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Women's History Month header image, includes a photo of a younger Zitkala-Sa

Zitkála-Šá: On Creativity, Copyright, and Cultural Empowerment

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I recently came across the name Zitkála-Šá for the first time; though, I undoubtedly should have learned about this amazing Native American woman much earlier. After my preliminary search indicated that her alma mater was Earlham College (located in my hometown of Richmond, Indiana), I was intrigued. Zitkála-Šá is primarily remembered as a prolific writer and political activist, who fought for full citizenship rights for Native Americans, equal rights for women, and the right to vote. She was also a musician and credited as the first Native American to write an opera. In exploring that last point, I found an interesting copyright story: despite her contributions, Zitkála-Šá does not appear on the copyright records for the work.

1901 catalog card for Old Indian Legends by Zitkála-Šá. It shows Ginn and Company registered the book on October 19, 1901.
Copyright registration record for Old Indian Legends, October, 19, 1901. Source: U.S. Copyright Office Card Catalog.

Born on February 22, 1876, as Gertrude Simmons, Zitkála-Šá was Yankton Dakota Sioux and lived on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota until missionaries brought her to their boarding school in Wabash, Indiana. Zitkála-Šá was eager for an education and begged her mother to let her go. Her time at the school, however, meant forced assimilation: she was required to cut her hair and was not allowed to speak her native language or practice any of her cultural customs.[1] Still, she enjoyed reading, writing, and music and focused on those pursuits.

She went on to study at Earlham College, where she won awards for her oratory skills and began collecting and translating Native American oral histories.[2] She then trained as a violinist at the New England Conservatory of Music, which led to a performance at the White House for President William McKinley.[3] During this time, she also taught at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where she performed with the Carlisle Indian Band and was a violin soloist at the Paris Exposition of 1900. It wasn’t long, however, before she could no longer tolerate the school’s practice of stripping the Native American students of their cultural identity.

Copyright renewal record for Old Indian Legends. Zitkála-Šá renewed the copyright in the work on January 16, 1929.
Copyright renewal record for Old Indian Legends, filed by Zitkála-Šá on January 16, 1929. Source: U.S. Copyright Office Card Catalog.

Adopting the Lakota penname Zitkála-Šá (Red Bird), she began writing and publishing personal essays and short stories in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Monthly about her experiences growing up between two cultures, the struggle to retain her cultural identity, and the damaging assimilation practices of the Indian boarding school system. In 1901, she wrote the children’s book Old Indian Legends, a collection of traditional stories from her Sioux background and other tribes, which she retold to reach a culturally diverse audience.[4] Boston publisher Ginn and Company published the book and registered it with the Copyright Office on October 19, 1901 (Zitkála-Šá later renewed the copyright with the Office in 1929).

In 1901, Zitkála-Šá returned to South Dakota and worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where she met Raymond Talesfase Bonnin, also Yankton Sioux. They married, had a son, Raymond Ohiya, and moved to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah, where they lived with the Ute tribe for the next fourteen years.

It was in Utah that Zitkála-Šá met white composer William F. Hanson. Together, they wrote the first known American Indian opera, The Sun Dance Opera. Zitkála-Šá suggested centering the opera on the Sun Dance, a sacred, ceremonial dance that originated with the Algonquin and was later adopted by other tribes, including the Sioux. At the time, the dance was one of many outlawed by the U.S. government.[5] She also collaborated with Hanson on the libretto, providing insight on traditional ceremonies and customs and using her extensive musical training to collaborate on the songs. She would play traditional melodies on the violin while Hanson wrote and orchestrated them. She also ensured the authenticity of costumes and the dances and was involved in staging and training the actors. The main character for the opera was even named after her son.[6] The Sun Dance Opera premiered in Utah in 1913 and included Ute performers as the ensemble, with white actors cast in the main roles. The production was relatively successful and went on tour throughout Utah over the next two years.

1921 portrait of Zitkála-Šá wearing braids and traditional dress.
Zitkála-Šá portrait, 1921. Source: Library of Congress.

Zitkála-Šá’s motivation for her involvement in the opera can only be surmised based on limited news articles from the time of production. In a 1913 review of the opera published in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News, author N.L. Nelson quotes Zitkála-Šá on incorporating the sun dance ritual in the opera:

“‘I have been trained,’ said she, ‘in the concepts of the Christian religion, but I do not find them more beautiful, more noble, or more true than the religious ideals of the Indian. Indeed if one allows for a change in names, the two sets of concepts are much the same. I should not like to see my people lose their ideals, or have them supplanted by others less fitted to influence their lives for good.’”

Nelson goes on to note that Zitkála-Šá “confessed that she regarded it as her mission to bring about a more sympathetic understanding between her people and their white neighbors.”[7]

Zitkála-Šá never wrote about the opera and so her thoughts remain elusive. In A Cultural Duet: Zitkala Šá and the Sun Dance Opera, professor and historian P. Jane Hafen deduces, “Rather than continuing as a trained Indian on exhibit, she may have been trying to assume artistic control with composition and direction of the opera and to present her own cultural viewpoint. The performance of the opera allowed her personal and cultural validation.” However, Hafen admits, “A challenge in studying the opera is the lack of Gertrude’s own voice while William F. Hanson’s participation is well documented.”[6]

Hanson himself gives varying levels of credit to Zitkála-Šá throughout his life, in what Hafen recognizes as “artistic colonialism.”[6] A 1913 article in the El Paso Herald  titled “Indian Girl Writes Opera” credits Zitkála-Šá as the writer of the opera, while naming Hanson as her collaborator.[8] Hanson, however, included only his name on the title page of the opera and in the registration for the work filed with the U.S. Copyright Office. According to professor Catherina Parsons Smith in An Operatic Skeleton on the Western Frontier: Zitkala-Sa, William F. Hanson, and The Sun Dance Opera, Hanson eventually assigned “an undivided half interest” in the opera to Zitkála-Šá after the first production, when he realized further collaboration was necessary for revision. He notarized that assignment in Uintah County, Utah, but did not record it with Office.[7]

Front of the 1912 catalog card for copyright registration for The Sun Dance Opera. The record shows Wm. F. Hanson as the sole claimant.
Front of the 1912 copyright registration for The Sun Dance Opera. The record shows Wm. F. Hanson as the sole claimant. Source: U.S. Copyright Card Catalog. See back of card here.

In 1938, a revised version of the opera premiered at the Broadway Theater in New York, though Zitkála-Šá was not involved in the production or revision of the libretto and composition. It did not find the success of the earlier Utah productions. Hanson also reduced Zitkála-Šá’s role in the publicity and materials, leaving her name off the vocal score. However, at a later point, Parson Smith notes, “Hanson thought better of all this” and handwrote Zitkála-Šá’s name after the opera’s title on a copy of the composition and in relevant chapters on later drafts of his memoir.[7] In that 1967 memoir, Hanson also acknowledges Zitkála-Šá as a coauthor and collaborator.[6] These gestures, however, did little to correct the public record or clarify the true extent of Zitkála-Šá’s role in the creation of the opera.

Despite not being included on the copyright registration, and Hanson’s varying retellings, Zitkála-Šá’s contribution to the work is undeniable. Parson Smith concludes, “Without her insistence on the sun dance as the opera’s basis, without her insistence that the opera communicate the cultural worth of the people it portrayed in terms its audience could grasp, without her collaboration in locating and marshaling its materials and carrying them through to production, without her technical musical skills, and without the ‘skeleton’ she provided, the opera might not have taken shape at all.”[7]

1921 catalog card for American Indian Stories, registered by Zitkála-Šá on December 5, 1921.
Copyright registration for American Indian Stories, December 5, 1921. Source: U.S. Copyright Office Card Catalog.

A few years after the premiere of The Sun Dance Opera, Zitkála-Šá and her family moved to Washington, DC, where she returned to her writing career and advocated for the rights of Native Americans and women. In 1921, she published American Indian Stories, a collection of childhood stories, allegorical fiction, and essays. She registered the work herself with the Copyright Office on December 5, 1921. She was also the secretary for the Society of American Indians, where she contributed to and edited its quarterly journal, American Indian Magazine, and served as a lobbyist in Congress. Through her efforts, she helped to gain citizenship for Native Americans with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.[2]

Zitkála-Šá spent much of her later life continuing her efforts to preserve Native American culture and fighting for the rights of all Native Americans until her death in 1938. She left behind a legacy as a musician, writer, and activist who used her creative talents to make history and elevate the voices of Native Americans.



[1] “Life Story: Zitkala-Sa, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (1876-1938),” Women and the American Story, New-York Historical Society Museum and Library, accessed March 23, 2021,

[2] “Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird / Gertrude Simmons Bonnin),” National Park Service, last updated August 31, 2020,

[3] “Zitkála-Šá: Trailblazing American Indian Composer and Writer,” American Masters, PBS, accessed March 23, 2021,

[4] “Zitkala-Sa,” Native American Writers, accessed March 23, 2021,

[5] Dennis Zotigh, “Native Perspectives on the 40th Anniversary of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 30, 2018,

[6] P. Jane Hafen, “A Cultural Duet Zitkala Ša and The Sun Dance Opera,” Great Plains Quarterly 18 (Spring 1998): 102–11, (accessed March 23, 2021).

[7] Catherine Parsons Smith, “An operatic skeleton on the western frontier: Zitkala-Sa, William F. Hanson, and The Sun Dance Opera., Women & Music (January 2001), operatic skeleton on the western frontier: Zitkala-Sa, William F….-a082092548 (accessed March 23, 2021).

[8] “Indian Girl Writes Opera,” El Paso Herald, December 27, 1913, (accessed March 29, 2021)

Comments (7)

  1. She will long be remembered and her works be cherished throughout time at least in my family she will be passed down through the generations .. Such a Beautiful Performance such Great Writings , And Above all Talents beyond expectations .. Beautiful and Amazing Love Her work ..

  2. Please How can we be partners, and also bring support to this beautiful historical.

    Global Judicial Indigenous Judge

  3. wonderful article, thank you. What an incredible person.

  4. Agree with the other comments — fantastic coverage of the issue and props for bringing it to light. It’s disgusting how people could be evidently so jealous due to their own lack of ability and/or creativity that they feel the need to steal the fruits of others’ labor.

  5. Wonderful article! I’m writing a piece about Zitkala-Sa now, can I ask where you located a copy of the 1913 review in the Salt Lake City Deseret News. I haven’t been able to access this. Thank you!

  6. This article being light to so much our ppl have contributed to shape todays performing arts. We have a rich history. I can only begin to encourage our young girls and share this article to encourage that we can do anything.
    Thank you for sharing this historic pics to our woman’s history.

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