Chapter 5: Zitkala-Ša’s Pan-Indian Intellectual Populism

[Read up on Zitkala-Ša]

The little girl scampered across the kitchen, and the devil followed. She had been hiding behind the stove, but the devil found her almost immediately, his glittering yellow eyes fastening upon her. The little girl threw down her toys and tried to reach her mother, who was sitting across the kitchen with a friend. Both the mother and friend watched in silence, sitting motionless, as the devil pursued the little girl. They didn’t help. They just leered. Realizing she could not outrun the devil, the little girl used the stove as an obstacle, trying to keep the iron-and-fire appliance between her and the pursuing evil. But the devil was quick, and the little girl was getting tired. In a last-ditch effort to save herself, she bounded toward her mother, who remained silent, unhelpful. As the little girl collapsed at her mother’s feet, the devil leaned down to seize her, his claws hungry for tender young flesh.

Then she woke up. It was only a nightmare.

Or was it? The little girl looked around and remembered she was still far from home at the white man’s boarding school—separated from her family, her nation, her heritage. What’s worse, the white man’s school had recently taught her about the existence of this ultimate evil, this force of darkness searching the earth for unrepentant souls. Teachers had even shown her a book of Bible stories with the devil illustrated in vivid detail. Maybe the devil really was after her.

In the morning, the little girl sneaked into the school’s library and found the book with the devil’s picture inside. Clutching a broken pencil, she scratched out the devil’s evil yellow eyes. Harder and harder she scratched, more and more, digging into the paper until the image of the devil was abraded. The page was now just a tattered hole.

The little girl who used a broken pencil to scratch away the devil was Gertrude Simmons. Later in life she went by her married name, Gertrude Bonnin, or by the “Indian” name she adopted, Zitkala-Ša, which meant “Red Bird.” She had a lot of names, being a Sioux woman in a white man’s world. Even being a “Sioux” woman marked her in the white man’s world, given that her people referred to themselves not as Sioux but as Yankton, or Iháŋkthuŋwaŋ, a band of Western Dakota people. At eight years old she was snatched from the reservation of her birth for supposed education and advancement at White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. What she found in Indiana was not her salvation but her nightmare, and when she was old enough to speak out against the injustices of boarding schools for American Indian children, she told the world her story. In the January, February, and March 1900 issues of the Atlantic Monthly, Zitkala-Ša explained her early life on a reservation, her encounter with the devil (and much more) at the white man’s school, and her attempt to make her way in white society.

Like countless other American Indians—a term this chapter uses interchangeably with “Indians,” “Native Americans,” and “indigenous people” because of the historical complexities and problems of all the labels—Zitkala-Ša felt disconnected from white society, despite, or because of, her education there. But she also felt disconnected from Indian society. When Zitkala-Ša returned to the Sioux reservation of her birth after years of education in white society, she felt broken and alone, even though her mother and brother still lived there. Her energy was “shattered,” her “faith in the Great Spirit” was gone, and she stood on the reservation as “a cold bare pole, . . . planted in a strange earth.” It was all because she pursued “the white man’s papers”—that is, education. Uprooted from tribal life, outcast in racist white society, Zitkala-Ša was stuck between two worlds and at home in neither.

This feeling of disconnection was common for American Indians educated at boarding schools around the turn of the twentieth century (and beyond). It resulted from what Richard Morris has termed “transformational mimesis,” a process that “serves to put someone’s cultural identity under erasure involuntarily or without their informed consent in the moment of acculturation by denigrating and calling into question that identity and by insisting that a readily available, ‘superior’ alternative identity provided by the dominant society furnishes the only means of escape for those who are ‘trapped’ by their heritage.” For American Indian children, education at the white man’s boarding school was supposed to help them cast off Indian identity and become little republican, almost-white citizens, embracing the U.S. government as their benevolent father. But neither “transformational mimesis” nor paternal benevolence worked out as planned. Instead of moving American Indians from “red” to “white” culture, these efforts resulted in an ideological chasm, leaving American Indians in a liminal space between Native tradition and the white world.

That liminal space was devastating to generations of American Indians and to Native traditions writ large. Nevertheless, in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, a group of Native thinkers, including Zitkala-Ša, strived to turn liminality to their advantage. Stuck between white society and the reservation, they drew tribally diverse Indians into an expansive coalition that could secure their place in the modern world. It was the first truly “pan-Indian” movement in U.S. history. Although white reformers had tried to bring Indians together while keeping them under the reformers’ dictates, pan-Indianism marked the first push by indigenous people themselves to unify as American Indians. This was their own effort to unite as an antagonistic frontier, linked in an equivalential

chain of grievances, and set against the white establishment. If the white establishment was going to treat all Native peoples the same—all of them were “Indians,” irrespective of nation and tribe, who needed to shed their “Indianness”—then those Indians would use white perceptions to resist the very forces trying to erase their history. Throughout her career, Zitkala-Ša proved adept at playing with white perceptions, all to the benefit of the populist coalition she sought to create. She performed “Indianness” in different ways for different audiences, but always with the goal of inviting other Indians to join her in reclaiming their intellectual lives.

Zitkala-Ša’s populist performance of Indianness centered on education—be that the boarding school experience, community centers on reservations, publications in popular periodicals, or gatherings in lecture halls across the country. Intellectual practice, she believed, was crucial for advancing American Indian causes, so she traveled the country, spoke and wrote for white and Native audiences, studied reservation life, built organizations to support American Indians, and grappled with the U.S. government. Similar to the way Booker T. Washington preached the dignity of labor to empower African Americans in the rural South, Zitkala-Ša performed Indianness to build a network of populist intellectual communities across the United States. And similar to all the intellectuals featured in this book, Zitkala-Ša worked to return power to the people—in this case, Indian people. Her performances invited other American Indians to identify their grievances with hers and to join her in a strong, broad coalition that could secure Native lives in the twentieth century.

Accordingly, this chapter positions Zitkala-Ša’s work as an example of intellectual populism in response to the American Indian predicament in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. As a populist thinker and leader around the turn of the twentieth century, she shared a sensibility and rhetorical tool kit with other intellectuals in this book. At the same time, she occupied the unique position of being an Indian woman. Stereotypes abounded regarding Indians and women in public life, and these stereotypes weighed heavily on Zitkala-Ša. Yet she discovered early that stereotypes contained a painful power that she could turn to her advantage. On the public stage she could tacitly acknowledge the stereotypes about her “to gain the attention of the people who had power over Indian lives,” and she could “take the control of performance away from” her opponents. Time and again, Zitkala-Ša seized on people’s perceptions—however positive or negative—and used those perceptions to advance the cause of her people.

In the next section I explore the predicament Zitkala-Ša and American Indians of her generation faced. I then situate Zitkala-Ša as a writer and community builder who established a place of resistance for her race, and I explore Zitkala-Ša’s work as a celebrated lecturer who played the role of Indian to redirect perceptions of Native lives. Finally, I analyze three key speeches in Zitkala-Ša’s career—speeches that demonstrate her ability to upend the perceptions of various audiences to draw disparate individuals into a populist coalition. In “talking back to civilization,” to borrow the words of Frederick Hoxie, Zitkala-Ša helped “define, preserve, and even stimulate faith in ‘Indianness’” for generations to come.