Google Doodle is celebrating the 145th birthday of Zitkala-Sa, a writer, composer, musician, and a political activist, who dedicated her life to promote, celebrate, and protect her Indigenous heritage through arts and activism.
Belonging to the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota (homeland of Yankton Indian Reservation) (aka “People of the End Village) like Yankton-Nakota, Zitkala stood headstrong during the times when the Indigenous people of the United Sates were treated as lesser beings. She devoted her life to the advocacy of Indigenous people’s rights and representation.
On account of the lost legend’s 145th birthday, here are four interesting facts about her:
She was forcefully taken to boarding school at the age of 8
Missionaries from the White’s Manual Labor Institute in Indiana came to the Yankton reservation to take 8-year-old Zitkala-Sa to their boarding school. Her elder brother had just returned from the same school, and her mother didn’t want to send her away.
Zitkala, on the other hand, was excited to go. For children who had never been outside their reservation, the concept of boarding school sounded magical! The missionaries persuaded her with false stories and promises. Also, because of absence of schools and learning institutions in their reservation, her mother had no option but to let missionaries take her child away to their boarding school.
Zitkala (Red Bird) had a traumatic experience in the boarding school
Zitkala-Sa's life had a traumatic experience at the boarding school: she had her hair forcefully cut at the arrival to the school. According to Dakota beliefs, the people who get haircuts are considered to be cowards who had been taken as prisoners by the enemy.
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Not only this, she was not allowed to speak her native language in the premises of the institute. She was even forced into practicing a religion that she didn’t believe in. Later in life, she documented her experience in a book, describing that the school used to treat children like “little animals.”
While serving as a teacher at boarding school, she realized that the American government was trying to suppress Indigenous people’s culture
After graduation, Zitkala joined a teacher training program at Earlham College in Indiana. Later on, she was transferred to the New England Conservatory of Music, where she learnt to play violin. By 1900, she was employed as a music and speech teacher at the Carlisle Indian School, one of the most popular boarding schools in that region.
The experience of serving as a teacher reminded of her own traumatic experience at the boarding school. For example, watching children arriving through trains and have their hair forcefully cut would take her back to memories of her own self as a child at the boarding school.
She decided to protest against the school’s norm whereby children were made to abandon their culture in exchange for an education. She soon realized that the government was trying to eradicate their culture and beliefs from the country.
She began writing books and poems to advocate for Indigenous people’s rights and recognition
Zitkala (married name: Gertrude Bonnin) channeled her anger and disappointment into her passion for writing. She started writing about her personal experiences, customs, beliefs, and traditions that she had learned from her parents. Gradually, her work began to get published in national magazines such as Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly.
Her fist major publication was a book called “Old Indian Legends” – a compilation of all her work and stories. This book was among the first works published to bring the traditional Indigenous culture to the mainstream audience.
Happy Birthday, Zitkala-Sa. Thank you for your efforts for the Indigenous people of the United States!
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