Twenty-one-year-old Gertrude Simmons sat in a stiff-backed chair in her small room at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and stared out at the students hurrying to class. The young men and women attending the institution were from Native American communities across the country. None of them were wearing the traditional clothing of their people, all were dressed in suit jackets, pressed trousers, or high collar dresses with ruffled bottoms and matching tights. The Indian children of various ages from six to sixteen had been transported to the facility as an “experiment in educating and assimilating Native American young people.” Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt, founder and superintendent of the boarding school was convinced his method of “civilizing” the Indian was the best. “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres,” General Pratt told those in attendance at the Nineteenth Annual Session of the National Conference of Charities and Correction held in Denver, Colorado in June 1892. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”
When Gertrude had been lured to General Pratt’s institutions at eight years old, she had no idea she would be forced to abandon the language she grew up speaking, have her long hair cut off, and made to dress like non-Indian children. More than a decade after being enrolled at the White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, Gertrude applied to teach school to Native American boys and girls. She had mixed feelings about her duties. She wanted her pupils to learn how to read and write English, but not at the expense of sacrificing their own culture.
Born in 1876 in Yankton, South Dakota, Gertrude was a Sioux Indian and was given the name Zitkala-Sa. Her father was a white trader named Felker Simmons and her mother a Nakota Sioux called Tate I Yohin Win or Reaches for the Wind. Her father passed away when she was still a toddler, and her mother became her soul support. She adored her mother and learned a great deal about her heritage, traditions, and the Spirit that guided their people from her. “I was a wild little girl at seven,” Gertrude wrote about her upbringing years later, “loosely clad in a slip of buckskin, and light-footed with a pair of soft moccasins on my feet, I was as free as the wind that blew my hair, and no less spirited than a bounding deer. These were my mother’s pride, my wild freedom and overflowing spirit. She taught me no fear save that of intruding myself upon others.”
In 1884, Quaker missionaries from the East traveled by train to the village where Gertrude lived with her mother and began to share stories of great cities with enormous fruit trees and opportunity to learn about the world beyond South Dakota. Tate I Yohin Win tried to tell her daughter that the missionaries were not telling her everything. She didn’t trust non-Indians and wanted to protect her from those who did not have good intentions. When Gertrude’s friend, Judewin had decided to travel with the missionaries to a location several days from their home, Gertrude pleaded with her mother to allow her to go. Tate I Yohin Win desired her daughter be educated and that was the only reason she agreed to let her leave her side. A soon as Gertrude boarded the train and watched as the site of her mother faded from view, she realized she’d made a horrible mistake.
Gertrude traveled to Indiana with eight other children; three boys and five girls. It was night when they arrived at the institution. Gertrude cried and wanted to go home, but the staff didn’t pay any attention to her request or the requests of the other children hoping to be sent back to their parents. They were led to a dorm and told to go to bed. They were told they would feel better after a night’s sleep.
At the sound of a bell the following morning, Gertrude and the others were made to march into a dining room for breakfast. The children could only take a seat and begin eating when the bell rang again. Every move was purposed, and no one dared disobey. When Gertrude learned the missionaries that ran the school planned to cut her hair, she ran and hid. She was found under a bed, carried to a downstairs room, and tied to a chair.
“I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids,” Gertrude wrote years later about the experience. “Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was shingled like a coward’s! In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now, I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.”
Gertrude’s years in primary school were not pleasant ones. She was rebellious and frequently acted out in class. She was a smart student, excelling in music and in public speaking, but was never able to fully resign herself to the structure dictated by the non-Indian staff. When she returned home for a visit, she felt out of place there, too. Gertrude had been socialized in a world foreign to her mother and the pair often butted heads. Tate I Yohin Win preferred her daughter remain in South Dakota, but Gertrude had other plans. After graduation she enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. News of the first Native American to be admitted to a collegiate institution in Indian was reported in papers throughout the state. “Miss Simmons was graduated with high honors and had received permission from the government, which bore part of the expenses of her schooling at the institution,” an article in the June 13, 1895, edition of the Daily Democrat read.
Gertrude’s decision to continue her education proved to be a good move for the young woman. Her skill as a speaker was rewarded in early 1896 when she won the oratorical honors at the college and was subsequently chosen to represent the institution at the state contest. The honor generated considerable interest in Gertrude and major metropolitan newspapers made requests to do an interview with her and for a photograph. Gertrude humble declined. That did not however keep reporters from coming on campus and asking other students about her.
‘“Miss Simmons is a very bright girl’”, so one of the Earlham professors says, and those who heard her speak the other night had little doubt who would win first place,” the February 7, 1896, edition of the Richmond Item noted. “Her style of delivery is the straight direct conversational one; she just stands and talks but is graceful and easy on the stage. Every movement indicates that she is thinking the thought that she is expressing and that is doubtless the secret of her success. Her accent is perfect as she has learned the language so that she can articulate as clearly and distinctly as anyone born to the English language.
“If Miss Simmons does not make a good showing in the state contest it will be on account of the thought of her oration, but as this will be much strengthen before it is sent to the judges one thought it is believed that she will be a considerable distance from last, to say the least.”
Professors, the student body, and newspaper editors might have considered her showing at the intercollegiate event a major accomplishment, but Gertrude wasn’t as impressed. She was publicly ridiculed, and the experience was a painful one.
“There, before that vast ocean of eyes, some college rowdies threw out a large white flag, with a drawing of a most forlorn Indian girl on it,” she recalled in her autobiography. “Under this they had printed in bold black letters words that ridiculed the college which was represented by a ‘squaw’.” The speech Gertrude made was entitled Side by Side and was a stinging indictment of white society and hypocritical Christianity. Reprinted in the school paper, The Earlhamite her rhetoric was couched in Biblical language, verbiage she learned while studying with the Quaker missionaries.
“Today the Indian is pressed almost to the farther sea,” Gertrude reprinted speech read. “Does that sea symbolize his death? Does the narrow territory still left to him typify the last brief day before his place on Earth ‘shall know him no more forever?’ Shall might make right and the fittest along survive? Oh, Love of God and of His ‘Strong Son,’ thou who liftest up the oppressed and the succorest the needy, is thine ear grown heavy that it cannot hear his cry? Is thy arm so shortened, it cannot save? Dost thou not yet enfold him in thy love? Look with compassion down, and with thine almighty power move this nation to the rescue of my race.”
The award-winning speech Gertrude gave at the state competition and the one she presented in the subsequent contest, thrust her into the spotlight. At the annual banquet given by the sophomore class to the senior class at Earlham held in late May 1897, she was asked to serve as the toast mistress, an honor traditionally given to a male student. An unknown problem with her health brought about her decision to withdraw from school shortly after the banquet. She planned to return once she was feeling better, but in the meantime applied for a teaching job at the school on the Carlisle reservation. She was quickly hired as a member of the faculty and in early August 1897 made her way to Pennsylvania.
Upon arriving at the school, she was escorted to the room at the teacher’s quarters where she would be living. The carpeted space was small, 13 x 21, with according to Gertrude, “ghastly walls and ceilings.” The room possessed two windows curtained with heavy muslin. “A clean white bed was in one corner, and opposite it was a square pine table covered with a black woolen blanket,” Gertrude recalled later in her memoirs.
A month after Gertrude arrived at the boarding school, General Pratt sent her on a recruiting trip to Yankton to procure students for Carlisle. “…The midsummer’s travel across the continent to search the hot prairies for overconfident parents who would entrust their children to strangers was a lean pasturage,” Gertrude wrote about the venture. “However, I dwelt on the hope of seeing my mother. I tried to reason that a change was a rest. Within a couple of days I started toward my mother’s home.
“The intense heat and the sticky [railroad] car smoke that followed my homeward trail did not noticeably restore my vitality. Hour after hour I gazed upon the country which was receding rapidly from me. I noticed the gradual expansion of the horizon as we emerged out of the forests into the plains. The great high buildings, whose towers overlooked the dense woodlands, and whose gigantic clusters formed large cities, diminished, together with the groves, until only little log cabins lay snugly in the bosom of the vast prairie. The cloud shadows which drifted about on the waving yellow of long-dried grasses thrilled me like the meeting of old friends.
“At a small station, consisting of a single frame house with a rickety boardwalk about it, I alighted from the iron horse, just thirty miles from my mother and my brother Dawee. A strong hot wind seemed determined to blow my hat off and return me to olden days when I roamed bareheaded over the hills.”
The state of her mother’s living conditions on the reservation coupled with the knowledge that among those allowed to teach at Carlisle were former cavalry soldiers addicted to opium and or alcohol, infuriated Gertrude. She longed for the time she could leave the institution to make a better life for herself. “I seemed to hope a day would come when my mute aching head, reared toward the sky, would flash a zig-zag lightning across the heavens,” she later recalled.
Gertrude taught reading, writing and music. Her classes were comprised of students who had lost one or both parents and were from the Yankton Santee Reservation. Her teacher evaluations, sent to the superintendent of the Department of the Interior, noted how eager she was to “give instruction to her pupils.”
Whenever Gertrude had a break from teaching, she returned to Earlham College to give recitals for the music department. She also volunteered with the college’s oratorical association, serving as the correspondence secretary.
By late 1898, Gertrude had become too frustrated with the way General Pratt was running the institution and decided to make a change. Between what she deemed as harsh disciplinary methods, curricula that left Native Americans out of the history, students being made to feel ashamed of their heritage and background, and those dying from diseases contracted at school, she wanted out. Gertrude wanted to move on to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. On December 3, 1898, Pratt sent a letter to the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Washington to ask that her education be fully funded by the government.
“I believe thoroughly, Mr. Commissioner, in the principles I expressed to you that we should as early and fully as practical help every special case of genius to the fullest development,” Pratt wrote. “Nothing goes further with the public mind than practical demonstration. Miss Simmons, having this exceptional musical talent and being already well advanced, and having the endorsement and urgency of the best instructor to go ahead and develop her talent, encourages me to believe that she is one of the specially qualified cases.
“Her stay at Carlisle, and her career as I know it before that, assure me that she is worthy of the best of help, and I think it a great deal better policy that the government should do this for her in a limited way, of course, than that she should fall into the hands of someone to whom she might possibly be over obligated.”
While waiting for the officials of the bureau to render their decision about paying for Gertrude to attend the prestigious east coast school, she wrote Professor Groenberg at the New England Conservatory of Music with a plea for a scholarship of some kind. The professor agreed to the initial financial support. When Pratt was notified of the development, he quickly got off another letter to the Department of Interior.
“Replying to your letter of the 16th…in regard to Gertrude E. Simmons now studying music in Boston,” Pratt wrote, “I respectfully state as follows: That just now Miss Simmons is not at any expense except for personal maintenance, owing to the kindness and interest of her instructor Prof. Groenberg, whose letter enclosed herewith will inform you as to her ability and persevering effort.
“Her purpose is to attend the New England Conservatory of Music at Boston and so get the advantage of the lectures and privileges of that institution, winning a scholarship if possible; but not to enter as a boarding pupil as she can manage more cheaply by boarding outside.
“While her special study is the violin, she is also taking other lessons, at an expense of $4 per week for the lessons, which with her board and incidentals will make her expenses as closely cut as possible $10 a week.
“I will say for Miss Simmons that she is a full blood Yankton Sioux; that she has unusual ability in the direction of music and elocution; that she has shown great perseverance so far in her career, and if enabled to follow out her idea of a three years course where she is now, I think she would stand well to the front of her profession as all who have had to do with her give uniform testimony to her ability. I trust therefore that a way be found by which her support may be assured. She is of a practical turn and will help herself all she can, I am sure.”
Gertrude was considered a gifted musical talent by her instructors at the conservatory. Her readiness to work persistently earned her the respect of the school’s board of directors. After her various classes concluded each day, Gertrude worked on writing a series of articles about Indian life for the respected publications such the Atlantic Monthly. Her first article, written under her Sioux name, was entitled The Impressions of an Indian Childhood. The controversial articles included stories of the cruel ways in which non-Indians had treated her and her people for decades.
Before graduating from the conservatory, Gertrude was seized with an overwhelming need to return to the Carlisle school to again work with Indian children and teach them speech and reintroduce them to their own language and traditions. She appealed to the Superintendent of Indian School Services in Washington, D. C. who then wrote General Pratt about the possibility. Pratt had read the articles she had written about her time attending his schools and was not in a hurry to accept her back in the fold.
“Replying to yours of July 27th, stating that Miss Gertrude Simmons asked for appointment as Principle Teacher in the Indian School Service,” Pratt began, “I have to respectfully advise you that Miss Simmons, while quite an able person does not possess the qualities that a Principle Teacher should have. Her moral ideas are too loose.
“While a teacher here she was constantly having Indian young men in her room and gave me quite a little trouble in that line. After leaving this school she kept up a vigorous correspondence with a young man here quite her junior and got him into such a frame of mind that I finally had to expel him.
“Her articles in the Atlantic Monthly are not creditable to her heart and in quite a number of her statements impugn her veracity.”
The government overrode Pratt’s objections and Gertrude was allowed to teacher again at Carlisle. From the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, she transferred to the Ute Reservation school in Utah. She made the move in 1902, a month before marrying fellow Yankton Agency resident, Raymond T. Bonnin. The newlyweds were both offered positions at the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1903, they welcomed their one and only child, a son, named after his father.
After the birth of her son, Gertrude turned her attention to writing books about her heritage and the Sioux people. Fellow Carlisle teacher Angel De Cora, a Winnebago Indian, illustrated the work. Gertrude promoted her books in the classrooms where she continued to teach Indian children and at public forums where she was asked to speak. She and her husband formed an organization called the Society of American Indians which supported community services for Native American. A portion of the sales of her books funded the program.
The motto of the Society of American Indians was “For the Honor of the Race and the Good of the Country,” and their slogan “American Citizenship for Indians.”
American citizenship for Indians was a key talking point on the lecture circuits Gertrude participated. Those who attended the lectures noted that she was an “interesting speaker with an exquisitely modulated voice which she uses almost without a trace of accent.”
In 1916, Gertrude and her husband and son moved to Washington, D. C. where she served as a liaison between the society of American Indians and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She also edited the society’s American Indian magazine and authored or coauthored several books exposing the mistreatment of Native Americans specifically in Oklahoma.
Gertrude’s books on Indian life were used for years by instructors at the Brooklyn Training School for Teachers, both in its theory department and its model school.
“The object of my work is to right the immemorial wrong and wipe out the confusion of countless grievances of the Red Man, against the white,” Gertrude told a reporter for a Washington, D. C. paper in 1926. “The headquarters here will be a listening post to keep all of the nations’ 300,000 Indians informed of what the government is doing that affects them.
“We are all citizens. An act of congress two years ago admitted every American born Indian to full citizenship. We do not intend to raise a war cry against the government. But there are selfish individuals and groups that are just as eager to rob the Indian now as over, and there are old injustices that must be remedied. Indians cannot merely accept federal guardianship, but they must be on the alert to care for themselves.”
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin died on January 26, 1938. Among her accomplishments listed in her obituaries from Washington, D. C. to Seattle, Washington, were “President of the National Council of American Indians, sponsor of Indian Legislation in Congress, author, and teacher.” Gertrude was sixty-two when she passed away. She was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.