Tony Vagneur: Works of ‘Red Bird’ are as unique as her life

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

In case you didn’t know, 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting suffrage to women. Colorado beat the rest of the nation to the bar by granting the same in 1893.

We’ve heard of Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, national leaders of the suffrage movement, but perhaps lesser known are the women who helped the movement in Colorado. Elizabeth Ensley and Ellis Meredith are at the forefront, remembering that Ensley was a woman of color and the suffragist movement was mostly a fully integrated effort, something highly unusual for the time.

Lost in the discussion of equality for women is the name Zitalka-Sa (“Red Bird”), a Lakota Sioux born in 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She wasn’t what you’d call a participating member of any accepted mainstream society groups, not until much later, but she had a heart-wrenching story to tell, one she told with striking imagery and heartfelt expression.

At the age of 8, she was taken from her single mother by Quaker missionaries and deposited at White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. This was the era when well-meaning “do-gooders” thought the American Indian should be deracinated, giving up their ancient and traditional identities.

The schoolmaster might have said, “Listen to me, young child, forget your mother, with whom you were very close, forget your native language, your culture, forget your pagan attitudes, and turn your beliefs to the Christian religion.” Yes, imagine that happening to you, or your child, at eight years old. She was given the name Gertrude Simmons. (Married name Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.)

For the rest of her life, Zitalka-Sa struggled with the dichotomy between the seeming ease of assimilation into the white man’s world, and the effort it took to maintain the ancient beliefs and culture of her birth people. This eventually led to Zitalka-Sa getting Native Americans recognized as U.S. citizens, her belief being that only through citizenship and education could the Natives gain control of their reservations and learn to manage them from within. The right to vote came much later.

Her forced enculturation enabled her to take advantage of learning to read, write and play the violin with enthusiasm. This led to a lifetime of speaking out for Natives and Native American women, especially a life’s work that should have her name rolling off most American tongues.

She published several books, including “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery,” a collaboration with others, on the graft, bribery and murder that kept Indians from receiving oil royalties that they legally earned. This tome was instrumental in getting management of reservations turned over to the Natives themselves.

College-educated, she played the violin professionally with the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston for several years, wrote various articles for Harper’s Monthly and The Atlantic Monthly, taught school, married, raised a son, was a liaison for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, joined the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1921 (It wasn’t until 1948 that most Native Americans received the right to vote — Utah was the last to grant it in 1962), and fought for Native American rights until her death in 1938.

She and her husband worked for the Uintah-Ouray Reservation for 14 years, where the idea for an opera germinated, showcasing the Ute people and the Ute Sun Dance, forbidden by the U.S. Government from being performed.

From a 1913 El Paso Herald newspaper article, “The (‘Sun Dance’) opera tells the story of the return of the sun from its death during the winter, of the kindliness of its light and warmth as it fall on the earth, of the plants and the trees that spring forth and grow under its rays, and of the whole world rejoicing in the sunshine.”

The opera, written by Zitalka-Sa and composer William F. Hanson, who taught at Brigham Young University, debuted in February 1913 at Orpheus Hall in Vernal, Utah. In 1938, it was performed at The Broadway Theatre in New York City.

As evidence of her angst at being pulled from her loving environment on the reservation and being placed at a Quaker boarding school in Indiana, the following quote is memorable:

“A wee child toddling in a wonder world, I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan.”

This woman, this Native American writer, who with simple, beautiful prose skirting two different worlds with prescient insight, takes us inside Native culture, relationships and legends. Some of her writings are published online and can be found under her name.

It’s worth a look. She was a unique person.

Keep your eyes peeled for the opening of a tribute to women’s suffrage at The Aspen Historical Society. Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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