Women You Missed in History Class: Zitkala-Sa

Zitkala-Sa (1876-1938)

Zitkala-Sa was a woman of many talents.  She was a prolific writer.  She was a teacher and a magazine editor.  She played piano and violin and composed music.  She was a political activist.  Zitkala-Sa wore many hats over the course of her life and never seemed to settle on just one.  In both her career and her identity, Zitkala-Sa defied labels and contained multitudes.  She was born February 22, 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  Her mother was a member of the Dakota Sioux tribe, and her father was a white man who abandoned the family when Zitkala-Sa was very young.  Until she was eight years old, she lived on the Yankton Reservation.  In 1884, missionaries came to the reservation and recruited Zitkala-Sa to attend their boarding school in Indiana.  She attended the school for three years, but struggled with the forced assimilation into white American culture.  She returned to the reservation three years later, but found that after an absence, she struggled to fit in to traditional Sioux society as well.

Zitkala-Sa began her writing career in 1900 with Native American legends she collected from Sioux storytellers.  From 1900 to 1904, she published these traditional stories, as well as autobiographical narratives, in Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly.  From 1904 to 1916, she continued to write, but did not publish any of her work.  She started publishing again in 1916, but with more of a political agenda.  Her 1923 article “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians,” published by the Indian Rights Association, exposed the ways in which American corporations had defrauded, exploited, and stolen from Native American tribes.  In addition to her talent for writing, Zitkala-Sa was also a gifted musician.  She started playing the violin at the age of eight, and worked with music professor William Hanson to write the first Native American opera, The Sun Dance, in 1913.

In 1911, Zitkala-Sa joined the Society for American Indians.  The goal of the SAI was to lobby for full American citizenship for Native Americans while still preserving the traditional way of life.  Zitkala-Sa served as the organization’s secretary, and from 1918 to 1919, she edited their journal, American Indian Magazine.  As secretary of the SAI, she criticized the Bureau of Indian Affairs for their practices regarding the treatment of children in schools, in particular their attempt to prohibit Native American children from speaking their Native languages.  She also reported several instances of abuse against children who refused to adopt Christianity.  In 1916, she and her family moved to Washington, DC to be able to lobby more effectively for Native American rights in government.  In 1924, Zitkala-Sa played an important role in getting Congress to pass the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted US citizenship to indigenous peoples.

Zitkala-Sa continued to be politically active until her death at the age of 61.  At the time of her passing in 1938, she was president of the National Council of American Indians.  When she died, the Council suspended its activities, and when it was revived in 1944, the all-male leadership of the new Council disregarded a great deal of Zitkala-Sa’s work.  Even though her contributions may not receive the recognition they deserve, Zitkala-Sa made her mark on the world and brought Native American culture and issues to a wide readership.  For that, and for her tireless work for the rights of her people, she deserves to be remembered and honored as an important woman in history.


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