Changing Scholarly Interpretations of Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Ša)

  • Tadeusz Lewandowski Uniwersytet Opolski, Poland


The Yankton Sioux writer and activist Gertrude Bonnin (1876-1938), better known by her Lakota name, Zitkala-Ša (Red Bird), was perhaps the most prominent Native American woman of the early twentieth century. In her writings, she consistently overturned conventions of language and meaning to subvert and criticize the American discourse of civilization. Bonnin’s use of English as a tool of resistance has invited misrepresentations and misunderstandings. Criticism can be distilled into three interpretive frameworks: liminal, assimilationist and bicultural. Liminal scholarship focuses on Bonnin’s 1900 semi-autobiography for the Atlantic Monthly, which laments the author’s separation from her birth culture. Assimilationist criticism springs from extra-literary sources, concentrating on her anti-peyote and pro-US citizenship campaigns. Finally, bicultural criticism argues that Bonnin’s knowledge of both the white and the Sioux world allowed her to form a compelling critique of Euro-American society from differing cultural and linguistic discourses. Recently, however, more forceful interpretations on Bonnin have begun to emerge. They identify her as either a promoter of Gerald Vizenor’s concept of “survivance” or as a forerunner of the Red Power movement. This article traces and dissects the evolution of Bonnin scholarship, pointing to emerging perspectives from which to interrogate her work and the direction future research and analysis could take.Keywords: Gertrude Bonnin; Zitkala-Ša; liminal; assimilationist; bicultural; interpretation

Author Biography

Tadeusz Lewandowski, Uniwersytet Opolski, Poland
Tadeusz Lewandowski, PhD, is an American academic who has authored Red Bird, Red Power: The Life and Legacy of Zitkala-Ša (U of Oklahoma P, 2016) and edited Zitkala-Ša: Letters, Speeches, and Unpublished Writings 1898–1929 (Brill, 2018). He is an Associate Professor and Head of theDepartment of American Literature and Culture at the University of Opole, Poland.


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