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April 16, 2020

10 Breathtaking Portraits of Sioux Indian and Activist Zitkala Sa Taken by Gertrude Kasebier From the Late 19th Century

Early female photographer Gertrude Käsebier broke new ground with her work, as did Native writer and Sioux Indian activist Zitkala-Sa (“Red Bird”), also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. Zitkala-Sa published series of autobiographical stories in The Atlantic magazine in 1900, and Gertrude Kasebier gained fame for her portraits and images of motherhood.

In addition to photographing the Sioux performers sent by Buffalo Bill Cody to her studio, Käsebier was able to arrange a portrait session with Zitkala-Sa, a Yankton Sioux woman of Native American and white ancestry. She was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, like many of the Sioux traveling with the Wild West show. She was educated at reservation schools, the Carlisle Indian School, Earlham College in Indiana, and the Boston Conservatory of Music.

Zitkala-Sa became an accomplished author, musician, composer, and dedicated worker for the reform of United States Indian policies. She was co-founder of the National Council of American Indians in 1926, which was established to lobby for Native people’s right to United States citizenship and other civil rights they had long been denied. Zitkala-Sa served as the council’s president until her death in 1938.

Käsebier photographed Zitkala-Sa in tribal dress and western clothing, clearly identifying the two worlds in which this woman lived and worked. In many of the images, Zitkala-Sa holds her violin or a book, further indicating her interests. Käsebier experimented with backdrops, including a Victorian floral print, and photographic printing. She used the painterly gum-bichromate process for several of these images, adding increased texture and softer tones to the photographs.

(Photos by Gertrude Käsebier / © Smithsonian Institution)


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