NATIVE AMERICAN RHYMES

 

Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (1875-1938)

Zitkala-sa, "Red Bird,"a Yankton Sioux reformer and writer was one of a number of White-educated Indians who fought to obtain fairer treatment for her people by the federal government. She was born on February 22, 1875, the daughter of John Haysting Simmons and Ellen Tate'Iyohiwin, "Reaches for the Wind." Educated on the reservation until the age of 8, she was sent to White's Institute, a Quaker school in Wabash, Indiana. At the age of 19, against her family's wishes, she enrolled at Earlham College, in Richmond, where she won an oratorical contest, then graduated to become a teacher at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

She wanted to become a professional writer but was also interested in music. In following this latter interest, she studied at the Boston Conservatory and went to Paris in 1900 as a chaperone and leader with the Carlisle Band. She became an excellent violinist and enjoyed playing the instrument as a hobby. She also composed an Indian opera based upon the Plains Sun Dance. Harper's published tow of her stories at the turn of the century, and three of her autobiographical essays appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1901, her first book, Old Indian Legends, appeared and received a cordial reception.

By this time, Zitkala-sa was back on the reservation, where in 1902 she married a Sioux employee of the U.S. Indian Service, Raymond T. Bonnin; they had one male child. That same year the couple moved to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah, where they lived for the next 14 years, and where she worked as a teacher for the Indian Service. In 1911 she became active in the Society of American Indians, an organization of educated Native Americans dedicated to the improvement of the conditions of their people. The group was basically interested in the integration and assimilation of the Indian, favoring equal rights for all people, and strongly opposed to the continuance of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In 1916, when she was the society's secretary, the Bonnins moved to Washington, D.C. She lobbied for her people among the vari0us officials in the Capitol, and also helped persuade the General Federation of Women's Clubs to take an active interest in Indian welfare. Roberta Campbell Lawson, a part-Delaware woman from Oklahoma was also prominent in the club's hierarchy at this time, and the two women worked together closely.

Under pressure from the Women's Clubs and others, the federal government agreed to the appointment of a commission to investigate the Indian situation. In 1928, this group, of which Gertrude Bonnin was an advisor, turned in its noted Report, under the supervision of Lewis Meriam. The following year President Hoover appointed two Indian Rights Association leaders to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal Administration took even more significant steps to reform United States Indian policy.

In 1926, Zitkala-sa founded the Council of American Indians, and continued to work tirelessly for the rights and welfare of Indians until her death in Washington January 25, 1938 at the age of 61. She was buried in Arlington Cemetery.


 

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