Red Bird at Standing Rock: Colonialism Then and Now

The Army Corp of Engineers has announced that Standing Rock water protectors will be arrested if they don't evacuate their camps by Dec. 5. This may be old news to those of you who have been following the story closely. What you may not realize, though, is just how old it is.

This story has been going on for hundreds of years. The story Zitkala-Ša ("Red Bird") is one small, but significant part of it.

Colonialism Then

Zitkala-Ša was born in 1876, on the Yankaton Reservation, south of what is now the Standing Rock reservation. When she was eight years old, she was taken away from her mother and sent to a boarding school in Indiana. The game upon which American Indians had subsisted was driven to extinction by white colonists, and the land reserved for American Indians was often of such poor quality that harvests failed, leaving many dependent on government rations for survival. Like many other American Indian parents, Zitkala-Ša's mother was compelled by federal officials to let her daughter go to the boarding school under threat of cutting her rations.

At White's Manual Labor Institute in Indiana, Zitkala-Ša had her braids cut. "I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blade of the scissors against my neck and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids," wrote Zitkala-Ša, "Then I lost my spirit." This was the beginning of the work of trying to "civilize" her. In Zitkala-Ša's case, they only partially succeeded. In spite of feeling the loss of part of her indigenous heritage, Zitkala-Ša did value the education she received. She became an accomplished orator, author, musician, and composer, but she was never completely "civilized" by the colonizers.

After spending three years at White's Manual Labor Institute, Zitkala-Ša returned home to her mother on the reservation. She found her mother living in poverty. Her brother, who had also been educated in the boarding schools, had been fired from his job with the Indian Bureau and replaced by a white man, because he had advocated for his people in some small matter.

Zitkala-Ša also discovered that white settlers were occupying her tribal lands through a policy called "allotment." In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which redistributed tribal land, which had been held communally, to individual American Indians. This had the effect of weakening tribal unity, which of course was the point.

In addition, land was only granted to "competent" heads of family. "Competent" was interpreted by white officials to mean those American Indians who had abandoned indigenous dress and customs, spoke English, farmed, and attended Christian church. The land that was not redistributed to American Indians, could then conveniently be sold to whites. A combination of fraud, bad harvests, and unemployment led many American Indians to sell their allotments to white settlers. As a result of this policy, 138 million acres reserved for American Indian tribes across the U.S. was reduced to 47 million acres.

Zitkala-Ša would have been 14 years old when 150 Sioux, most of them women and children, were massacred by the U.S. Army at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Zitkala-Ša then returned to the boarding school of her own volition and became a teacher there. She went on to teach at several boarding schools for American Indian children, including the the U.S. Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which was run by Colonel Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt became infamous for advocating the forced cultural assimilation of American Indian peoples and is best remembered for his saying, "Kill the Indian, save the man."

Red Bird is Born

Eventually, Zitkala-Ša realized that the boarding schools were not intended to truly educate American Indian children, but merely to prepare them to be laborers in the lowest strata of white society. She also intuited that her own success in school did not really make her equal in the eyes of whites. Rather, she served as a kind of token, an "accomplished savage," to prop up a system of white supremacy.

Zitkala-Ša resigned from the school and took a new name. Her birth name was Gertrude Simmons, and she had never been given American Indian name by her mother. On her own, she assumed the name Zitkala-Ša, which means "Red Bird." She then began to use the language which had been forced upon her to attack the very institutions which had imposed it on her and so many like her.

Zitkala-Ša joined the Society of American Indians and later founded of the National Council of American Indians. She lobbied for American Indian people's rights, including the end of allotment and (controversially) the extension of the right of United States citizenship to American Indians. She published articles in Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Monthly. And she criticized the boarding school system she had previously worked for, bringing her into conflict with her former employer, Colonel Pratt.

One of Zitkala-Ša's most influential pieces of writing was titled "Oklahoma's Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes--Legalized Robbery," a political pamphlet which exposed the systematic theft of oil-rich land from American Indian peoples of Oklahoma through both legal and illegal means. Under this system, American Indians who refused to sell their land to whites were declared "incompetent" and assigned white "guardians." These guardians stole from their wards, many of whom then starved. When "legal" means did not work, whites resorted to kidnapping, rape, and even mass murder.

In 1917, Zitkala-Ša moved with her husband and child to Washington, D.C., in the hope of increasing their political influence. There, Zitkala-Ša would testify before in Senate wearing traditional native clothing. Though she despaired that she was not having an impact, her work paved the way for FDR, several years later, to pass the Indian Reorganization Act, also called the "Indian New Deal," which ended the policy of allotment and strengthened tribal governments.

A Colonialism of Body and Soul

The same forces at work in Zitkala-Ša's life are at work in the Dakota Access Pipeline: white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism. White supremacy was at work in the forced assimilation of American Indian children through the boarding school system, and white supremacy is the reason why the U.S. government values the health of the white residents of Bismark over the health of the residents of the American Indian Standing Rock reservation. Capitalism was the driving force behind the theft of American Indian lands in the Dakotas in Zitkala-Ša's time, and it is the driving force behind the violation of the sacred burial lands of the Sioux people today. Colonialism, of a physical variety, forced American Indians onto the reservations and then stole even that land from them, while a spiritual colonialism was perpetrated in the boarding schools and corrupt guardianship systems.


While American Indians have been physically colonized, the forces of capitalism and white supremacy have colonized all of our minds and hearts. These two forces have such power over our thoughts, so deep rooted are their assumptions, that it is nearly impossible for us to imagine any other way of being. How are we to live differently? Zitkala-Ša's life story suggests a possible answer.

Throughout her life, Zitkala-Ša she struggled to reconcile the value of preserving her native tradition with the benefits of assimilation to white culture. She wrote that she was "neither a wild Indian nor a tame one." She was mixed-race, a child of a Sioux mother and an (absentee) white father. She was only given an English name by her mother, but adopted an American Indian name at the age of 23. She was taken by force to a boarding school, but later returned to that boarding school as a teacher. She valued learning how to read and write English, but she questioned the cost, "whether real life or long-lasting death lies beneath this semblance of civilization." She did not idealize American Indian people, but called out white hypocrisy, observing that whites had been as "savage" throughout history as any American Indians. She worked for one of the most infamous promulgators of assimilationist policy, but she later challenged the system which he represented.

Throughout all of this, nature was Zitkala-Ša's touchstone, rooting her as she moved back and forth between her two worlds. "In the process of my education I had lost all consciousness of the nature world around me," she wrote following her resignation from the U.S. Indian Industrial School,

"Thus, when a hidden rage took me to the small white-walled prison which I then called my room, I unknowingly turned away from my one salvation. ... For the white man's papers I had given up my faith in the Great Spirit. For these same papers I had forgotten the healing in trees and brooks. ... Like a slender tree, I had been uprooted from my mother, nature, and God."

And so, in 1902, after spending two and half years at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Zitkala-Ša returned to the reservation in South Dakota again. There, she published an article in the Atlantic Monthly entitled, "Why I Am a Pagan." In it, she writes about how the water, sky, and sun "bespeak with eloquence the loving Mystery round about us" and how her native people "recognize a kinship to any and all parts of this vast universe." She goes on to relate her encounter with a native Christian preacher who urged her away from the "folly" of her ancestral beliefs and to belief in the "one God," and he warns her of hell fire. She concludes:

"I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a Pagan."

Resisting Colonialism Then and Now

Being "Pagan" for Zitkala-Ša was about more than resisting conversion to Christianity. It was about resisting white imperialism of all forms--resisting the colonization not just of her land, but also of her soul. She seemed to understand that there was a connection between these two forms of colonization, that a vital connection to the land was necessary to resist colonization of one's soul. She felt this when she was separated from nature by the walls of her dormitory at the boarding school. And she witnessed this when she returned to the reservation and saw her people's connection to the land broken by racist government policies and the opportunistic greed of white settlers. She saw the material effects of that disconnection in the poverty of her people and the spiritual effects in poverty of the countenance of those of her people who had converted to Christianity, whom she likened to "shadows" or "echoes."

Today, the Dakota Access Pipeline is both a physical manifestation of that colonization, as well as a spiritual symbol of the colonization of our minds and hearts by capitalism and white supremacy. This pipeline carrying fracked oil not only invades the sovereign lands of the Sioux, but also non-indigenous lands on both sides of the reservation. All our land, all our water, and all our bodies are being invaded by this "black snake" of capitalism, guided by the hand of white supremacy.

But even more insidious is how these same forces have colonized our minds, weaving their way into thoughts and words, both individual and collective. Consider how the pipeline is justified by reference to its comparative "safety" in relation to bomb trains, but the underlying assumption of our need for fossil fuel remains largely unquestioned. Consider how easily the pipeline protest is ignored by many whites who see it as an indigenous rights issue that doesn't affect them, rather than a human rights issue. Consider how easily the path of the pipeline was moved from Bismark, which is 92% white, but how it now slouches implacably forward through the Sioux reservation. Consider the disparate treatment of the (white) Bundy militia which occupied a federal building in Oregon, but escaped unpunished, and the treatment of American Indians who are defending their sovereign land, but have been met with disproportionate state force. Consider the silence of our cherished institutions in the face of this threat, from our supposedly free press to the Democratic administration.

Capitalism and white supremacy begin by alienating us from the land and from each other, and in the spiritual vacuum thus created, the way is paved for a colonization which is both physical and spiritual. We decolonize our minds and hearts by reversing the process by which we were colonized in the first place: by reconnecting to the land and to each other. By challenging narratives that "other" people of color. By opposing policies that alienate us from our mother earth. By standing in solidarity with American Indians whose lands have been invaded by an oil company. By fighting all encroachments of Big Oil on our lands and our souls.

To support the Standing Rock protest, click here. And if you would like to join a solidarity event, click here.