Native American Author Spotlight: Zitkala-Sa

Though the Native American Renaissance was a time that developed awareness for the Native American community and their struggles, there were other extremely influential Native American authors before this movement. These people preserved the oral history of the Native American community by writing and publishing it for readers. This helped to convey the rich and diverse cultures in the Native American community. One of the most well-known of these authors was Zitkala-Sa. She was a published author and an advocate for the Native American community. Her story, like the many of the other authors, is one of trying to bridge the gap between two worlds.

Zitkala-Sa stands with her head to her forehead. She is dressed in a mix of tribal dress and western clothing. The photograph is black and white, taken by Gertrude Kasebier about 1898.
Zitkala-Sa in tribal dress and western clothing. By Gertrude Kasebier, c. 1898.

Zitkala-Sa was born in the Yankton Sioux Agency on February 22, 1876. She lived there for eight years and was raised in the culture of the Yankton people. However, like many of the Native American children during the late nineteenth century, she was recruited and taken to the White’s Manual Labor Institute. This was a boarding school created for Native American people that was supposed to teach them, but the educational quality of the school was so poor that many could only acquire low-paying positions. There, she excelled and learned English, reading, and the violin.

Against her family’s wishes, Zitkala-Sa enrolled at Earlham College until 1897, when she was forced to leave due to ill health and monetary issues. In 1899, she began teaching at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.  She was uncomfortable with the harsh discipline and curriculum of the school, but it provided her the opportunity to focus on writing and start her literary career. She published a few short stories and essays in monthly magazines that described her struggle of retaining her Native American roots in a world that was so against it. Zitkala-Sa also wrote the first American Indian opera, The Sun Dance Opera. But Zitkala-Sa is most well known for her anthologies of Native American stories she curated by writing down the oral history of different Native American cultures. These are called Old Indian Legends and American Indian Stories.

Though she was well known for these anthologies, she was also a political activist for the Native American people.  She worked in the Society of American Indians (SAI) as a secretary and moved to Washington, D.C., to be a liaison between SAI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). She also founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926 in an effort to unite the tribes so that they could gain full citizenship rights.

Zitkala-Sa continued to write political articles and books that influenced Native American civil rights reform until her death in 1938. She was an artist, an author, and an activist who left a legacy in her community. Check out some of her work this month to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

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