- “Help Indians Help Themselves”Gertrude Bonnin, the SAI, and the NCAI
Zitkala-Ša, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Yankton Sioux), witnessed tremendous change during her lifetime. Born in Yankton, South Dakota, in 1876, the same year as the Battle of the Little Big Horn, she lived a life of political activism. She died in Washington dc in 1938 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. During the span of her life she was removed from her tribal community into the assimilative boarding school system; she was a teacher, a musical performer, a writer, an employee of the Indian Service (forerunner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs), a public speaker, a major player in the Society of American Indians (sai), and the president of the National Council of American Indians (ncai). She was never a professional historian, yet her personal and published writings chronicle the changing lives and politics of American Indians. She developed a powerful Indigenous voice and seemed aware of the need for complex rhetoric to reach her audience.
As Kathleen Washburn argues, the primary documents from this era provide valuable resources for “a wide range of indigenous practices and forms of knowledge” (380). Vine Deloria Jr. asks, “Who really knows what documents, letters, publications and commentaries are really available?” (663). An examination of the archives, especially in regard to the ncai, shows that Bonnin’s rhetorical themes reveal a consistency of resistance, tribal nationalism, and call for civil rights that was evident in her early writings and her work with the sai (see also Staley). She seemed aware of her audience and often presented her ideas in a pattern that affirmed tribalism while paradoxically utilizing ideologies of the colonizer with biblical references and appeals to basic rights.
Bonnin was an intense letter writer and record keeper. Her correspondences [End Page 199] and documents are housed in a number of university libraries and archives, especially at Brigham Young University and the National Archives. These documents outline a life and purpose that played out on a national stage of Indian issues. Gertrude Simmons married Raymond Bonnin (1880–1942), fellow Yankton Sioux, in 1902. They converted to Catholicism and moved to Utah, where both worked for the Indian Service for the Uintah-Ouray Utes. This period would be influential throughout their lives. Upon taking their son, Ohiya, to boarding school in Illinois, Gertrude saw Carlos Montezuma (Yavapai Apache, 1866–1923) face to face for the first time since breaking their engagement ten years earlier. In 1913 he invited her to the sai meeting in Denver, but she declined, saying her duties kept her at home.1 Nevertheless, she expressed interest in the conference and in Montezuma’s writing.
In 1914 Bonnin joined the sai advisory board, and in the fall of 1915 she started teaching classes directed toward social welfare and social education on the Uintah-Ouray Ute Reservation (Welch 41). Her first writing to appear in the American Indian Magazine was a 1916 article titled “A Year’s Experience in Community Service Work among the Ute Tribe of Indians.” This article gives an account of her service work under the auspices of the Society of American Indians. Although the narrative of this article could be read as a straightforward recounting of activities, there are subtle indicators of tribal traditions and rituals and an emphasis on community. For example, the article begins:
We began our Community Center work in the fall of 1915, by starting sewing classes among the women. There was no time to consult the fashion books. We met one day each week, devoting it to charity work for the aged members of the tribe. Plain, warm garments cut in the loose style they are accustomed to wear, were made for those who could neither see to sew nor buy their clothing ready made, with money they did not have. Sometimes members of the sewing classes helped one another with their necessary sewing. Later they learned very rapidly to crochet little caps, jackets and bootees for their babies. Old comforters were repaired; new quilts were pieced and quilted quite creditably by the women.(307)
In the first paragraph Bonnin refers to “the charity work for the aged...