Spirit Bios are stories about pioneering womyn, gender queer, and multi spirited humans that deserve a greater place in our modern history. This month, we commemorate Zitkala-Ša for her contribution to American art, history, and for her pioneering advocacy on behalf of opressed decendants of indigenous Americans. #spiritbio #zitkalasa @thehorseandcrow #thehorseandcrow #femmefuturism #storytelling @sloukaides
“A wee child toddling in a wonder world, I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.”
Zitkala-Ša was born on February 22, 1876 on the Pine Ridge Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Until the age of 8, Zitkala-Ša was raised by a single mother, Taté Iyòhiwin (in english) ‘Reaches for the Wind’), a full-blood Yankton Sioux. Her father was of European/ American decent and had abandoned the family very early in her life.
In 1884, Zitkala-Ša was uprooted from her home and almost all remnants of her culture to be educated at a Quaker school. The White’s Manual Labor Institute, in Indiana, was one of the many schools set up to strip indigenous Americans of their culture and force them to assimilate to the dominant culture’s practices.
In their own words: The White’s Manual Labor Institute was a established to relocate and educate poor children, mostly Indians, for their ‘advancement in society’. Socially and emotionally it was a very painful time for Zitkala-Ša. The experiences she felt as a school child inspired her first successful publication:
The School Days of an Indian Girl. This autobiographical article, written as a child in the first person, forced the reader to contemplate the strangeness of a child’s experience of the contradictions of values and actions in the white Christian world. The christian idea of the devil was particularly illuminating in the eyes of a school child raised with pagan-like values.
Among the legends the old warriors used to tell me were many stories of evil spirits. But I was taught to fear them no more than those who stalked about in material guise. I never knew there was an insolent chieftain among the bad spirits, who dared to array his forces against the Great Spirit, until I heard this white man’s legend from a paleface woman.-The School Days of an Indian Girl
After her first stay at White’s, Zitkala-Ša was no longer accepted in her birth home and she would obviously never be accepted by the dominant culture. In 1887, Zitkala-Ša was allowed back to the reservation but it was bittersweet. She was a living product of the clash of cultures. Her Quaker education and lifestyle now alienated her from her own people who became suspicious of her, even outcasting her from the family name. This was the beginning of a life of being brought up in two worlds. The former wanting to eliminate the culture of the latter. With this understanding, she began to find her place as a messenger in between both worlds. She spent her life trying to use the education she gained from the white world to draw compassion for the world she was born into and loved dearly. Her autobiographical writings were a reflection of this.
There was one part about the White man’s education that Zitkala-Ša embraced. Music education seemed, for her, to transcend the hypocracy of the Western way and she exceled in her violin studies and art. Playing the violin gave her incredible amounts of joy and became another of the many vocations she pioneered in. In 1913 she would compose the first opera–a composition in the romantic style based on Ute and Sioux themes.
After the White’s school she attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. It was during this time at school she began collecting Native American legends. Although she did not graduate, she played violin with New England Conservatory of Music between 1897-1899. ( It is not clear if her graduation was thwarted due to a outspoken debate in which she defended Native americans and criticized the dominant culture) In 1899, She began to teach children music at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
“The old legends of America belong quite as much to the blue-eyed little patriot as to the black-haired aborigine. And when they are grown tall like the wise grown-ups may they not lack interest in a further study of Indian folklore, a study which so strongly suggests our near kinship with the rest of humanity and points a steady finger toward the great brotherhood of mankind, and by which one is so forcibly impressed with the possible earnestness of life as seen through the teepee door! If it be true that much lies “in the eye of the beholder,” then in the American aborigine as in any other race, sincerity of belief, though it were based upon mere optical illusion, demands a little respect.
After all he seems at heart much like other peoples.”
It was also during this period she began to record the lives, stories, and treatment of decendant Americans. In 1900, she began writing about Native American life in a series of periodicals that were published in the Atlantic and Harper’s Monthly. Many of her themes included the loss of cultural identity, poverty, and autobiographical experiences of her life as a Native American. They also included spiritual themes, ones she felt strongly the world and American society needed.
She was a huge advocate of policy reform for Native American Indians. She founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926, the first trans-tribal group formed, to lobby for the rights of Native Americans to American citizenship, on which she served as president until her death in 1938.
The grace and courage in which Zitkala-Ša forged into the Great Unknown is a story that many people, especially womyn need to hear. Her life was filled with sacrifice and many questions still remain. What Zitkala-Ša shows us is that even when you are stripped bear of who you are and where you come from, there still is a space for you in this world. Even more, there is a voice between two worlds, that always needs to be heard and that the world benefits from hearing.