Zitkála-Šá was born on February 22, 1876 on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She was raised by her mother, Ellen Simmons, whose Dakota name was Thaté Iyóhiwiŋ (Every Wind or Reaches for the Wind). Her father was a German-American man named Felker, who abandoned the family while Zitkala-Ša was very young.
For her first eight years, Zitkála-Šá lived on the reservation. She later described those days as ones of freedom and happiness, safe in the care of her mother’s people and tribe. In 1884, missionaries came to the Yankton Reservation. They recruited several of the Yankton children, including Zitkala-Šá, taking them for education to the White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute, a Quaker school in Wabash, Indiana.This training school was founded by Josiah White for the education of “poor children, white, colored, and Indian,” with the goal of helping them advance in society.
Zitkála-Šá attended the school for three years. She later wrote about both the deep misery of having her heritage stripped away, when she was forced to pray as a Quaker and cut her traditionally long hair. By contrast, she took joy in learning to read and write, and to play the violin.
In 1887 Zitkála-Šá returned to the Yankton Reservation to live with her mother. However, in 1891, Zitkála-Šá decided to return to the White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute for further education. She studied piano and violin, and started to teach music at White’s when the teacher resigned. In June 1895, she was awarded her first diploma and gave a speech on women’s inequality.
Though her mother wanted her to return home after graduation, Zitkála-Šá chose to attend Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, where she received a scholarship. Though initially feeling isolated and uncertain among her predominantly white peers, she soon proved her oratorical talents again with a speech entitled “Side by Side” in 1896. During this time, she began gathering Native American legends, translating them first to Latin and then to English for children to read. In 1897, however, six weeks before graduation, she was forced to leave Earlham College due to ill-health and financial difficulties.
From 1897 to 1899, Zitkála-Šá studied and played violin at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In 1899 she took a position at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where she taught music to the children. She resented the founder’s program of assimilation into dominant white culture and the limitations of the curriculum, which prepared Native American children only for low-level work, assuming they would return to rural cultures. She also conducted debates on the treatment of Native Americans and began writing articles on Native American life, including one which describes the profound loss of identity felt by a Native American boy after undergoing the assimilationist education at the school. Soon after this article was published, Zitkála-Šáwas dismissed. She took a job as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and began collecting stories from Native Americans on the reservation to publish in Old Indian Legends, commissioned by the Boston publisher Ginn and Company.
In 1902 she met and married Captain Raymond Talefase Bonnin. Of mixed race, he was culturally Yankton and had one-quarter Yankton Dakota ancestry. Soon after their marriage, Captain Bonnin was assigned to the Uintah-Ouray reservation in Utah. The couple lived and worked there with the Ute people for the next fourteen years. During this period, Zitkála-Šá gave birth to the couple’s only son, Raymond Ohiya Bonnin.
Zitkála-Šá had a fruitful writing career. American Indian Stories is a collection of childhood stories, allegorical fiction, and an essay, including several of Zitkála-Šá’s articles that were originally published in Harper’s Monthly and Atlantic Monthly. First published in 1921, these stories told of the hardships which she and other Native Americans encountered at the missionary and manual labor schools designed to “civilize” them and assimilate them to majority culture. The autobiographical writings described her early life on the Yankton Reservation, her years as a student at White’s Manual Labor Institute and Earlham College, and her period teaching at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Her autobiography contrasted the charm of her early life on the reservation with the “iron routine” which she found in the assimilation boarding schools.
Old Indian Legends (1901) was a collection of stories which she had gathered from various tribes. Directed primarily at children, the collection was an attempt both to preserve Native American traditions and stories in print and to garner respect and recognition for those traditions from the dominant European-American culture.
In 1910 Zitkála-Šá began collaborating with American composer William F. Hanson, who taught at Brigham Young University. She wrote the libretto and songs, based on sacred Sioux ritual, which the federal government prohibited the Ute from performing on the reservation. She also played Sioux melodies on the violin, and Hanson used this as the basis of his music composition.
In February 1913, the premiere performance of The Sun Dance Opera was presented at Orpheus Hall in Vernal, Utah. The production featured members of the Ute Nation, who lived on the nearby Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation. It was significant for adapting the Native American oral musical tradition to a written one. Its debut was met with critical acclaim. Few works of Native American opera since have dealt so exclusively with Native American themes.
In 1938 the New York Light Opera Guild premiered The Sun Dance Opera at The Broadway Theatre as its opera of the year. Its publicity credited only William F. Hanson as composer.
Zitkála-Šá was an active member of the Society of American Indians, which published the American Indian Magazine. From 1918 to 1919 she served as editor for the magazine, as well as contributing numerous articles. These were her most explicitly political writings, covering topics such as the contribution of Native American soldiers to World War I, issues of land allotment, and corruption within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency within the Department of Interior that oversaw American Indians. Many of her political writings have since been criticized for favoring assimilation. She called for recognition of Native American culture and traditions, while also advocating US citizenship rights to bring Native Americans into mainstream America. She believed this was how they could gain political power and protect their cultures.
Zitkála-Šá died on January 26, 1938 in Washington, DC at the age of sixty-one. She is buried under the name of Gertrude Simmons Bonnin in Arlington National Cemetery. Since the late 20th century, the University of Nebraska has reissued many of her writings on Native American culture.
She has been recognized by the naming of a Venusian crater “Bonnin” in her honor. In 1997 she was designated a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project.
Zitkala-Sa’s legacy lives on as one of the most influential Native American activist of the twentieth century. She left with her an influential theory of Indian resistance and a crucial model for reform. Through her activism, Zitkála-Šá was able to make crucial changes to education, health care, legal standing of Native American people and the preservation of Indian culture.
Zitkála-Šá. 1876-1938. Old Indian Legends. Retold by ZItkala-Sa. Illustrations by Angel De Cors (Hinook-Mahwi-Kilinaka). Ginn and Company, 1901.
Zitkála-Šá., 1876-1938. American Indian Stories.Foreward by Dexter Fisher. University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
Zitkála-Šá, 1876-1938. Dance in a buffalo skull. Iillustrated by S. D. Nelson.South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 
Zitkála-Šá (Gertrude Bonnin). “Why I Am a Pagan.” The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women’s Writings, Ed. Glynis Carr. Winter 1999.
Zitkála-Šá, Fabens, Charles H. and Matthew K. Sniffen. Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes, Legalized Robbery. Philadelphia: Office of the Indian Rights Association, 1924.
Zitkála-Šá. Dreams and Thunder: Stories, Poems, and The Sun Dance Opera. Edited by P. Jane Hafen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8032-4918-7.
Zitkála-Šá: Letters, Speeches, and Unpublished Writings, 1898-1929. Edited by Tadeusz Lewandowski. Leiden, Boston: Brill Press, 2018.
Hanson, William F., and Zitkála-Šá.. The Sun Dance Opera (romantic American Indian opera, 1913, 1938).
For a more comprehensive listing of all her writings see the American Native Press Archives maintained by the Sequoyah Research Center at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock.