Rediscovering a 'Lost' Lakota Writer

June 1, 2003

American Indian StoriesTwo Duke scholars have collected the writings of "lost" author Zitkala-Sa, a Lakota woman who wrote about Indian life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for publication in a Penguin Classics edition. Cathy N. Davidon, Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and vice provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke, co-edited the edition with Ada Norris, a Duke doctoral student in English who is writing her dissertation on Zitkala-Sa.

Their book, Zitkala-Sa: American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings (Penguin Classics, 2003), gathers Zitkala-Sa's autobiographical stories of Indian life, retold tales, poetry, and journalistic writing, along with an extensive introduction, recommended reading, and notes. "It's always strange for history to lose somebody who was so influential and so promising," says Davidson. "She devoted herself to great writing in the service of passionate activism." Zitkala-Sa (Zit-KA-la Sha) is the first Native-American writer to be included in the prestigious Penguin Classics series.

In the early twentieth century, stories by the Zitkala-Sa appeared in the most prestigious magazines of the day. She continued to be well-known--even notorious--as she shifted her focus from autobiographical stories to full-time activism for the Indian cause. But as the years passed, Zitkala-Sa faded from public attention. She was rediscovered in the Seventies, and scholars have increasingly begun to reconstruct her life and work.

Zitkala-Sa was born Gertrude Simmons on the Yankton Reservation in 1876, the year of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and died in 1938. She lived through a period of major transition in white-Indian relations, including aggression against Indians by the U.S. government and, later, a massive assimilation policy. She was educated at white boarding schools, an experience poignantly depicted in such short stories as "The School Days of an Indian Girl," and attended the New England Conservatory of Music. After her early success in the literary world, she became the secretary-treasurer of the first pan-Indian political organization and editor of its American Indian Magazine, from which some of the pieces in the book are drawn. She was also founder and president of the National Council of American Indians.

Norris traveled to Utah to research the latter half of Zitkala-Sa's life, when she turned from the Eastern literary establishment to political activism in the West. Still, she remained a writer, says Norris. "She kept writing short sketches, even as she switches over to political work. I definitely approach her as a writer--a writer deeply committed to a set of politics," she says.

Zitkala-Sa was also co-author of an opera, The Sun Dance, which combines her writing, music, and activism in a work that celebrates the Sun Dance ritual, an Indian celebration that had been repeatedly quashed by the federal government. The opera was first performed in Utah in 1913, and revived on Broadway in 1938.

Davidson says she first encountered Zitkala-Sa's stories in the 1970s, while going through old issues of the Atlantic Monthly for another project. At first, she says, she thought the tales, mostly fictionalized versions of Zitkala-Sa's experiences as a girl, were written by a white person masquerading as an Indian. But the emotional power, narrative voice, and perspective were very different from the sentimental style typically adopted by whites who wrote about Indian life at the time, says Davidson. "It was incredible writing."

Davidson says she is especially pleased that Zitkala-Sa was chosen as the first Native-American writer for the Penguin Classics series. "It really is a stamp of a different kind of acceptance and approval," she says. Says Norris, "This Penguin edition brings Zitkala-Sa all the way into the mainstream."