Zitkala-sa and the Politics of Native American Dress


Photography by Joseph T. Keiley (1901)

For months now, the protests of the Dakota Pipeline near Cannonball, North Dakota have swept both US and International news. Occurring near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, groups like the Standing Rock Sioux, other American Indian communities, and their allies have faced cold weather and police aggression to protest the incoming Dakota Pipeline.

The Sioux, an umbrella term for the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, have a deep history with American oppression and tension. The most recent incident has reminded the US public of past events, like the Wounded Knee Massacre, which resulted in mass killings. It also recalls the colonization of American Indians, which began during the early years of the United States formation. One aspect of this colonization was the way American Indians dressed and adorned themselves.

The Politics of Hair

Before and during the US government’s migration to the West, Native people were encouraged to conform and adopt Western clothing. A popular method for colonization were boarding schools, which sought to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

By targeting Native youth, these schools forced children to speak English, move away from family, and adopt a Western way of life. This included cutting long hair and prohibiting traditional clothing, which are both symbols of Native identity.

These rules were meant to not only change the physical image of the children but also their spirit. They faced physical and mental abuse, alongside shame towards of their cultural heritage. One notable experience is of Zitkala-sa, a Yankton Dakota woman.

As a young girl, Zitkala-sa was sent to the White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana. “I was a wild little girl of seven. Loosely clad in a slip of brown buckskin, and light-footed with a pair of soft moccasins on my feet,” Zitkala-sa recalled in her book, American Indian Stories. “I was as free as the wind that blew my hair, and no less spirited than a bounding deer. These were my mother’s pride, – my wild freedom and overflowing spirits.” Early in her time at the school, she witnessed forced assimilation and experienced it first hand. “I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities.”

The Politics of Zitkala-sa

Photographed by Gertrude Käsebier (1898)
Photographed by Gertrude Käsebier (1898)


As she grew older, Zitkala-sa became a writer and advocate. She also was photographed on numerous occasions wearing both Dakota and Western clothing. In a series of photographs by American photographer Gertrude Käsebier, Zitkala-sa is documented wearing a Western long-sleeved, puff-shouldered dress with her long hair loose. In another, she is wearing a coat, loose layers, and embroidered accessories. This combination of two different cultures reflected her identity. Zitkala-sa identified as a Yankton woman from Dakota territory, but she was also educated in White social mores through her time at the boarding school

In 1926, Zitkala-sa co-founded the National Council of American Indians, an organization that lobbied for Native American rights. In 2010, 70 plus years after her death, she was named an honoree of Women’s History Month by the National Women’s History Project. She is remembered in American history for being, “The first American Indian woman to write her own story without the aid of an editor, interpreter or ethnographer.”

For more information on the current situation at Sitting Rock, visit Standingrock.org.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: