This remarkable educator was born on February 22, 1876, on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Her father, an American of European descent, abandoned his family, leaving his young daughter to be raised alone by her Native American mother. Despite her father’s absence, Zitkala Sa described her childhood on the reservation as a time of freedom and joy spent in the loving care of her tribe.
In 1884, when she was just eight years old, missionaries visited the reservation and removed several of the Native American children, including Zitkala Sa, to Wabash, Indiana. There she was enrolled in White’s Manual Labor Institute, a school founded by Quaker Josiah White for the purpose of educating “poor children, white, colored, and Indian.” She attended the school for three years until 1887, later describing her life there in detail in her autobiography The School Days of an Indian Girl. In the book she described her despair over having been separated from her family, and having her heritage stripped from her as she was forced to give up her native language, clothing, and religious practices, and to cut her long hair, a symbolic act of shame among Native Americans. Her deep emotional pain, however, was somewhat brightened by the joy and exhilaration she felt in learning to read, write, and play the violin. Zitkala Sa became an accomplished musician.
After completing her secondary education in 1895, the young graduate enrolled at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, on a scholarship. The move was an unusual one, because at that time higher education for women was not common. In 1899, Zitkala Sa accepted a position as a music teacher at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Here she became an important role model for Native American children who, like herself, had been separated from their families and relocated far from their home reservations to attend an Indian boarding school. In 1900, the young teacher escorted some of her students to the Paris Exposition in France, where she played her violin in public performances by the school band. After she returned to the Carlisle School, Zitkala Sa became embroiled in a conflict with the Carlisle’s founder, Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, when she expressed resentment over the rigid program of assimilation into the dominant white culture that Pratt advocated, and the fact that the school’s curriculum did not encourage Native American children to aspire to anything beyond lives spent as manual laborers.
As a political activist, Zitkala Sa devoted her energy and talent towards the improvement of the lives of her fellow Native Americans. She founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926 and served as its president until her death in 1938. She traveled around the country delivering speeches on controversial issues such as Native American enfranchisement, their full citizenship, Indian military service in World War I, corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the apportionment of tribal lands. In 1997 she was selected as a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project.
Zitkala Sa: a national treasure and a genuine chalkboard champion.
You can read more about the Carlisle Indian School in my book, Chalkboard Champions, available from amazon.