Zitkála-Šá, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin

Published February 23, 2021 by tindertender

145 years ago, on Tuesday, February 22, 1876, noted Native-American Yankton Dakota author, editor, musician, composer, teacher, & political activist Zitkála-Šá “Red Bird” (1876-1938), was born on the Yankton Reservation in Dakota Territory.

Zitkála-Šá, also known by her Christian-missionary given name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was the first Native-American-Indian woman to compose an opera, “The Sun Dance,” which was co-written with noted opera composer William Frederick Hanson (1887-1969) of Brigham Young University who transcribed the traditional Sioux melodies that she played on her violin to create the first musical piece written with traditional Indian themes.

Zitkála-Šá was taken from her family to White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana where she was forced to pray like a Quaker & cut her hair; however, she was happy about being taught to read, write, & play the violin — an education that she soon put to good use. She attended Earlham College on a Scholarship, but a few weeks before graduation she had to leave the school on account of illness. Her prose & poetry & her musical compositions impressed many white people who were amazed that an Indian girl so lately removed from “savagery” could be such an accomplished artist.

The 1898 photograph by influential American photographer Gertrude Käsebier (1852–1934) depicts Zitkála-Šá at around the age of 22

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