Today’s Google Doodle marks the 145th birthday of Zitkála-Šá, an indigenous American writer, educator, musician and lifelong advocate on behalf of her people.
She was born in 1876 on a Yankton Dakota reservation in rural South Dakota. Zitkála-Šá — meaning “red bird” in Sioux — is the pen name she chose for herself when she became a writer. Her birth name was Gertrude Simmons.
She devoted her life to navigating between two worlds: the Native American world where she was raised as a Sioux, and the “civilized” world of the white people who educated her in their ways and gave her opportunities to use her voice.
Throughout her life, Zitkála-Šá recognized that her public voice — both as a writer and a speaker — could be a powerful tool.
The Yankton Dakota were a nomadic tribe that lived around Lake Superior, northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. They gathered wild rice, hunted animals and used canoes to fish. But wars and treaties drastically reduced their land.
Zitkála-Šá spent her first eight years on the reservation. As she describes in her 1921 memoir, Impressions of an Indian Childhood, her earliest memories were of a “wild little girl” who wore “a slip of buckskin” and soft moccasins and played “on that Dakota sea of rolling green.”
In 1884, when she was eight, the missionaries arrived. Several of the Yankton children, including Zitkála-Šá, went to study at the White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute. She was forced to cut her long hair and recite the Quaker prayers — and she learned to speak, read, and write in English.
From that time on, her role was to communicate, interpret and negotiate the territory of two very different worlds.
Zitkála-Šá was still a young woman when she began to emerge as a powerful speaker. In 1896 she won second prize in an oratory contest at Earlham College in Indiana for her speech, “Side by Side,” in which she tells the history of her people and wonders about their fate.
“Today the Indian is pressed almost to the farther sea. 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?'”
“Today the Indian is pressed almost to the farther sea,” she said. “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?'”
Zitkála-Šá wrote extensively about her experiences and beliefs. She published childhood stories, Native American legends, autobiographical narratives, articles in Harper’s Monthly, and political essays.
It was when she moved with her husband to Washington DC that she entered the political realm.
In 1926, Zitkála-Šá co-founded the National Council of American Indians to lobby for the civil rights of indigenous people, including their right to US citizenship. She served as the council’s president until her death in 1938.
You can find full transcripts of Zitkála-Šá’s speeches in the Speaking While Female Speech Bank.
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