education. And one of them was Robert Bennett, who was Oneida and became the first American Indian commissioner of Indian Affairs in the 1960s. And one was Joe Sando, who was a Jemez Pueblo historian. And the other was my father.

Nate King 42:32
Oh, wow.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 42:33
Who received a degree in adult education. And that’s why I was born among and raised among the Utes. But I didn’t know that that was the why and wherefore when I started on this project.

Nate King 42:48
Wow. That’s so yeah, that’s wild.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 42:52
Yeah, yeah. So even though I’m not Sioux, I feel like I was in the right place at the right time.

Nate King 42:58

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 42:59
And, and I feel like I have that literary heritage myself.

Nate King 43:04
Yeah. I mean, the coincidence can only be coincidences for so long. Right? That seems like too much of a full circle to, like you said, right place right time. I like that.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 43:15
Yeah. I feel a great honor to have, have found her voice. You know, academic books don’t make hardly any money. And I never keep it. And I always give it to a cause that I think that she would support.

Nate King 43:30
Nice. Yeah, that’s great. Actually, we’re getting close to wrapping up. Did you? Do you have any… interested if you have any favorite passages or poems of Gertrude’s that if you’d like to read any aloud?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 43:43
When Gertrude and Raymond founded the Council, National Council of American Indians, it was the idea of getting tribes together to represent their rights before Congress. And in part of Help Indians Help Themselves is the petition that they wrote and submitted. It’s in the Congressional Record. And so let me just read the first two paragraphs from there.

When in the course of human events, a civilized state asserts by virtue of an alleged rite of discovery, the power of preemption in an Aboriginal territory it assumes before the Great Spirit who rules over the destinies of mankind, and under the law of nations an obligation for those whose possession it displaces, which neither emperors nor sovereign peoples may avoid. Wherefore, since the allegiance of the American Indian tribes subject to the sovereignty of the United States was secured by treaties between the United States and the said tribes whose Aboriginal rights were guaranteed by the United States, in treaties with the sovereignties of Great Britain, France, Spain, Mexico, Russia. And whereas it was by the virtue of those solid treaty compacts, which the honorable Senate of the United States alone had power to ratify, that the constitutional rights of Indian inhabitants of the United States vested in them. Now therefore, in the exercise of the right of petition guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution, the National Council of American Indians, on behalf of the Indian citizens of the United States addresses this, in petition to the Senate of the United States assembled for the redress of their grievances, setting forth and alleging the manifold wrongs that are being done them by the Congress and the government of the United States, in violation of the terms and the spirit of the said treaties and the Constitution of the United States.


Nate King 46:02
I like that. That’s a great use of the, you know, phrases like when in the course of human events, and just, that’s I love that just flipping back on them.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 46:11
Yeah, exactly. They’re flipping the legal rhetoric and say: folks, you owe us.

Nate King 46:17
Yeah, right. Yeah, past due.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 46:21

Nate King 46:23
Yeah. Thank you, Doctor, Doctor Hafen. Could you- What was the name of that? That that you just read, again? If any of our listeners want to look it up and read it.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 46:34
Sure. It’s from Help Indians Help Themselves. It’s the petition of the National Council of American Indians.

Nate King 46:42
Okay. And just for my own curiosity, when when was that written?

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 46:46

Nate King 46:47
1926? Yeah. I just want to thank you again, for taking the time to you know, coordinate this with me and then taking time out of your day to talk with me and I know I appreciate it a lot.

Dr. P. Jane Hafen 46:58
Thank you for your interest. Thank you for your patience, Nate. It was really nice. Thank you for having thoughtful questions. You have a wonderful harvest feast.

Nate King 47:07
You as well, yeah. Thanks.

Christopher Burrow 47:10
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Nation of Writers podcast, part of the American Writers Museum podcast network. The next episode will air in December. If you would like to learn more about the American writers and their impact on our history, our culture, and our daily lives, come check it out in person. The American writers museum is open Thursdays through Mondays from 10am to 5pm. Closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Once again, thank you for listening. And to all you writers out there: thank you for writing.

2 thoughts on “Episode 13: Zitkála-Šá

    • American Writers Museum says:

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for reaching out. We are actually working on getting a transcript of this episode created right now, so we’ll be sure to send it along to your student as soon as it is ready.

      -Ari Bachechi, Data Operations Coordinator

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