By Mia Lukic
Zitkala-Ša was an empowering activist who fought for native rights and played a role in the fight for suffrage. She was born on February 22, 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. At only eight years old Zitkala-Ša was taken from her home and placed in White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute, a residential school that, like many others across the country, forced assimilation on native children. Here, Zitkala-Ša was given the name Gertrude Simmons, her beautiful and meaningful long hair was chopped off and her personal beliefs dismissed as she was forced to pray as a Quaker.
The school impacted Zitkala-Ša greatly, in positive and negative ways. She loved school and learning, especially learning to play music and she went on to become a music teacher at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Carlisle was an assimilation school like Zitkala-Ša had attended herself, a place where native children were taken to after being ripped away from their homes and forced to accept and act in ways that were favorable to the white teachers. The founder of Carlisle is quoted to have said “kill the Indian in him, and save the man”, in reference to what they did at the school.
The assimilation attempts and disconnect from her culture and heritage left her feeling stuck in a limbo between worlds. She tried multiple times to return to the reservation she was from, but was too upset by both the personal separation the school had made and the state of the reservation after years of white settlers occupying the land and the negative results of those actions.
A talented writer, Zitkala-Ša started writing for magazines about her experiences and her heritage. She wrote out against assimilation and boarding schools that tore children away from their families and communities. She even wrote down many stories from her tribe and culture to share with the white communities as means to humanize and share the rich cultures native people have, in an attempt to slow the push for assimilation. Zitkala-Ša even wrote the first native written opera, based on a sacred Sioux dance that was illegal in the eyes of the United States Government. The opera was a piece of art that expressed her feeling of being caught between two worlds, and her desire to connect the two.
She eventually went on to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Society of American Indians where she fought hard for native rights, against assimilation, and lobbied for American citizenship. She argued that as the original people of America, indigenous people had a right to be citizens and be represented in government with the right to vote. Zitkala-Ša moved to Washington DC and fought for what she believed in even after the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act passed. While this act granted citizenship it did not prevent states from deciding who had a right to vote and who did not. Zitkala-Ša devoted her entire life to fighting for native rights and was incredibly passionate about suffrage, creating voting registration drives and working to make voting accessible for all natives. She died in 1928 and the last state granted natives the right to vote thirty-four years later in 1962. Even then, much like the Jim Crow laws that were used against Black voters, natives faced literacy tests and taxes and general discouragement.
Zitkala-Ša was a driven and passionate woman who fought for native rights and the right to vote for all. Her role in the suffrage movement is not nearly as covered by the media nor textbooks but it was and is incredibly important and powerful.