American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Bonnin, Gertrude Simmons

Title: Gertrude Bonnin
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Gertrude Bonnin (Yankton Dakota, 1876–1938), whose Native name was Zitkala-sa, provided a written window on Sioux life at the juncture of the Native American and Anglo-American worlds. Born the year of the Custer Battle, she died on the eve of World War II. Bonnin was one of several prominent literary figures to come out of the boarding schools, whose engines of assimilation produced strident critiques of their methods (and of Anglo-American society generally) by the likes of Luther Standing Bear, George Eastman, and Bonnin, among others.

"This is a story," wrote Ruth Spack, in America's Second Tongue: American Indian Education and the Ownership of English, 1860–1900 "of language and how people used it to further their own political and cultural agendas" (2002, 7). Thus, Bonnin and other Native American students took control of English as a means of expression even as they were forced to speak it to the exclusion of their Native tongues. This was not always the kind of assimilation that their Anglo-American teachers had anticipated.

Bonnin distrusted most non-Indians, but early sought a formal education against her mother's wishes, eventually attending the Boston Conservatory of Music. Her articles and poetry were published in large-circulation magazines, such as her "Red Man's Helper" in the June 1900 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. One of Bonnin's books, the autobiographical American Indian Stories (1921), described her changing perceptions of the Euro-American world and her gradual acceptance of Christianity. She also authored Old Indian Legends (1901), among other titles.

Bonnin returned to the Carlisle Industrial School as a teacher and developed a curriculum for boarding school education from a Native perspective (which was rejected). She also edited American Indian Magazine, a publication of the Society of American Indians. She was among a number of very literate American Indian activists in her time who valued printed media (non-Indian outlets as well as their own) to advocate for change. Bonnin's autobiographical essays, including "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," "School Days of an Indian Girl," and "An Indian Teacher Among Indians," enraged Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the boarding school system, even as he used her reputation as an example of how Native American children were helped by the schools (Katanski, 2005, 17).

Bonnin intensely resented the use of her work to support theories of social evolution; at one point, she wrote, "No one can dispute my own impressions and bitterness" (Katanski, 2005, 29). Amelia V. Katanski, in Learning to Write "Indian," characterizes much of Bonnin's work as "images of angry, pain-filled students, whose plight challenged white educators' justifications of the boarding schools" (2005, 166). However, she recognized the compromises between tradition and non-Native change that so affected her life, as in the first sentence of "Impressions of an Indian Childhood," in which she described living with her mother in a tepee made not of buffalo hides, but canvas (Katanski, 2005, 116).

With Eastman, Bonnin was a founder of the Society of American Indians, an early pan-Indian advocacy organization in the 1920s. She also was known for her talent on the violin. Bonnin investigated the swindling of Indians in Oklahoma by settlers who swarmed into the area after the discovery of oil, and she advised the government's Meriam Commission in the late 1920s. Bonnin remained active in Indian affairs until she died in 1938.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Katanski, Amelia V. 2005. Learning to Write "Indian:" The Boarding School Experience and American Indian Literature. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press; Spack, Ruth. 2002. America's Second Tongue: American Indian Education and the Ownership of English, 1860–1900. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
 

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