Writer, Musician, Teacher & Activist
(Feb. 22, 1876 – Jan.26 1938)

Reading Grade Level:

1st – 2nd

3rd – 4th

5th & up

Zitkála-Šá (pronounced: Zitkala-sha) was a writer, musician, and teacher. She was one of the first people to write down Native American stories that had only been passed down through storytelling. She was born as Gertrude Bonnin, on February 22, 1876, in South Dakota. That was nearly 150 years ago! Her mother was a Native American, and her father was an American of European heritage. Zitkála-Šá grew up in a tipi next to the Missouri River until she went away to school when she was 8 years old.

Zitkála-Šá went to a far away school in Indiana that taught her about being Native American. Her mom worried about her, but with European culture taking over, she wanted her to always remember her native heritage. She thought that going to school would give Zitkála-Šá a better life when she grew up. At school, Zitkála-Šá loved to learn, and her teachers saw that she was a gifted writer and violin player.

In her teens, Gertrude took up the Native American tribal name Zitkála-Šá, meaning Red Bird. After college Zitkála-Šá worked as a music teacher at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. This was the largest Indian boarding school in the country. The school she taught at reminded her of the one she went to as a child, but as an adult, she realized she did not agree with how the school treated the children.The boarding school would cut the Indian children’s long hair, gave them new English names, and punished them for speaking their native languages. Zitkála-Šá broke the school rules by teaching the children Indian stories becasue she thought they should be proud of their culture. Even though it got her fired, Zitkála-Šá did not regret breaking the rules because she knew teaching them about their culture and past was the right thing to do.

Being the daughter of an Indian mother and white father was something Zitkála-Šá had a hard time with her entire life. But she also used her mixed heritage as inspiration for her work. She combined her cultures by writing down tribal stories from her mother’s side of the family in English in a set of books. This is important because European Americans along with other races were also able to learn about Native American culture. Zitkála-Šá became a very successful writer with many popular books.

Zitkála-Šá dedicated the rest of her life to making the lives of Native Americans better and teaching people who weren’t Native American about Indian life. She founded the National Council of American Indians (NCAI). The NCAI helped Indian children go to better schools, helped people get medicine for their families, and helped preserve American Indian culture. Zitkála-Šá died in 1938 at the age of 61. Today, generations later, the stories of her people continue to be passed on.

(Learn the Lakota origin story!)

Reflection Question

What is a story you read or were told that you shared with someone else? What did you like about it?