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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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8. Regional Realism   



8. Regional
Realism


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Authors: Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) (1876-1938)

Omaha Boys
[1801] J. N. Choate, Group of Omaha boys in cadet uniforms, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania (1880), courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NWDNS-75-IP-1-10].

Zitkala-Sa Activities
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Writer, musician, educator, and Indian rights activist, Zitkala-Sa (or Red Bird) was born on the Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. After her white father abandoned the family, she was brought up by her Indian mother in traditional Sioux ways. At the age of eight, Zitkala-Sa's life was transformed when white missionaries came to Pine Ridge and convinced her to enroll in a boarding school in Wabash, Indiana. Part of a movement to "civilize" Indian children by removing them from their native culture and indoctrinating them in Euro-American ways, the school trained Indian pupils in manual labor, Christianity, and the English language. Zitkala-Sa found it a hostile environment and struggled to adapt.

After three years at school, Zitkala-Sa returned to Pine Ridge only to find herself estranged from her traditional culture and from her mother. While she was not completely comfortable with the Euro-American culture she encountered at school, she was also no longer at home with Sioux customs. She returned to school and eventually received scholarships to Earlham College in Indiana and to the New England Conservatory of Music to study violin. After completing her studies she became a music teacher at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

Frustrated by her position on the margins of both Indian and white culture and increasingly outraged by the injustices she saw visited on Native Americans, Zitkala-Sa resolved to express her feelings publicly in writing. Her reflective autobiographical essays on her experiences among the Sioux and in white culture appeared in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly in 1900. In these pieces, Zitkala-Sa explored what she called the "problem of her inner self," grappling with the question of her cultural identity and her relationship with her family. She also used the essays as occasions to expose the injustices perpetrated by whites on Native Americans and to critique the insensitivity of white strategies for "civilizing" Indians.

After the publication of the autobiographical essays, Zitkala-Sa composed an Indian opera called "Sun Dance" and compiled collections of traditional Sioux legends and stories that she translated into English. Her outspoken views eventually alienated authorities at the Carlisle School, so she left to work at Standing Rock Reservation. There she met and married Raymond Bonnin, another Sioux activist. Together they became involved in the Society of American Indians, founded the National Council of American Indians, and worked tirelessly on behalf of Native American causes. Zitkala-Sa died in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Arlington Cemetery.



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