#Art + Culture

Commemorating The Fearless Zitkala-Sa On Her Birth Anniversary

who is zitkala-sa

February 22 marks the 145th birth anniversary of legendary writer, musician and activist Zitkala-Sa, an occasion Google is celebrating with a vibrant doodle heavy with symbolism dedicated to her revolutionary life. Also known by her birth name Gertrude Simmons, she was a force to reckon with through the 19th and 20th centuries, as a woman seeking change in an orthodox America.

As a creative artist, Zitkala-Sa was strikingly multifaceted, having made significant personal and public progress in the fields of writing, education, music, advocacy and rights activism; all this made even more impressive compounded by her identity as a woman laying the foundations of a more equal society at a time civil rights were almost non-existent for sections of people, including, but not limited to, Native American women as her.

‘Red Bird,’ as her nom de plume Zitkala-Sa translates to in indigenous Lakota, lived from 1876 to 1938. Her years in between were all trailblazing fireworks.

Zitkala-Sa: A Look At Her Fiery Legacy

Belonging to the Dakota tribe, Zitkala-sa was born at the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota, living her years in carefree girlhood within her traditional community setup. At eight, she left home after a missionary school recruited children from the tribe for imparting modern education to them.

Her three short years at this boarding, administered by “disciplined” white Christians, were spent in turmoil, anecdotes of which she wrote in The School Days of an Indian Girl. 

I still carry the resounding impact of one section from her memoir I read in my teens, where Zitkala-Sa outlines the humiliation she felt at her “soft moccasins” being replaced by squeaky shoes and her long, thick locks being “shingled like a coward’s.”

She went on through her teens to grow her knowledge – in music, education and equality – and soon emerged as a Native woman with a voice that resisted and advocated.

In 1899, Zitkala-Sa turned music educator in Pennsylvania, going on to play the violin at public exhibitions. As a news century rolled around, she found power in the pen and embarked upon a literary journey that cut through layers of injustice against Native Americans, women and minorities.

She authored several works over the years, most prominent of which were Old Indian Legends (a collection of native oral stories), American Indian Stories, and Dreams and Thunder. She is also credited with writing and composing for The Sun Dance Opera (1913), a first for any Native American.

Through her youth, she lobbied for the cause of full American citizenship rights for indigenous peoples, which culminated in the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Two years later, she and her husband Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin founded the National Council of American Indians (NCAI), a council that tirelessly worked for the benefit of indigenous rights, and of which she remained the President until her death.

The Google Doodle in Zitkala-Sa’s name, created by American Indian artist Chris Pappan, honours her “efforts to protect and celebrate Indigenous culture for generations to come.”