lithograph of Hopeton earthworks
Ohio's First Humanists

Advocate for Native American Rights

Zitkala-Sa (1876-1938), whose name meant Red Bird in her native language, was a Yankton Dakota Sioux born on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota.

Convinced by missionaries to leave the reservation when she was 8 years old, Zitkala-Sa attended White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute, an assimilationist boarding school run by the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Wabash, Indiana.

Here, teachers forced her to speak English, practice Christianity, and dress like a white girl. Most traumatically, they cut off her long braids, an episode she recounted in a 1900 Atlantic Monthly story titled “The School Days of an Indian Girl.” Coming from a culture in which only captured enemies or persons in mourning wore short hair, Zitkala-Sa remembered that with this forced haircut, “I lost my spirit.”

Zitkala-Ša. Collections of the Smithsonian Institution
Zitkala-Ša. Collections of the Smithsonian Institution

She later attended another Quaker institution, Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, near the Ohio border. As an adult, she was a well-known writer, musician, and political activist, often working under her English married name, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.

She was an advocate for both women’s rights and Native American rights and was secretary of the first national Indian rights organization, the Society of American Indians, founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1911.

Old Indian Legends by Zitkala Sa

Old Indian Legends is a collection of Sioux short stories, but while her name is on the book, Zitkala-Sa considered herself a re-teller, not the author, of stories that are an important part of American culture.