The Story of Zitkala-Ša: The Fight is Not Over
By Karlee Marshall
Right across the street from the BJC office sits the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument and headquarters for the National Woman’s Party (NWP). In 1918, the Indigenous suffragist, writer, musician, and political activist Zitkala-Ša (Lakota: “Red Bird”) (pronounced Zit-KA-la Sha) spoke to members of the NWP and stood hand in hand with other white suffragists to fight for women’s right to vote. When the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, she reminded her fellow suffragists at the “First Convention of Women Voters Since Suffrage Passed” that this right did not extend to all women or people of color and urged them to remember that the fight was not over.
Zitkala-Ša, birth name Gertrude Simmons, was born in 1876 as a citizen of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. She was born into a horrific time where federal assimilation policies urged white Americans to “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” When she was just 8 years old, white missionaries visited the Yankton Sioux reservation and persuaded many Native children to attend a Quaker boarding school. Here, Zitkala-Ša was stripped of her culture and identity, forced to cut her hair, speak English, and convert to Christianity. “I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit.” she recounted in her book American Indian Stories. Unfortunately, this was the experience of countless Native children across the Nation.
As Zitkala-Ša continued her education, she began to write about the American Indian experience, publishing her works in prestigious magazines. Two years of work as a music teacher at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School solidified her discontent toward federal Indian policies. In her writings, she criticized the American Indian boarding school system and talked about the struggles of resisting assimilation and maintaining a sense of cultural identity. Zitkala-Ša married shortly after her time at the boarding school and moved to the Uintah-Ouray reservation in Utah with her husband where she worked for 14 years. During this time, she increased her political activism, joined the Society of American Indians (SAI), and moved to Washington D.C. in 1917 to become their secretary.
Zitkala-Ša attributes her progressive ideas about women’s equality to her mother and other Dakota women who raised her. Many tribes practiced a more matriarchal approach than white American society, giving women an equal amount of power when making decisions. There was much more respect for women in the Native tradition. Early white suffragists were inspired by this idea and the thought remained throughout the entire suffrage movement.
Naturally, Zitkala-Ša became very active in the suffrage movement and fought alongside white suffragists in D.C. “The Indian woman rejoices with you,” she proclaimed in her 1921 address to the members of the NWP after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. In the same breath, she urged her fellow suffragists to fight for the still disenfranchised Native Americans who were not considered U.S citizens, but wards of the federal government.
Even after the passing of the Snyder act in 1924, which granted full U.S. citizenship to Native people but upheld government oversight of native lands, non-natives continued to suppress the native vote. Zitkala-Ša went on to create the National Council of American Indians (NCAI) with her husband and spent the rest of her life advocating for Indegenous people’s right to self govern, practice their traditions freely and for the federal government to rightfully uphold their treaties.
To this day, tribes are fighting for their right to be fully recognized as sovereign nations, which was originally promised through various treaties. The most recent Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020) reaffirmed this idea by holding the federal government to their promise, setting a precedent for federally recognized tribes across the nation. Zitkala-Ša’s advocacy undoubtedly contributed to this outcome. She remains one of the most influential Native American activists of the 20th century and would certainly agree today that the fight is still not over.
Karlee Marshall is a former BJC intern and a citizen of the Choctaw tribe.