The gifted and conflicted life of Lakota’s Zitkala Sa

February 22, 1876

On this day, Native American composer, writer, teacher and activist Zitkala Sa (Zit KA la SHA) or Red Bird, was born on South Dakota’s Yankton Sioux Reservation* 

Co-author of the  “Sun Dance Opera,” the work was the first full length musical presentation based on Native American themes.  She became equally well-known for her activism.  Founder of the National Council of American Indians Zitkala Sa was a widely published author of books and articles on native culture.

The Sun Dance Opera premiered in February 1913, at Vernal Utah’s Orpheus Hall and was enthusiastically received.  It was successfully revived in 1935 at Brigham Young University.   But it got a more modest reception when it opened on Broadway in 1938. 

The opera’s mixed reviews appeared to symbolize the conflict Zitkala Sa experienced throughout her life, navigating between her Native American heritage and the advantages she enjoyed in the majority culture.

Her mother, Tohte Iyohiwin, (Reaches for the Wind), raised her in the Yankton culture.  Her German American father recorded only as Felker, left the family when his daughter was young.

Students and teachers at White’s Institute in Indiana

She was eight when Quaker missionaries recruited a number of reservation children, including Zitkala Sa, to attend White’s Manual Labor Institution in Wabash, Indiana. The three years at the school, she wrote later,  were both a revelation and a misery.  

When she returned home in 1887, she believed she no longer belonged to her people and left again after three years.  She returned to White.  Eventually serving as the school’s music teacher, she later attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and studied violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. 

She resumed teaching, this time a the Carlisle Indian School, before marrying Raymond Telefase Bonnin.  The couple moved to Utah’s Uintah-Ouray reservation where they lived and worked among the Ute tribe for 14 years. It was where Zitkala Sa met William F. Hanson, (right, with Hanson) her collaborator on the Sundance Opera.

Many of her early writings centered on her struggle with assimilation but by 1916 she and Bonnin ( below) had moved to Washington D.C. and her articles and books veered toward politics.   In 1926, the couple founded the National Council of American Indians.  

Zitkala Sa became one of the 20th-century’s most influential Native Americans.  Her writings helped spur a government investigation into the theft and murder of Native Americans over oil rights in the southeast and she worked tirelessly for  Native American voting rights.

She died January 26, 1938 in Washington, D.C at just 61 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, not  as Zitkala Sa, but rather by her missionary name, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. 

Many of her books on Lakota culture have been reissued by the University of Nebraska and some digitalized versions can be found for free on the internet.

* At least one source lists Zitkala Sa’s birthplace as the Pine Ridge Reservation in south central South Dakota.The Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center, 1301 North Main Street, Chamberlain, South Dakota, is on the campus of the modern-day St. Joseph’s Indian School.  The 14,000 square feet of exhibit space contains authentic artifacts, many donated by St. Joseph alumni and educational displays and audio/visual observation area. 

Exhibits mark the history of the Lakota people from their earliest history to their achievements into modern times.  The museum continues to receive five-star ratings from visitors.  Admission is free and self guided and guided tours of the school are available by request, as well. Open year round, hours are 8 to 6:Monday through Saturday and 9 to 5 Sunday in summer May through October and 8 to 4:30 Monday through Friday, November through April.  Closed on weekends during the winter months and all national holidays. For more information go to, e-mail or call (800) 798-3452.

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited