By Maya Brimhall, Better Days 2020 Historical Intern
July 21, 2020
Although many exhibits and libraries are closed due to COVID-19, we wanted to give you a taste of some records here in Utah that highlight women who made a difference in our country’s history. Zitkála-Šá (Gertrude Bonnin) was a committed activist for Native citizenship and civil rights in the early 20th century, and BYU’s Special Collections holds many manuscripts related to her life and her founding of the National Council of American Indians (NCAI) in 1926, including This link takes you to a digital scan of the NCAI’s constitution and by-laws! Here’s what I learned while researching these records.
Zitkála-Šá’s papers are beautiful—I could feel the power of her activism as I carefully perused her papers. It was amazing to touch letters and other papers she had once held! (After registering with Special Collections and following all guidelines to protect the documents.)
Personally, Zitkála-Šá’s papers showed me how her activism for Indigenous sovereignty was inextricably tied to her gender identity. She traveled cross-country year after year to establish genuine relationships with other Indigenous women and to encourage their political participation. She specifically worked with various women’s clubs to establish Indigenous peoples’ right to vote so they could more effectively advocate for Indigenous sovereignty—realized in part with the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act.
Most of the time, Zitkála-Šá worked without compensation and thus focused her efforts on grassroots fundraising and community organizing so that Indigenous communities could become self-sustainable after centuries of physical displacement and intergenerational trauma. She consistently held U.S. elected officials and government employees accountable for proposing, enforcing, and upholding policies and laws that dismantled, diminished, and erased Indigenous authority. Her papers intimately capture her history, right down to her handwriting and personal photos.
If you want to learn more about Zitkála-Šá by studying her own writings, please check out Dreams and Thunder Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera and “Help Indians Help Themselves”: The Later Writings of Gertrude Simmons-Bonnin edited by P. Jane Hafen. Another great compilation of Zitkála-Šá’s literature is American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, edited by Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris. If you have any children (or love picture books), Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist by Gina Capaldi and Q.L. Pearce is a fun option.
We would love to hear about your own experiences learning about and engaging with Zitkála-Šá’s work, life, and legacy! Feel free to share your thoughts here or on one of our social media posts featuring Zitkála-Šá.
Stay tuned for a video interview coming soon with Jane Hafen!
Maya Brimhall is currently working on her History and Global Women’s Studies capstone about Zitkála-Šá’s interactions with state and national women’s clubs, after discovering Zitkála-Šá’s papers in the BYU library.
References: MSS 1704; National Council of American Indians records; 20th Century Western & Mormon Manuscripts; L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Accessed from http://archives.lib.byu.edu/repositories/14/resources/2086.
This link takes you to a digital scan of the NCAI’s constitution and by-laws at Amherst College.