Last summer, I traveled to the library of Brigham Young University to visit its Special Collections, where the personal writing and effects of prolific Native American writer Zitkála-Šá are housed. A few weeks ago, right here in southwest Minnesota, I watched a policy change finally happen that Zitkála-Šá fought for a century ago.
Zitkála-Šá (Lakota for "Red Bird") was born in 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation just a few miles down the road in South Dakota. At age 8, she accompanied some Quaker missionaries to a boarding school in Wabash, Indiana, where she became literate and learned to play the violin. Although she loved the learning she received, Zitkála-Šá struggled with the cultural sacrifices she was asked to make in exchange.
The assimilation Zitkála-Šá underwent made her feel that she didn't belong either on the reservation or in white social circles. She eventually went to college and used her education to write about what she saw as a common struggle to retain Native American customs and culture, but also advance economically and socially. Her work was first published in Atlantic Monthly when she was younger than I am now. If you're familiar with the Sundance Film Festival, you should know that Zitkála-Šá wrote the opera that is its namesake.
Later in life, Zitkála-Šá shifted her writing focus to political activism, advocating for women's suffrage and Native American citizenship. She wrote to the U.S. Senate repeatedly in defense of policy changes that would allow Native Americans rights she felt they were due. She traveled around the country working with various tribes on local concerns.
One of those concerns brought her back home to the Yankton reservation, where her people were fighting to stop white Americans from mining and selling pipestone from the quarry near the city of Pipestone that is now operated by the National Park Service. The quarry is said to be the place where the Great Spirit gave the gift of the pipe to Native Americans. The site and pipestone itself are seen as sacred by many tribes.
Last summer, I needed to examine Zitkála-Šá's things because I was working on a paper about her semi-autobiographical short story, "Impressions of an Indian Childhood." I wanted to see earlier drafts and analyze how her story developed throughout the writing process.
I got more than I bargained for.
I learned that Zitkála-Šá inscribed the following Abraham Lincoln quotation at the top of most of her works before she began writing: "I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right: stand with him while he is right and part with him when he goes wrong." I saw it in her own handwriting.
That mantra helped her muster the moral courage to stand up to members of the U.S. Congress and ask them to make changes. It motivated her to keep working and fighting even when the odds were stacked against her.
When I learned a few weeks ago that the Pipestone National Monument will stop selling pipes, my heart leapt as I thought of Zitkála-Šá. Her legacy was not forgotten. Others who shared her passion continued her work. Native American leaders lobbied for this important step, and they got someone to listen. I am inspired by their tenacity.
I am so proud of my little corner of Minnesota. For the most part, I see people who want to work together and listen to each other and get along. I think Zitkála-Šá would be proud, too.