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Zitkala-Ša circa 1898

Zitkala-Ša (Lakota: Zitkála-Šá, meaning Red Bird) (February 22, 1876 – January 26, 1938), also known by her missionary and married names Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was a Yankton Dakota writer, editor, translator, musician, educator, and political activist. She wrote several works chronicling her struggles with cultural identity, and the pull between the majority culture in which she was educated, and the Dakota culture into which she was born and raised. Her later books were among the first works to bring traditional Native American stories to a widespread white English-speaking readership. Zitkala-Ša has been noted as one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century.


  • For the white man's papers I had given up my faith in the Great Spirit. For these same papers I had forgotten the healing in trees and brooks. On account of my mother's simple view of life, and my lack of any, I gave her up, also. I made no friends among the race of people I loathed. Like a slender tree, I had been uprooted from my mother, nature, and God. I was shorn of my branches, which had waved in sympathy and love for home and friends. The natural coat of bark which had protected my oversensitive nature was scraped off to the very quick.
    • Article anthologized in American Women Activists' Writings: An Anthology, 1637-2001
  • In this fashion many have passed idly through the Indian schools during the last decade, afterward to boast of their charity to the North American Indian. But few there are who have paused to question whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization.
    • Article anthologized in American Women Activists' Writings: An Anthology, 1637-2001

Speech (1919)[edit]

The American Indian, Vol. 7, No. 3 (1919). Delivered to the Annual Convention of the Society of American Indians. 2-4 October 1919.

  • our little ones — they are our future hope. Our children!
  • The greatest gift in life is consciousness. Not positions, not the dollar, but that the Almighty Spirit gives us life and we have a rational mind with which to see all the wonders of the universe.
  • Now we are meeting a civilization from a race that came from Europe. We have to meet it each day — there is no dodging, and it is not easy. It is going to take courage; it is going to test your strength. It is going to test your faith in the Greatest of All. It is going to be hard, but let us stand the test, true to the Indian blood. Let us do that. Let us teach our children to be proud of their Indian blood and to stand the test bravely.
  • Use the words that come to you, that which is in the heart and mind.
  • my mother said to me. “You must learn the white man’s language so when you grow up you will talk for us and for the Indian and the white man will have a better understanding.” I said, “I will.” It has not always been easy, but I said, “I am going to do the best I can and then I am going to let the Great Spirit do the rest.”
  • The first time you stand up for right and it is refused you, shall you quit? Then you do not believe in it. We must continue speaking and claiming our human rights to live on this earth that God has made, so that we may think our thoughts and speak them — that we may have our part in the American life and be as any other human beings are.
  • Shall we think or shall somebody think for us? We are on this earth to think and do the best we can according to our light.
  • We must put our thoughts into practice every day in the most complex business matter, in the most simple home duty.
  • Let us develop our powers by thinking and acting for ourselves. That is the way we grow. We have been told organization is necessary to bring about results. We have been scattered to the four winds. Are we going to organize?
  • we must all work for this thing — that the American Indian must have a voice. He must say what is in him and by exchanging opinions, we are going to grow.

Speech (1896)[edit]

May 13, 1896 — 22nd Indiana State Oratorical Contest, English Opera House, Indianapolis IN

  • Quick to string his bow for vengeance; ready to bury the hatchet or smoke the pipe of peace; never was he first to break a treaty or known to betray a friend with whom he had eaten salt.
  • The invasion of his broad dominions by a paler race brought no dismay to the hospitable Indian. Samoset voiced the feeling of his people as he stood among the winter-weary Pilgrims and cried "Welcome, Englishmen." Nor did the Indian cling selfishly to his lands; willingly he divides with Roger Williams and with Penn, who pay him for his own. History bears record to no finer examples of fidelity. To Jesuit, to Quaker, to all who kept their faith with him, his loyalty never failed.
  • Unfortunately civilization is not an unmixed blessing. Vices begin to creep into his life and deepen the Red Man's degradation. He learns to crave the European liquid fire. Broken treaties shake his faith in the newcomers. Continued aggressions goad him to desperation. The White Man's bullet decimates his tribes and drives him from his home.
  • He loved the inheritance of his fathers, their traditions, their graves; he held them a priceless legacy to be sacredly kept. He loved his native land. Do you wonder still that in his breast he should brood revenge, when ruthlessly driven from the temples where he worshiped? Do you wonder still that he skulked in forest gloom to avenge the desolation of his home? Is patriotism a virtue only in Saxon hearts? Is there no charity to cover his crouching form as he stealthily opposed his relentless foe?
  • Let it be remembered, before condemnation is passed upon the Red Man, that, while he burned and tortured frontiersmen, Puritan Boston burned witches and hanged Quakers, and the Southern aristocrat beat his slaves and set bloodhounds on the tracks of him who dared aspire to freedom. The barbarous Indian, ignorant alike of Roman justice, Saxon law, and the Gospel of Christian brotherhood, in the fury of revenge has brought no greater stain upon his name than these.
  • Poets sing of a coming federation of the world, and we applaud. Idealists dream that in this commonwealth of all humanity the divine spark in man shall be the only test of citizenship, and we think of their dream and future history.
  • Today the Indian is pressed almost to the farther sea. Does that sea symbolize his death?
  • To take the life of a nation during the slow march of centuries seems not a lighter crime than to crush it instantly with one fatal blow.
  • We clasp the warm hand of friendship everywhere. From honest hearts and sincere lips we hear the hearty welcome and Godspeed.

Quotes about[edit]

  • Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, also known by her Lakota name Zitkála-Šá, is one of the most widely written about women of SAI. Bonnin was a multitalented Native renaissance woman who wrote several books and was an accomplished musician (she wrote the first Native American opera, The Sundance Opera), teacher, editor, and political activist. Perhaps her greatest influence during the Progressive Era came through her leadership in the National Council of American Indians.
    • Dina Gilio-Whitaker As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock (2019)
  • Dear Zitkala-Sa: I thank you for your book on Indian legends. I have read them with exquisite pleasure. Like all folk tales they mirror the child life of the world. There is in them a note of wild, strange music. You have translated them into our language in a way that will keep them alive in the hearts of men. They are so young, so fresh, so full of the odors of the virgin forest untrod by the foot of white man! The thoughts of your people seem dipped in the colors of the rainbow, palpitant with the play of winds, eerie with the thrill of a spirit-world unseen but felt and feared. Your tales of birds, beast, tree and spirit can not but hold captive the hearts of all children. They will kindle in their young minds that eternal wonder which creates poetry and keeps life fresh and eager.
    • Helen Keller 1919 letter, reprinted in American Indian Stories 1985 edition

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