From the North Carolina Synod Council

The North Carolina Synod office is located on the original and ancestral homelands of the Keyauwee people, and we give thanks for their presence here since time immemorial. We also wish to recognize and honor all our indigenous siblings who have called and continue to call this land their home. 

We are following the list of topics suggested by native leaders in the ELCA to continue our learning together. In August we are learning about the life story of Zitkala-Sa, a Native activist and composer who fought tirelessly for Indigenous rights and citizenship.

August 2022: Life Story of Zitkala-Sa

From happy childhood, growing up on the reservation for a mere 8 years before asking to go to White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute (A Quaker Missionary Boarding school in Wabash, Indiana) to becoming one of the most influential Native American Activist of the 20th century, she is still admired and her work is living on 145 years later! 

An intellectual, teacher, speaker, writer, editor, translator, musician (vocals, violin & piano), educator, and political activist for all First Nations people. 

Her name, Zitkála-Šá (Zeet-Kaala Shaw), means "Red Bird” in Nakota Language. (Her missionary given/married name is Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.)

Born: 22 February 1876 Yankton Sioux Agency, South Dakota  

Mother: Thaté Iyóhiwin means “Reaches for the wind" (aka Ellen Simmons) 

Father: Frenchman called Felker who abandoned the family when she was very young 

Education: Earlham College in Richmond, IN and New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA

Employment History: Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Uintah-Ouray Reservation

Well Known for her creation of The Sun Dance Opera, Old Indian Legends, American Indian Stories, "Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians”

Co-composed the first American Indian opera, founded the National Council of American Indians, authored books and magazine articles in Harper’s Monthly and Atlantic Monthly

In 1926, Zitkala-Ša and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians. Until her death in 1938, Zitkala-Ša served as president, fundraiser, and speaker. The Council worked to unite the tribes across the United States to gain suffrage for all Indians.

Passed: 26 January 1938 Washington DC at age 61 

She is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery with her Husband 

Spouse: US Army Captain Raymond Talephause Bonnin (Yankton-European ancestry and culturally Yankton).

Her only child: Raymond Ohíya Bonnin

What she accomplished in a very full 61 years of life is still inspiring.

Read the Key Resource: "Fighting for the Rights of Indigenous People" 
Invitation to Action

Zitkala-Sa’s essay, “Why I Am a Pagan,” originally published in The Atlantic in 1902, justifies her rejection of Christianity in favor of Native American religion.

Our challenge to you this month is to read this essay and then sit with it for a moment.

  • What immediate feelings do you have about Zitkala-Sa’s opinion of Christianity in this essay?
  • Now take what you have learned this year about assimilation through Indian Boarding Schools, and the church’s role in traumatizing an entire population of God’s children, and then justifying that all in the name of God. What would your opinion be of a god who supports the abuse and killing of your people versus the Great Spirit who loves and takes care of all creatures? 
  • Can you think of instances in today’s world where Zitkala-Sa’s essay is just as important in “checking” Christianity as it was in 1902? 
  • What are you doing in your own congregation to shine a light on this dark past so we can truly move forward towards creating God’s kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven?
Read "Why I Am a Pagan"

We also ask you to keep up with what the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, is doing to bring the Indian Boarding School truth into the light. You can support her efforts through the ELCA Advocacy page

Theological Reflections on Zitkala-Sa

As you reflect on the life story of Zitkala-Sa, we invite you to wrestle with these theological questions:

Zitkala-Sa and the Assimilation of Cultures

“Zitkala-Sa does voice her opposition to those who call themselves “Christian” while simultaneously pushing for assimilation” (p. 5).

What is your reaction to this statement? 

In her writing, Zitkala-Sa “shows how she cares much more about actions than a title… She suggests that the struggles the Native Americans are fighting against would stir up a real Christian to fight for them and join their cause” (p. 6).

What is your reaction to this statement? How do you think a “real Christian” would act in light of the current status of Indigenous peoples in the U.S.? How does this reflect on the ELCA and your congregation? Where might God be calling you to act?

The Sun Dance Opera: A Call for Native Survivance

In 1913, Zitkala-Sa and William F. Hanson wrote The Sun Dance Opera, which included an authentic demonstration of the Sun Dance on stage.

“The federal government had long since banned the religious dance as an act of rebellion and would continue to do so in the United States until the 1930s. The opera centers on the Sun Dance and its importance for the two lovers, Winona and Ohiya, who can only wed if Ohiya survives and conquers the grueling five-day ritual. As he and the other braves perform the dance, they demonstrate not only the strength, perseverance, and deliberateness required to win the approval of the Indian maiden’s father but also the qualities needed by Native people to resist governmental pressure and a stifling dominant culture. Completing the dance brings honor and pride, something that white America failed to recognize in Native American communities. This intense display of physical prowess represented another psychological blow against assimilation and the victimization of Native people” (p. 120).

What Is the Native American Sun Dance? 

Learn more about the Sun Dance here.

Excerpts from The Sun Dance Opera by Zitkala-Sa and William F. Hanson

While you listen to this excerpt from The Sun Dance Opera, focus on being in the presence of God. What do you experience?

Additional Learning Resources

Zitkála-Šá: Trailblazing American Indian Composer | Unladylike2020 | American Masters | PBS

Alive to the Fire Within: Zitkála-šá 

Greg Salyer, Ph.D. is the President of the Philosophical Research Society

Women & the American Story: Zitkala-Sa, Advocate for the Rights of Native People

This video was created by the New-York Historical Society Teen Leaders in collaboration with the Untold project.

If you have questions about any of these resources, contact staff liaison for our Learning Team, Pastor Danielle DeNise.
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