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 Native American communities, and their allies have faced cold weather and police aggression to protest the incoming Dakota Pipeline.

The Sioux, an umbrella term for Native groups like 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 into mass killings. It also recalls the colonization of the Native Peoples, a phenomenon that occurred during the early years of the country’s formation. One aspect of this colonization was the way a Native American dressed and adorned themselves, which was seen as a threat.

The Politics of Hair

Unlike today where non-Natives want to dress like them, during the United State’s migration to the West, Native people were encouraged to conform and adopt Western clothing. A popular method for colonization were boarding schools, where the motto was, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” This was stated by the first founder of the boarding schools, Army officer Richard Pratt who based his institution’s educational program on an Indian prison.

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 the children’s long hair and prohibiting them from wearing traditional clothing, which are both symbols of Native identity.

This was meant to not only change the physical image of the children, but also their spirit. They faced physical and mental abuse, alongside being ashamed of their cultural heritage. One notable experience is that 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 the assimilation and experience 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, she became a public figure for her writing and advocacy work. She also was photographed on numerous occasions, with her wearing both Dakota and Western clothing. In a series of photographs by American photographer Gertrude Käsebier, she is captured wearing her long hair loose in a Western white long sleeved, puff shouldered dress. In another, she is wearing loose layers with accessories, coats, and embroidered pieces. This combination of two different cultures reflected her ethnic identity. Zitkala-sa identified as a Yankton woman from Dakota territory, but was also half White through her father side. In a time where the divisions between Natives and White Americans were so prominent, Zitkala-sa wasn’t afraid to address the taboo.

Often referenced today for her natural beauty, Zitkala-sa was a female voice who created her own opportunities. Aside from writing, she also collaborated with a South Dakota music teacher to create the operetta, The Sun Dance Opera. The piece combined a love drama with Plains Indian rituals.

In 1926, she co-founded the National Council of American Indians, an organization that lobbied for Native American rights. Zitkala-sa passed away in 1938, but her life’s work has been remembered. She was named a 2010 honoree of Women’s History Month by the National Women’s History Project and is cited as, “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.


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