History Hunt: Zitkála-Šá

For this week’s History Hunt, we’re back to North America and have moved forward several hundred years to meet Zitkála-Šá, a Sioux violinist and composer!

Zitkála-Šá, also known as Gertrude Simmons (and later by her married name of Gertrude Bonnin) was born on February 22, 1876 on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. When she was eight, she was sent to a Christian residential school, White’s Manual Labor Institute. At this school, she wasn’t able to live according to her beliefs and culture, but was forced to conform to the beliefs of the people running the school. One of the only things that brought her happiness during these years was learning to play the violin.

Eventually, though she left after three years, Zitkála-Šá went back to the school. Among other subjects, she continued her studies of the violin and learned how to play the piano. Eventually, she took over from the music teacher until she went to Earlham College. She graduated when she was 21.

Like Ruby Elzy, who featured in a previous History Hunt, Zitkála-Šá ran into difficulties getting her music to be heard. While she was able to collaborate with another composer, William F. Hanson, her partnership was not the equal one it should have been. Hanson, who was white, took most (and sometimes all) of the credit for the opera they created together, The Sun Dance. The opera provided an opportunity for First Nations to perform important dances that had been made illegal by the U.S. government at that time, but many of the audiences who viewed The Sun Dance did not watch it with the respect it deserved. Hanson also tried to make the Sioux music Zitkála-Šá taught him sound more like the music he was used to hearing, rather than accepting it as it was–an equally important and valid way of making music.

Zitkála-Šá, in addition to being a composer and musician, also fought for the rights of First Nations people all over the United States, as well as for equal rights for women. She was an author of political works, shining light on corruption and racism, and she collected traditional First Nations stories so that First Nations children could hold onto their heritage.She has a crater on Venus, “Bonnin,” named in her honour–lucky her!

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
Zitkala-Sa at Encyclopaedia Britannica
A Cultural Duet: Zitkala Ša and The Sun Dance Opera by P. Jane Hafen of the University of Nevada, Los Vegas
Zitkala-Sa at Wikipedia

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