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Women’s History Month: Zitkála-Šá

Zitkála-Šá at National Women’s Party. Photo credit: Bettman

March is Women’s History Month, an annual recognition dedicated to reflecting on the often-overlooked contributions of women to U.S. history. The bravery, brilliance, inventiveness, and daring of women, both past and present, have lead to tremendously important additions to our collective history. We acknowledge and honor all of the labor and leadership of women everywhere, especially recognizing the valuable contributions of Black, Indigenous and other women of color and trans women who have faced unthinkable oppression and violence. Every major social movement for justice has heavily relied on the strategy and vision of women, and we express our gratitude to the countless women organizers, builders, creatives, thinkers, scholars, scientists, and leaders who have paved the way for us today. Their stories and legacies of resistance and liberation are a critical part of our history and our work of growing food justice. Follow along as we highlight different women during Women’s History Month.

Zitkála-Šá was a Native American musician, writer, and activist who fought for women’s suffrage and Indigenous voting rights in the early 20th century. 

Zitkála-Šá was born on Feb. 22 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation. During this time, the federal government implemented numerous policies designed to erase, eliminate, or assimilate Indigenous people and their culture. Cultural and religious traditions were outlawed, Native children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to white-run boarding schools, Native governments were dissolved, land that was shared collectively among Indigenous communities was diced up and privatized. Native people were not granted U.S. citizenship and were instead labeled as “wards of the federal government.” 

At eight years old, Zitkála-Šá was sent to a Quaker boarding school in Indiana, and she later wrote extensively on the trauma and terror she endured during her time there. Zitkála-Šá went on to graduate from Earlham College and in 1911 she joined the Society of American Indians (SAI). This group was comprised of highly educated Native professionals, who worked to dispel harmful stereotypes and advocate for greater political inclusion for Indigenous communities.  

A staunch advocate for women’s right to vote, she moved to Washington, D.C. in 1917 to become the secretary of the SAI. Her suffrage activism garnered significant attention during this time. In 1924 Congress passed the Snyder Act or the Indian Citizenship Act that endowed full U.S. citizenship rights on all Native people born in the country. Notably, this act did not grant Native people oversight and control of their own lands. 

She continued her advocacy for Native rights and especially for self-governance of her nation, the Yankton Sioux, until her death in 1938. Her activism helped secure citizenship rights, better educational opportunities, improved healthcare, and cultural recognition and preservation for Native Americans.