At the turn of the twentieth century, Dakota artist-activist Gertrude Bonnin, widely known by her self-chosen name, Zitkala Ša, brought attention to the violence of compulsory boarding schools with a series of narrative essays published in the Atlantic Monthly. Existing scholarship focusing on her activism, however, lacks a sustained study of the subversive role of sound, especially music and dance, in her literary and musical projects. This essay aims to address that gap through a study of Zitkala Ša’s sophisticated sonic politics.
After discussing the historical tension between prohibiting and appropriating Indigenous sounds, I explore how the boarding school press became a formidable engine for assimilation projects. A close reading in tandem with tracing the reception of Zitkala Ša’s essay “The Indian Dance: A Protest Against Its Abolition” highlights her reverse-gaze strategy while also underscoring how effectively it agitated strident assimilationists. Likewise, her collaboration on The Sun Dance Opera resulted in the project’s defying tidy categorization and denying full disclosure of the ceremony, thereby rendering its own sonic politics of self-determination. Often mistakenly considered a domesticity-centered hiatus in her literary career, Zitkala Ša’s years on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation were a period of creative sonic productivity and constitute a significant era in Zitkala Ša’s developing activism, bridging her younger, serial publication years with the sophistication of the federal-level vocal activism of her later years.