In the late 19th and early 20th century, the destructive forces of the reservation and residential school systems worked to sever Native American communities from the rest of American society and young Native Americans from their own heritage. Born and educated in these destructive worlds, Dakota Sioux writer, musician, educator, and activist Zitkala-Ša worked throughout her career to depict, challenge, and transcend them.
Ša was raised on South Dakota’s Yankton Reservation by a single mother, her white father having abandoned the family. When Ša was eight, she accompanied white missionaries to White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, a residential school where she spent seven of the next eleven years. During those years she was given a new name (Gertrude Simmons), and found herself torn between returning to her mother and culture and pursuing newfound talents -writing, oratory, and the violin- at which she quickly excelled. Ultimately she would not choose one side or the other, but instead spend her groundbreaking career wedding those talents to activism on behalf of her tribe and all Native Americans.
Ša’s first publications were a series of autobiographical and cultural pieces published in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly when she was only in her mid-20s. In essays such as “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” and “School Days of an Indian Girl” (both 1900), she gazed unflinchingly at her own experiences to force white audiences to do the same; in pieces like “The Soft-Hearted Sioux” (1901) and “A Warrior’s Daughter” (1902), she created fictional Native American stories to capture cultural identities and issues; and in the striking “Why I Am a Pagan” (1902), she eloquently made the case for her Sioux spirituality in response to educational systems that sought to erase those beliefs.
Over the next decades, while working steadily, Ša would assemble these pieces and other writings into unique collections. In Old Indian Legends (1901) Ša pulled together and rewrote folk stories from many different tribes and cultures, creating a work that could introduce young readers to Native American stories while preserving the tales for posterity. And in American Indian Stories (1921), Ša combined her own autobiographical and fictional works with folk tales and a political essay, creating a book and genre all her own.
Ša’s musical talents, as a violinist and a songwriter, were equally impressive and influential. In 1910 she began working with composer William Hanson to bring Native American stories to new cultural forms and audiences. In February 1913, the Orpheus Hall in Vernal, Utah premiered The Sun Dance Opera, with a libretto and songs written by Ša and music composed by Hanson. The production utilized performers from the nearby Ute tribe, a casting choice that mirrored and extended the opera’s mission of putting native cultural and artistic practices on stage, both to preserve them and to bring them to wider, non-native audiences. In this first Native American opera, Ša once again connected her cultural heritage to her individual talents, creating a new yet deeply traditional work in the process.
Reading Zitkala-Ša provides a vital historical and literary context for bestselling contemporary authors like Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, reminding us that these prominent writers are part of a long and rich tradition. Yet in her multi-faceted life and career, and in the ways she brought those many different talents and roles to bear on the vital historical and cultural issues of her too-often-overlooked era, Ša stands as one of the truly unique and pioneering American writers.