Honoring Zitkala-Sa

Let’s face it, Google has changed the world in a very big, bold, permanent way. The way it gave us search navigation capacities isn’t an ongoing change, but I’d like to think perhaps Google can still change the world in other ways. One of the opportunities to do so is through the Google doodle, the image featured above the search bar.

Google doodle Feb. 22, 2021

Today’s Google doodle features South Dakota writer, musician and activist Zitkala-Sa, and I hope people click into it and learn something new and wonderful by learning about this writer.

I first encountered her in Pierre, SD as a kid on a fishing trip. No, she wasn’t fishing Oahe or the Missouri River; she died in 1938 in Washington, D.C. But in the way literature brings people and places to life, when I found her book Old Indian Legends at DakotaMart, a whole world came to life for me. Zitkala-Sa became a female writer I could look up to in the way I looked up to Mari Sandoz. These writers from the middle of nowhere drew on the places and stories they knew and shared them with the world.

And I wanted to do that. Well, maybe I didn’t really want to write about Nebraska where I grew up, but I did want to tell stories, and I wanted to get away from that part of the world.

The beings I encountered in Old Indian Legends enchanted me. Itkomi, a spirit come alive in the form of a man-spider, delighted me in his craftiness and intrigue, and I was forever trying to figure out if he was man, spider or spirit.

IKTOMI is a spider fairy. He wears brown deerskin leggins with long soft fringes on either side, and tiny beaded moccasins on his feet. His long black hair is parted in the middle and wrapped with red, red bands. Each round braid hangs over a small brown ear and falls forward over his shoulders.

Zitkala-Sa, “Iktomi and the Ducks,” Old Indian Legends.

This opening from “Iktomi and the Ducks,” the first story in the collection, introduces readers to Iktomi and his world. We spend a lot of time with him in this book, but we also meet a badger, a bear, mice, a frog, a rabbit and other creatures. And of course, through these critters we encounter humanity and its various characteristics and foibles.

But Zitkala-Sa didn’t just retell her people’s myths and creation stories and bring them to others. Born on South Dakota’s Yankton Indian Reservation in 1876, this woman experienced the impact of Christian missionaries when she was eight and went away to Indiana to attend school. She was christened (oh, the poignancy of that phrase here) Gertrude Simmons and wrote about these experiences in The School Days of an Indian Girl. Through this, one can see the roots of her activism. Readers of her nonfiction can also see how these events led her to a place of duality as she grew older. She loved her heritage and culture, but she had been removed from it as a child and was educated and lived in white society.

This struggle is one I related to in my own way as I got older, and it allowed me to see her in a a new light and as a model in new ways. From telling her people’s myth stories to advocating for her people, she exemplifies writing as activism.

Google is celebrating her today, her birthday, but she is worth celebrating every day.

Project Gutenberg has Old Indian Legends available for download, and if you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it.

Header image credit: 5MinuteHistory.com

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