American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings
An Excerpt From
American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings

Table of Contents



Title Page

Copyright Page






Iktomi and the Ducks

Iktomi’s Blanket

Iktomi and the Muskrat

Iktomi and the Coyote

Iktomi and the Fawn

The Badger and the Bear

The Tree-Bound

Shooting of the Red Eagle

Iktomi and the Turtle

Dance in a Buffalo Skull

The Toad and the Boy

Iya, the Camp-Eater

Mans̈tin, the Rabbit

The Warlike Seven



Impressions of an Indian Childhood

The School Days of an Indian Girl

An Indian Teacher Among Indians

The Great Spirit

The Soft-Hearted Sioux

The Trial Path

A Warrior’s Daughter

A Dream of Her Grandfather

The Widespread Enigma Concerning Blue-Star Woman

America’s Indian Problem



The Indian’s Awakening ( January-March 1916)

A Year’s Experience in Community Service Work Among the Ute Tribe of Indians ...

The Red Man’s America ( January-March 1917)

Chipeta, Widow of Chief Ouray with a Word About a Deal in Blankets ( ...

A Sioux Woman’s Love for Her Grandchild (October-December 1917)

Editorial Comment (July-September 1918)

Indian Gifts to Civilized Man ( July-September 1918)

Secretary’s Report in Brief ( July-September 1918)

Editorial Comment (Winter 1919)

America, Home of the Red Man (Winter 1919)

The Coronation of Chief Powhatan Retold (Winter 1919)

Letter to the Chiefs and Headmen of the Tribes (Winter 1919)

Editorial Comment (Spring 1919)

Editorial Comment (Summer 1919)

An Indian Praying on the Hilltop (Spring 1919)

Address by the Secretary-Treasurer, Society of American Indians Annual ...



Side by Side (March 1896)

A Ballad (January 1897)

Iris of Life (November 1898)

A Protest Against the Abolition of the Indian Dance (August 1902)

The Menace of Peyote (ca. 1916)

Americanize the First American (1921)

Bureaucracy Versus Democracy (1921)

A Dakota Ode to Washington (1922)

California Indian Trails and Prayer Trees (1922)

Lost Treaties of the California Indians (1922)

The California Indians of Today (1922)

Heart to Heart Talk (1922)


Explanatory Notes


ZITKALA-ŠA, known also as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was born on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota in 1876. A lifelong writer and activist, she is best known for a series of semiautobiographical stories about her childhood and schooling in Eastern boarding schools. Zitkala-Ša was a teacher, a student at the New England Conservatory of Music, coauthor of an opera entitled The Sun Dance, secretary-treasurer of the first pan-Indian political organization, the Society of American Indians, and editor of its quarterly magazine, American Indian Magazine. She wrote fiction, manifestos, speeches, poetry, and musical scores, retold Sioux legends, and was a prolific letter writer. She was founder and president of the National Council of American Indians, the Washington-based tribal advocacy group that she led until her death in 1938.


CATHY N. DAVIDSON, Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke University, is past president of the American Studies Association and former editor of the journal American Literature. She has written or edited more than fifteen books, including Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, Reading in America, The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States (with Linda Wagner-Martin), Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory (with photographer Bill Bamberger), and Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan.


ADA NORRIS is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at Duke University completing a dissertation on Zitkala-Ša’s pedagogical stories and cultural contexts.

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First published in Penguin Books 2003


Copyright © Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris, 2003 All rights reserved



Zitkala-Sa, 1876-1938. American Indian stories, legends, and other writings / Zitkala-Sa ; edited with an introduction and notes by Cathy N. Davidson and Ada Norris. p. cm.—(Penguin classics) Includes bibliographical references.

eISBN : 978-1-101-15731-2


The editors would like to thank the Special Collections and Manuscripts staff at Brigham Young University for their solici tous attention and generous access to their well-managed and organized collection. Ada Norris visited this archive to look at Zitkala-Ša’s papers as well as manuscripts of the score and libretto of The Sun Dance opera in July 2001. David Whittaker, Russ Taylor, and the students at Special Collections were tremendously helpful. We also thank the Interlibrary Loan staff of Duke University Library for filling many, often time-consuming, requests over the past couple of years without which this would have been a much more difficult endeavor.

Ada Norris: Thanks to Caroline White and everyone at Penguin Classics for their commitment to this project. For funding, thanks to the Graduate School of Duke University for support for a trip to Utah, the Department of English for an Ashbel Brice Award for some of the key research, and the John Hope Franklin Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities for a fellowship giving intellectual and financial support in the final stages of this project. Special thanks to Cathy N. Davidson for bringing me onto the project, and for her unparalleled generosity as a coeditor, coteacher, mentor, and scholar. Also, my deepest thanks to Dana Seitler for all her help, editorial and otherwise.

Cathy N. Davidson: I would like to thank the editors at Penguin Classics, and especially Caroline White, who aggressively pursued this project for several years in order to make Zitkala-Ša’s work available to the widest possible general readership. I also thank Ada Norris, without whose historical and archival research this would have been a far more ordinary book. In two years of team-teaching and another two years of discussing Zitkala-Ša’s writing, Ada Norris has been the best possible interlocutor, collaborator, and intellectual partner. I wish to thank Ken Wissoker for his editorial insights and loving support. Finally, I thank the many Native American and Canadian First People scholars, writers, and activists who, for the past two decades, have illuminated our thinking, teaching, and research. In particular, this volume was partly inspired by my brother-in-law, the late Roy “Sykes” Cunningham—Métis activist and advocate and human being extraordinaire.


Durham, North Carolina May 2002


As writer, teacher, and activist, Zitkala-Ša played a major part in articulating the role of Native Americans in an era of westward expansion, settlement, and conquest. Born in 1876, Zitkala-Ša was a witness, survivor, and trenchant chronicler of major events in white-Indian relations of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The year of her birth coincided with the Battle of Little Big Horn (also called the battle of Greasy Grass), and with the beginning of the systematic violation by the U.S. government of the 1868 Treaty of Laramie. This treaty had established Native rights and control over the “Great Sioux Reservation,” which included parts of present-day South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. But with the discovery of gold in 1873, the land suddenly became desirable for U.S. interests. By 1876 the aggressive assault by the U.S. Army against the Sioux reached its climax. George Custer, with the Seventh Cavalry, attacked Sitting Bull’s alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Big Horn Creek, but was surrounded by Crazy Horse and his warriors and killed. By 1877 all Sioux, except for some Hunkpapas led by Sitting Bull and Oglalas led by Crazy Horse, had surrendered. Crazy Horse was tricked and summarily assassinated in September. That same year, Congress passed a law that shrunk the Great Sioux Reservation from 134 million acres to 15 million. After this period of aggression, the United States shifted strategies, replacing violence with a massive assimilation policy: the Dawes Act of 1887 began the work of dissolving communal and tribal land rights, and government-run Indian boarding schools systematically broke apart families and installed curriculums and disciplinary structures intended to eradicate traditional tribal culture. To say that Zitkala-Ša was born into a transitional era in white-Indian relations seems a stark understatement.

Some of these events form the backdrop for Zitkala-Ša’s stories, particularly the three major works published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1900. Unspoken in Zitkala-Ša’s powerful semiautobiographical story cycle is the fact that another Indian massacre, the massacre at Wounded Knee and the murder of Sitting Bull, occurred while she was at home on the Yankton reservation on a school break. At this time, the popularity of the messianic Ghost Dance religion had risen among the Sioux. A peaceful spiritual practice that integrated Lakota and Christian beliefs, the Ghost Dance was based on the idea that, through dance and ritual, the decimated buffalo population and massacred Indians would come back to life again, Indian lands would be returned, and the U.S. Army and other white aggressors would disappear. In the face of overwhelming violence, it is not surprising that this apocalyptic religion found so many adherents. Fearful that the Ghost Dance would mobilize the Sioux politically, on December 15, 1890, a special unit of the Indian police was sent to murder the great Sioux leader Sitting Bull. On December 28, at least three hundred Sioux men, women, and children were killed at Wounded Knee Creek, and the Ghost Dance religion, in essence, died. Thus Zitkala-Ša’s tales are survivor stories on the most profound and compelling level.

A writer creatively responding to Native American events and a political activist, Zitkala-Ša has enjoyed a varying reputation over the last hundred years. At the beginning of the twentieth century she was the toast of literary society, chosen by Harper’s Bazaar as one of the “Persons Who Interest Us” (1900). As was typical of popular characterizations of the period, the article tracked her progress from a “veritable little savage” “running wild” to an Indian girl of “beauty and many talents” with a “rare command of English and much artistic feeling.” Her work was published in both prestigious and popular magazines, was read widely and had critical success. In the 1920s, stories from her first book, Old Indian Legends (1901), appeared in textbooks and school readers intended for school-children in New York, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and other Eastern states.

Although her work garnered respect during her lifetime, it lay in some obscurity after her death in 1938 before being rediscovered and reassessed in the 1970s and 1980s. She was a superb writer, but her work is not easily characterized by one or another political position; Zitkala-Ša trod the unstable terrain between radicalism, separatism, assimilationism, and intermittent conservatism. No wonder then that biographical accounts tend to be confusing or even mythological, often grasping one part of her story to the neglect or even suppression of others. Zitkala-Ša challenges easy categorization, suggesting that we don’t have ready access to the critical language needed to talk about the contradictions, multiplicity, or chaos—to use Zitkala-Ša’s own term—that may exist within the work of a single author or the course of an individual life history. She did not live a dual or fractured life. Rather, she moved in, out, around, and between worlds: from her Yankton reservation to a federal boarding school and back again; from Ute reservations to the halls of power in Washington, D.C.; from the position of secretary-treasurer of the Society of American Indians to membership in the League of American Penwomen. With each move came shifting interpretive contexts and a range of allegations or misattributions by both her allies and her enemies. This presents a challenge to contemporary readers attempting to make some sense of her complex story. Her writing urges us to put American Indian identity, culture, and history into our ongoing conversations about authenticity, integration, education, nationality, assimilation, and civil rights and antiracism struggles.

Zitkala-Ša moved in and out of community centers among the Utes, her son Ohiya’s Benedictine boarding school, meetings with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, talks by her Christian Science friends, violin performances, congressional committees, legal meetings, gala New York affairs, and tribal lodge meetings. Not surprisingly, her life played out in an array of spheres and on the public record in numerous ways. For example, that Zitkala-Ša was a “direct descendent of Sitting Bull” was one of the favorite biographical items that the mainstream press reprinted—from the New York Times and the Washington Times to political journals like Indian Truth. Zitkala-Ša herself was implicated in propagating this myth. It became one of her favorite autobiographical stories; she had a picture of herself at the Sitting Bull monument dedication ceremony displayed prominently in her home and sent copies of it to friends. But the intent behind the reference to herself as the “granddaughter of Sitting Bull” was not that she was part of the literal line of genealogical descent, as the popular press assumed. Rather, she had a different idea about what counted as family in Indian culture, based more on cultural and historical ties than on blood, and she was savvy to the popular Anglo stories about Native American culture and their favorite and prototypical heroes, such as Sitting Bull. In a short piece written in 1924, “Heart to Heart,” Zitkala-Ša described her home in the Dakota Plains as a “big family circle,” going on to explain that: “Either by marriage, by blood, or by adoption every member of the tribe bore some relation to the rest.” Doreen Rappaport’s 1997 biography, The Flight of the Red Bird, written primarily for young readers, calls the claim “ludicrous” on the basis that “Sitting Bull was a Hunkpapa and if she was his granddaughter she could not be of pure Yankton blood.” Rappaport argues that Zitkala-Ša calculated that mainstream Americans “lumped all Indians together and did not distinguish among the various tribes in the Sioux federation.” While interesting, this analysis is based on a literal notion of kinship that Zitkala-Ša (who, with a white father, was not of “pure Yankton blood” anyway) clearly disregarded.

We may never know if or how Zitkala-Ša was indeed “related” to Sitting Bull. We do not even know for certain who her father was. One possibility is that he was a man named Fechner, purportedly a white man who may have been abusive toward Zitkala-Ša’s brother. Nor do we know much about her mother’s previous husband, John Haysting Simmons, whose name the young Zitkala-Ša used until a falling out with her family prompted her to rename herself.

We can do little more than attempt to keep up with her rapid moves between Catholicism, paganism, Mormonism, and Christian Science. She is variously called a full-blooded Sioux, a “half-breed,” and any number of things in between. More interesting is the continual proliferation of categories, names, and places that circulated around Zitkala-Ša during, and after, her lifetime. What we do know is pieced together from her stories, letters, editorials, the Congressional Record, and tribal histories, as well as critical readings of Zitkala-Ša’s work itself.


Zitkala-Ša was born Gertrude Simmons at South Dakota’s Yankton Reservation in 1876. She lived there with her mother, Ellen Simmons, whose Yankton Nakota name was Taté I Yóhin Win (translated as Reaches for the Wind), and her brother David (who never took a non-Anglo name; Zitkala-Ša fictionalized him as Dawée), until he went east for school. Young Gertrude lived on the reservation until she was eight. In “Impressions of an Indian Childhood,” first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1900, Zitkala-Ša presents her mother and her extended tribal community as teachers, caretakers, and models. Education here came organically through the “wild freedom” of everyday life, with adults, children, animals, the spirits, and the land linked in a web of mutual sustenance and respect. In 1884 her Yankton life came to an abrupt end when missionaries arrived to recruit children from the reservation following official governmental policies of assimilation. Zitkala-Ša tells this story in paradigmatic terms in “School Days of an Indian Girl,” in which she is tempted by the missionaries’ promises of plentiful “red apples” to hop the “iron horse” and go east. She was shorn of her identity—made to cut her long hair, barred from speaking her own language—but still able to call upon a store of strategies learned while listening to the traditional tales with which she grew up. Resisting the pressures of assimilation in small ways, employing trickster strategies such as vandalizing the school’s Bible, she was able to maintain a sense of herself.

Zitkala-Ša attended White’s Manual Labor Institute, a Quaker boarding school for Indians in Wabash, Indiana, until 1887 when she returned to the reservation and lived with her mother for a difficult year and a half. For the first time she felt alienated from life at the reservation and especially from her own mother, who had been against her traveling east for school in the first place. For a brief period in 1889-90 Zitkala-Ša attended the Santee Technical School, which was nearby in Nebraska. Soon after that she went back to White’s Manual, staying until 1895, when she enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. There she frequently published poems and articles in the school paper, The Earlhamite, and the next year went to the Indiana State Oratorical Contest as Earlham’s representative to compete in a public debate. The audience was mostly white, and when it was her turn to speak, a few of them held up a “a large white flag, with a drawing of a most forlorn Indian girl on it,” with the word “squaw” written underneath. In “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” Zitkala-Ša describes this behavior as “worse than barbarian rudeness.” Shaken but determined, she persevered and took second place in the contest. Though gratified to see the flag fall from sight, and “the hands which hurled it hung limp in defeat,” she realized later in the night: “The little taste of victory did not satisfy a hunger in my heart.” The experience was to be a formative one for Zitkala-Ša and echoed that of some of her contemporaries who also were grappling with what it meant to excel in a largely white institution of higher education. In the opening paragraphs of The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois recalls, “That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads.”

Leaving Earlham due to poor health in 1897, Zitkala-Ša went to teach at the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Carlisle, under the leadership of retired army general Richard Henry Pratt, was a Pennsylvania boarding school founded with the express purpose of separating Indians from their reservation and tribal contexts in order to assimilate them into white society. Famously, Pratt’s slogan while running the Carlisle school was “Kill the Indian and save the man!” The methods employed by Pratt and his contemporaries ranged from forced and prolonged separation from family, beatings, and food deprivation to less overtly violent tactics, including a forced work system which farmed out students to area families to be immersed in everyday white culture and “labor.” To qualify for federal funding, boarding schools were required to practice a strict English-only policy. Pratt wrote in the January-March 1915 issue of the Quarterly Journal of the American Indians of his educational policy: “Do not feed America to the Indian, which is tribalizing and not an Americanizing process, but feed the Indian to America, and America will do the assimilating and annihilate the problem.”

During her first year as a teacher at Carlisle, Zitkala-Ša was sent west by Pratt to attract new Indian students—bringing upon others the same disruptive separation she herself had experienced thirteen years earlier. This paradox did not go unnoticed by Zitkala-Ša who, after teaching at Carlisle for two years, wrote: “In the process of my education I had lost all consciousness of the nature world about me. Thus, when a hidden rage took me to the small white-walled prison which I then called my room, I unknowingly turned away from my one salvation.” In 1899, Zitkala-Ša left behind the restrictive white walls of the boarding school. She resigned from her teaching post in order to study music and violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Playing and studying music, writing an opera libretto and score, as well as working with various other performing musicians, would be a lifelong preoccupation and avocation.


American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings

American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings

Introduction by:
Introduction by: Ada Norris