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  • Spirits from Another Realm, Activists in Their Own Right:The Figure of the Yankton/Romantic Child in Zitkala-Ša’s Work
  • Mandy Suhr-Sytsma (bio)

The Ihanktonwan (Yankton Sioux) writer, educator, and activist Zitkala-Ša (also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in 1876 and lived until 1938.1 To say that the period of Zitkala-Ša’s life was a difficult one for American Indians would be a gross understatement. The American Indian population reached an all-time low during Zitkala-Ša’s lifetime, the result of two centuries of massacres, diseases, and deprivations brought on by settler colonialism.2 Moreover, she witnessed new manifestations of colonialism in the allotment of tribal lands and the Indian boarding school system. The General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, privatized American Indian landholdings and ultimately resulted in the loss of about two thirds of the treaty lands—more than 90 million acres—held by Native Americans in 1887; this loss resulted from direct government appropriation as well as often highly fraudulent land sales to non-Native owners.3 The Carlisle-model Indian boarding school system operated from 1879 to 1960, with hundreds of thousands of American Indian children, including Zitkala-Ša, attending government- or church-run boarding schools based on the model of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. US Army officer and Carlisle founder Richard Pratt came up with the idea to convert old military forts into Indian boarding schools while overseeing Native American inmates at the Ft. Marion prison in Florida, and the US government enthusiastically took up his plan. With the aim of assimilating Indians in the most effective manner, the Carlisle model operated with military rigor, requiring students to stay in off-reservation schools (preferably far from their home communities) for three-year terms, brutally enforcing an English-only policy, and teaching a curriculum of basic literacy, arithmetic, and “manual training” (i.e., unpaid labor). The children who attended these schools experienced unfathomable losses of dignity, culture, language, and kinship.4 Throughout her work, Zitkala-Ša describes and decries the losses brought on both by the boarding school system and by the Dawes Act.

While the period spanning the late nineteenth and early twentieth [End Page 136] centuries was a time of immense loss for American Indians, it also saw a revitalization of tribal and intertribal communities along with renewed assertions of American Indian sovereignty. In contrast to the “progressive” Euro-American approach to Indian policy that characterized Indians’ assimilation into Euro-American society as the only alternative to extinction, Zitkala-Ša joined other American Indian leaders of the day in advocating for the cultural continuance and political empowerment of Indigenous nations. Zitkala-Ša was a key player in this movement for self-determination. In 1900, over the course of three separate issues of the Atlantic Monthly, she published three autobiographical stories: “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” and “An Indian Teacher Among Indians.” The stories, which follow Zitkala-Ša from a traditional Yankton childhood into her years as a student, then teacher, in Indian boarding schools, reveal the horrors of the schools and suggest that American Indians would be better off handling their own affairs, especially in regard to education.5 Zitkala-Ša’s roles as writer and activist continued to intersect for the remainder of her life. She went on to publish additional stories, essays, and an opera, and to help lead two national organizations for American Indian rights, serving as secretary of the Society of American Indians (SAI) from 1916 to 1920 and as president of the National Council of American Indians (NCAI) from 1926 to 1938.6

Zitkala-Ša demonstrates a deep interest in childhood, children, and the figure of “the child” throughout her work. In 1901, she became widely known as a children’s author owing to her collection Old Indian Legends, a text praised in prominent literary magazines of the day as valuable for young readers.7 Selections from Old Indian Legends were frequently reprinted in school readers, as were excerpts from “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” the first of Zitkala-Ša’s Atlantic Monthly stories (Davidson and...


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