Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons (1876–1938)

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Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons (1876–1938)

Important activist in early 20th-century Pan-Indian movements, writer of fiction and nonfiction, and the first indigenous woman to receive a Ph.D. Name variations: Gertrude Simmons; "Zitkala Sa," "Zitkala-Sa," and "Red Bird." Born on February 22, 1876, at the Yankton Agency in Dakota Territory; died on January 26, 1938, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Ellen Simmons (a Yankton Sioux woman) and a white man named Simmons; married Raymond T. Bonnin (a Yankton man), in 1902; children: Raymond O. Bonnin.

During the late 19th century and first three decades of the 20th century, most American indigenous tribal people, particularly those in the American West, experienced massive cultural change. With military subjugation of the tribes complete by the turn of the century, civilian missionaries and federal government functionaries continued their relentless campaign to acculturate the tribal people along the lines of "white civilization." The results were, at best, mixed. A small faction of each tribe embraced the "White Man's Way" wholeheartedly, but most accepted the acculturation only partially or even attempted to resist it entirely. Torn between these competing images of the future, most tribal people endured the uncertain stages of accelerated cultural change.

Until recently, American historians have recorded how indigenous males, mostly the so-called "Patriot chiefs," responded to this alteration of worldview and paid scant attention to what indigenous women underwent. Women's historians have remedied this oversight with several key studies of the female side of the story. This new attention has brought to light the life and career of one of the most energetic and forthright woman leaders, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. Known often by her Yankton Sioux name "Zitkala Sa," Bonnin led a full life as a Pan-Indian activist, writer, lobbyist, and spokesperson. Although she herself was a product of the Euroamerican schooling system, Bonnin resisted much of the assimilationist viewpoint and championed the worth and resiliency of tribal culture. Instrumental in the development of early 20th-century Pan-Indianism through the Society of American Indians and later the National Council of American Indians, Bonnin helped lay the groundwork for the burst of rejuvenated tribalism and militancy after World War II.

By the time Bonnin was born in 1876, her mother's people, the Yankton Sioux, had already given up most of their land, some 11 million acres, and were residing on a 40,000-acre reservation in southeastern Dakota Territory. Ellen Simmons watched her daughter grow up in a West that settlers were increasingly attempting to remold in their own image. After the defeat of Custer and his troops further West in that year, indigenous people quickly lost the military advantage. Land speculators and Office of Indian Affairs personnel joined the garrisons in pressuring the tribal peoples into assimilation. Bonnin's family felt the sting of this confrontation as well as the loss of family members to disease. Ellen Simmons, who had also banished her white husband for abusing their son David, taught her young daughter to distrust whites.

According to her later American Indian Stories, despite these conditions and the absence of her father, Bonnin had a happy, nearly idyllic childhood under her mother's upbringing. That changed in 1884, when she persuaded her mother to let Quaker missionaries send her to White's Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, where her brother had already spent three years. She was eight years old. Although the missionaries had enlivened her imagination with images of exhilarating cultural transformation, Bonnin encountered much humiliation and maltreatment. Typically, the institute attacked indigenous culture as worthless and sought to shock and shame its charges into rapid acceptance of Euroamerican lifestyle. But Bonnin resisted her teachers' ministrations, and, after three years of terrible homesickness, she returned to South Dakota. There she spent the next four years until she was 15 trying to retrieve her indigenous culture.

The appeal of white book-learning, however, proved irresistible for the Yankton teenager. She resumed her studies at White's Institute, received her diploma after three years, and then, in 1895, over her mother's wishes, enrolled at Earlham, a Quaker-affiliated college, in Richmond, Indiana. There Bonnin bloomed into a superb, contented student. She developed her talents for writing and oratory, as well as discovering multiple musical gifts with the piano, violin, and her voice. In February 1896, she won the college's oratory contest, and then placed second at the statewide contest in Indianapolis, the only female and person of color among the contestants. Her speech was an impassioned plea for whites to treat magnanimously the native peoples they had displaced. Other contestants, however, humiliated her by holding up a sheet with a crude drawing of an indian girl and the word "squaw" inscribed below. Although her own college mates cheered her accomplishment, Bonnin was not able to reconcile her yearning for achievement in the white academic world with her ties to her culture and her mother. She suffered a breakdown and spent six weeks recovering with a nearby family. Once back at college, she continued as a contributor to the school newspaper and an ephemeral student periodical, the Anpao. She was determined to retain her pride in her culture and to succeed in the white world. But continuing ailments, stomach complaints and weariness, deflected her plans, and, in 1899, Bonnin left Earlham before receiving a degree.

Uncomfortable with the prospect of heading home, Bonnin hired on as a teacher at the prominent Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Captain Richard Henry Pratt, the institute's founder and director, snapped up the acculturated Yankton woman immediately. She didn't enjoy the teaching especially, but at Carlisle she made many contacts and expanded her writing career. In January 1900, The Atlantic Monthly

published her first article, "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," and followed with two more stories in the next two months. Her writings evinced an obvious pride in indigenous culture and her rise within the white world. Captain Pratt, however, who was worried about her attachment to her past, separated her from the Eastern literary circles and sent her West to recruit students for the school. While there, she visited her Yankton family, only to find her mother and brother impoverished and her tribe's limited lands under heavy pressure from land-hungry settlers. Although she went back to Carlisle, Bonnin was quite embittered about the hollow promises of assimilationist doctrine.

Unable to fit back in at Carlisle, Bonnin resigned and headed to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in late 1900. There she had a productive and happy stay, playing music and writing more stories. But Captain Pratt wrote a stinging critique of her writings, calling their author a pagan. The wounded woman turned to a kindred spirit, Carlos Montezuma, with whom she had recently fallen in love. Montezuma, a Yavapai, had also taught at Carlisle, but, in 1896, he had left for private practice as a physician in Chicago. Somehow he and Bonnin met, and, by 1901, they were discussing marital plans. Despite their love, however, the twosome were unable to agree on the assimilationist philosophy. Their long letters ring with ideological conflict. That spring, she traveled back to the reservation alone, Montezuma having refused to go along. In August, she gave him back the engagement ring. Soon after that she met and married Raymond Bonnin, a man from her own tribe. The two had a son, also named Raymond, shortly after marriage, and her husband accepted a clerk position on the Uintah reservation in Utah in 1903.

Out among the Utes, Bonnin found a demoralized people bereft of any improvements from Euroamerican culture. Her husband took over his new job with great assiduousness, but until 1905 she could only find temporary voluntary employment, teaching music, basketweaving, and hygiene. In 1906, her mother died and a half-brother defrauded her and her brother out of their allotment. For the rest of the decade, the Bonnins languished at the Fort Duchesne agency in Utah. Downplaying her mixed blood heritage, Bonnin began to assert her indigenous identity even more strongly. At the same time, however, she commenced a lifelong connection with the Mormon church, perhaps because they, too, were targets of cultural persecution by others.

In October 1911, indigenous activists met in Columbus, Ohio, and organized what became the Society of American Indians. This aggressive group of highly educated indigenous leaders were dedicated to self-determination, reform of the federal bureaucracy, and increasingly to the concept of Pan-Indianism. Although some of their goals paralleled those of 19th-century "Friends of the Indians" organizations, the Society of American Indians insisted on indigenous membership and leadership. In 1913, the society held its annual convention in Denver. Bonnin expressed some interest in attending, but her husband decided against it. Over the past three or four years, she had rejuvenated her musical education in Salt Lake City and even re-established her friendship with Carlos Montezuma. Increased tension entered the Bonnins' marriage as Bonnin began to resent having to live with her husband in the desolate West so far from Eastern culture. "I seem to be in a spiritual unrest. I hate this eternal tug of war between being wild or becoming civilized," she wrote. She stayed with Raymond, but she made sure that their son went to a Benedictine boarding school in the East.

In 1914, Bonnin joined the advisory board of the Society of American Indians. Responding to the society's call for expanded community service on the reservations, she reinvigorated her classes for indigenous women on the Ute reservation. At the 1915 annual convention, the society applauded her community center model. Her urge to write returned, and her identification with indigenous culture deepened in her prose and poetry. Soon she was using her Sioux name exclusively again. In 1916, she enlarged her commitment to the Society of American Indians, accepting the role of secretary, a position that entailed a move to Washington, D.C. Bonnin leaped at the chance to return eastward and to be close to the seat of power. Sensing the depth of his wife's strong drive, Raymond Bonnin agreed to the relocation. Tired of rural living, she insisted on residing in the heart of the city. Even throughout Raymond's service as an army lieutenant during World War I, the Bonnins managed to earn enough to keep a respectable city address.

At the Society, Bonnin found males dominating the group, but, through her efforts, more young, energetic indigenous females joined. Most, however, kept their feminist goals separate from or subordinate to the Society's agenda. That was not so much the case with Bonnin. She redirected her writing to matters important to total tribal survival, such as water rights and land holdings. Moreover, she wrote about the efforts of strong female leaders in the past, such as Pocahontas and the Utes' Chipeta . Within the organization, however, factions were rising, arguing with each other about the Bureau of Indian Affairs, peyote usage, and the Society's reform platform. Hardly a timid person, Bonnin soon found herself embroiled in these disputes.

Bonnin's old friend Carlos Montezuma was one of the first to dissociate from the Society and criticize those who romanticized the indigenous past at the expense of the present conditions. Guilty of some of this romanticization herself, Bonnin strove to moderate Montezuma's criticism and maintain his friendship. A more acrimonious antagonism arose with Marie Baldwin , a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, who was the Society's treasurer. Although both opposed peyote use and shared similar education levels, Bonnin and Baldwin differed in their appraisal of tribal heritage. For the Yankton woman, indigenous self-identity was still viable in the present; for the Chippewa, that identity was a relic of the past. The two also clashed over day-to-day operational matters at Society headquarters. Bonnin moved some of the functions to her own home to avoid what she considered meddling by Baldwin. By 1917, Baldwin departed from the Society, and Bonnin took on the duties of treasurer.

But perhaps the most pointed conflict came over the subject of peyote use. Although many indigenous leaders defended that usage as a traditional religious right, Bonnin linked up with many progressives to denounce the drug. When Congressional Representative Carl Hayden's peyote prohibition bill came up for a hearing in the Senate, she was a key witness on behalf of the measure. She incurred the opposition of ethnologist James Mooney, whose own research had attempted to dispel the image of the mescaloid as dangerous. Opponents tried to discredit Bonnin with false publicity statements, but she had the last laugh, when the committee reported the bill favorably and included her remarks and her essay, "Peyote Causes Race Suicide," in its report.

But, as often happens, one controversy phased into another. With the United States fully in World War I, the Society of American Indians canceled its 1917 meeting. Bonnin pressed to have the patriotism of indigenous peoples recognized. During the hiatus, however, American Indian Magazine editor-in-chief Arthur C. Parker tried to elevate the power of the editorial board to supplant the Society. Although the two leaders feared the peyote contingent, they were diverging on other issues such as abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which her friend Carlos Montezuma was espousing in his magazine, Wassaja. When Parker tried to postpone the conference again in 1918, Bonnin outmaneuvered him and managed to have the Society meet in South Dakota. Shortly thereafter, she ousted the Seneca from the editor-in-chief position and thus reached a place of high leadership in the organization. Within the year, however, Bonnin lost her influence and left the Society. She did edit the magazine effectively and contributed some of her own pieces that characteristically depicted the innate nobility of native peoples in romanticized manner. But politically she alienated many members with her anti-peyote stance, her strident calls for dismantling the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and her pro-Sioux loyalties that ostensibly ran counter to the Pan-Indian ideals of the organization, and she failed to use her position to bring more women aboard. Additionally, the Society's overall influence on federal Indian policy seemed to have been diminishing. For example, demands that President Woodrow Wilson allow an indigenous contingent to sit in on the Versailles peace-treaty negotiations backfired miserably. For Bonnin personally, the decade that represented her rise to prominence ended with departure from the Society.

Leaving the Society of American Indians did not constitute a retreat from reform for Bonnin. She shifted her efforts to other avenues. Worn out from the political battles and suffering from some probably psychosomatic symptoms, she still regrouped her energies. She thwarted her husband's suggestions to move back to South Dakota and instead launched into assembling her writings into a book. She had already published in 1901 one collection, Old Indian Legends, which she used to interest publishers in a second anthology. In 1921, her second book, American Indian Stories, appeared. Whereas, the first book had adopted an idealistic tone of shared cultural coexistence, the second chastised whites for undercutting those possibilities with assaults on the remaining indigenous land base and water resources. In terms of more concrete actions, Bonnin became involved in two allotment disputes on the Yankton reservation. From 1919 to 1921, she squared off with the Bureau of Indian Affairs which was holding hearings about "fictitious" allotments. She aided her brother David in protesting a fraudulent claim on behalf of one Ellen Bluestone . Although the Simmons-Bonnin faction lost this appeal, the protest served to reaffirm Bonnin's commitment to indigenous self-determination.

Fresh from that defeat, Bonnin looked to the General Federation of Women's Clubs for new allies. The Federation had become by the 1920s arguably the strongest woman's political force in the country, and many of its members and chapters had a history of supporting indigenous causes. Bonnin offered the Federation's Indian Welfare Committee her services as an investigator and a speaker. In 1922 and 1923, she toured the Midwest and the South, stumping for Indian citizenship. Her first investigative assignment took her to Oklahoma, where, since the turn of the century, mounting corruption had been depriving indigenous people of land and resource ownership. Together with Matthew Sniffen and Charles Faben, Bonnin published their report, "Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians," in 1924, to dispel the image that the state's indigenous people were living luxuriously on oil profits. Bonnin concentrated on individual cases of poverty and fraudulence. The report caused Congress to open hearings in November 1924. Oil company attorneys and some unsympathetic members of congress succeeded in discrediting the report and censuring its authors. Bonnin stayed away from the hearings, suspicious of a whitewash or at best some half-measure of correction, which her strong empathy for the Oklahoma victims would not brook.

Disappointed with the Oklahoma hearings, Bonnin threw in her lot with John Collier's rising American Indian Defense Association. Collier, a New York lawyer and social worker, had come to Taos, New Mexico, in 1920 and become enchanted with indigenous lifestyle and philosophy, envisioning them as salvation for what he perceived as a bankrupt white culture. He dedicated himself to preserve tribal heritage and devoted his legal talents to defeating such measures as the Bursum Bill, which would have given much Pueblo lands to white squatters. Such courage endeared Collier to Bonnin, and The New Yorker provided her with a renewed berth in the reform movement as a member of the National Advisory Board of the American Indian Defense Association and a circle of performers and intellectuals she craved so strongly.

I am what I am. I owe no apologies to God or men.

—Gertrude Bonnin

By 1926, Bonnin found herself seeking a complete leadership role not just an advisory position. Two years earlier, Congress had passed the Indian Citizenship Act, and Bonnin thought that indigenous peoples should exercise their new power. But the Society of American Indians, to her way of thinking, was defunct. She still, however, embraced the principles of Pan-Indianism. The solution would be to form a new Pan-Indian group. Thus, in 1926, Bonnin started organizing the National Council of American Indians to capitalize on and mobilize what she expected would be an indigenous political power bloc. Her husband filled the secretary-treasurer slot, and the new association moved into the Bliss Building in Washington with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Collier's group.

Although the National Congress of American Indians obtained John Collier's blessing, the organization had a rough time attracting a solid national following. Probably this was due to Bonnin's insistence on controlling the agenda. Too often the group appeared to be a one-person operation. But Bonnin did petition Congress about the historic grievances indigenous people shared, and her group aided in the defeat of two senators in South Dakota and Oklahoma by getting out the indigenous vote. Much of her efforts concentrated on land issues at the Yankton reservation and the prevention of mining at the sacred Pipestone quarries in Minnesota. The Simmons-Bonnin faction attracted plenty of internal criticism, but Bonnin stood firm. Still she sought a more national audience and arena. Through the organization's newsletter, she kept urging indigenous people to unite and safeguard their rights and heritage. In 1926, she and Raymond traveled around to reservations, over 10,000 miles of driving, and secured information and opinions to place before Congress the following year. At the Senate subcommittee, she testified about Bureau of Indian Affairs incompetence and substandard living conditions on the reservations, initiating a pattern of testimony she would repeat over the next few years.

The persistent infighting back at the Yankton reservation, however, drained off much of Bonnin's energy and entangled her in the very sort of factional intrigue she deplored. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Simmons-Bonnin faction lost a few key battles, but ironically they did pick up some support and protection from Commissioner of Indian Affairs C.J. Rhoads. This in turn lead to friction with John Collier. Angling for the Commissioner position in what he expected would be a Democratic administration after the upcoming elections, Collier courted Gertrude and Raymond Bonnin to support his denunciation of the Indian Bureau. But as the Bonnins had just reached a compromise with the Commissioner and the Bureau, they were hesitant to undo that newfound support. In a letter, they lectured Collier about stirring up trouble among indigenous people. Collier, who had perhaps taken the Bonnins for granted, was somewhat stung by this defection. He wrote back that the National Council of American Indians did "not own the Indians of the United States" and that if they did, it would be "a sad situation." Washington newspapers publicized the break. Collier, for his part, devoted most of his energy to securing the commissionership. Bonnin and her husband started making plans to counter Collier's increasing political influence.

John Collier did gain the appointment in the Franklin Roosevelt New Deal government, and together with Congress, he reversed 50 years of Indian policy with the passage of the Wheeler-Howard or Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. Among other measures, the act sought to restore and preserve indigenous peoples' heritage in the form of reconstituted tribes and protected religious and cultural freedom. Collier hailed the act as "Indian Independence Day," but Bonnin feared Collier would be as oppressive as the Bureau of Indian Affairs had been. She and the Bonnin faction geared up to control the process of implementation of the Wheeler-Howard Act on the Yankton reservation. By November 1935, when the administration's proposed tribal constitution came up for a vote, the Bonnins had convinced two out of three Yankton to turn it down. The Bonnins offered up their own version, a more radical one that would have given sizeable power to the tribal council, extended voting rights to all Yanktons (on the reservation or not), and granted membership to all Yankton children. Predictably, Collier did not accept their plan. Wrangling over a suitable compromise continued until 1938, when the commissioner gave up hope of reorganizing the Yankton Sioux. Bonnin won her final battle, although her recalcitrance probably hurt her tribe in this case, depriving it of some of the real advances and benefits of the "Indian New Deal." Collier's visionary policies were not totally coherent nor perfect, but they represented major improvements over the 50 years of ethnocentric blindness so central to the Dawes Act allotment doctrine from 1887 to 1934. But Bonnin allowed her personal opposition to Collier to cloud her understanding of the repercussions of rejecting the Wheeler-Howard act benefits.

On January 26, 1938, Gertrude Bonnin died unexpectedly at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, after a return trip from the Yankton reservation. Memorial services took place at a Mormon church in the northwest quarter of the capital city and burial followed at Arlington National Cemetery. The burial place was certainly appropriate, for although Bonnin maintained her tribal loyalties to the end, she had been a national spokesperson for indigenous rights for the last two decades of her life. Moreover, as one of the most acculturated indigenous women of her generation, she bridged indigenous and Euroamerican cultures more effectively than she herself realized. Although she often felt divided between the two cultures and frustrated in her marriage, Bonnin's life and career represented a composite triumph of spirit and integrity. Cultural and political indigenous militants in later decades would owe much to this proud Yankton Sioux woman who stood up staunchly against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and others who strove to remold native peoples in an image alien to tribal heritage.


Bonnin, Gertrude. American Indian Stories. Glorieta, New Mexico: The Rio Grande Press, 1921.

——. Old Indian Legends. Boston, MA: Ginn, 1901.

Welch, Deborah. "Zitkala-Sa: An American Indian Leader, 1876–1938." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wyoming, 1985.

suggested reading:

Dippie, Brian. The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1982.

Fisher, Dexter. "Zitkala Sa: The Evolution of a Writer," in American Indian Quarterly. Vol. 5. August 1979, pp. 229–238.

Hertzberg, Hazel. The Search for American Indian Identity: Modern Pan-Indian Movements. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1971.

Hoxie, Frederick E. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Iverson, Peter. Carlos Montezuma and the Changing World of American Indians. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.

Johnson, David L. and Raymond Wilson. "Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 1876–1938: 'Americanize the First Americans,'" in American Indian Quarterly. Vol. 12. Winter 1988, pp. 27–40.

Olson, James and Robert Wilson. The Native American in the Twentieth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Philp, Kenneth. John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920–1954. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977.

Prucha, Francis Paul. American Indian Policy in Crisis: Christian Reformers and the Indian, 1865–1900. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976.

Thomas L. Altherr , Professor of History and American Studies at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, Denver, Colorado

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Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons (1876–1938)

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