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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: People: Assimilation and the Crucible of the City
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: People
Text 1. The American Metropolis
Text 2. Coney Island
Text 3. Horatio Alger, Jr., Ragged Dick
Text 4. Lewis W. Hine photographs
Text 5. Jacob Riis, How the Other Lives
Text 6. Anzia Yezierska, Russians
Text 7. Two Wives
Text 8. Lee Chew, The Biography of a Chinaman
Text 9. Exclusion
Text 10. Zitkala-Sa, Native Americans
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Zitkala-Sa, 1898
Zitkala-Sa, 1898
- Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin), "The School Days of an Indian Girl," Atlantic Monthly, February 1900
- Gertrude Käsebier, photographs of Zitkala-Sa, 1898

For one group of "newcomers" to industrial America the city was decidedly not the site of assimilation, yet what was happening in the cities affected the strategies of socialization offered to them. In the 1880s the impulse that prompted government action on the problems of poverty, immigration, and labor unrest in the cities was directed west on behalf of Indians. Influential reformers, evangelical Protestants calling themselves "Friends of the Indian," urged education and support as alternatives to suppression and extermination. The transformation of this approach into government policy came through the Dawes Act of 1887, which essentially offered the Indians a deal—if they would give up their traditional ways, they could become members of American society. Under this legislation, if a male would separate himself from a tribe and live according to "civilized" values, the government would provide him land and the prospect of citizenship. In other words, if an Indian ceased to be an Indian, he/she could become an American.

Indian schools were charged with the task of processing the "Indian" out of Indians. Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (1876-1938) entered what she called "the civilizing machine" at White's Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, a Quaker missionary school. Born of a white father and Yankton-Nakota Sioux mother, Bonnin left the reservation at the age of eight to attend White's, a move she made against the expressed disapproval of her mother. After White's she went to Earlham College in Indiana, and upon graduation took the name Zitkala-Sa. She studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and taught music at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, a job from which she was fired when she began publishing her autobiographical essays. She went on to compose opera, edit American Indian Magazine, and lobby on behalf of Indian causes. "The School Days of an Indian Girl" tracks her education after arriving in "The Land of the Red Apples" through her college years. In it she ably conveys what to her was the strangeness of her new surroundings. She suffers repeated indignities, some inflicted innocently through cultural misunderstanding, others inflicted deliberately. Language and its subtle power to change a person are a constant theme. In the end she triumphs but at enormous cost.

Photographer Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) lived in Iowa and Colorado until her teen years. She was educated at the Moravian College for Women in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and later studied photography and art in New York. Her photos were published in Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work and other notable photographic magazines of the times. Käsebier photographed Indians in Buffalo Bill's Wild West and on reservations of the Dakota Sioux. She formed a friendship with Zitkala-Sa and made several portraits of her. 14 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. Who is Zitkala Sa's audience?
  2. What response is she trying to evoke from her audience? Compare her approach to her audience and her goals with those of Simon Pokagon (see EMPIRE).
  3. According to the school, what does becoming "civilized" mean? What values does it seek to inculcate?
  4. How do the school's values differ from Indian values?
  5. How are they the values of an industrial society?
  6. What role does language play in her experience?
  7. What does she gain and what does she lose in her "civilizing" experience?
  8. Compare Zitkala-Sa's portraits with the Indian studio portraits in the EMPIRE section of the toolbox. There will you will find suggestions for interpreting portraits.

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  How was the American cultural mainstream defined at this time?
  •  What messages and strategies of socialization did the government and other culture brokers extend to immigrants, African Americans, and Native Americans during this period?
  •  What benefits and costs for these groups were associated with a strategy of assimilation?
  •  How did the city function as a site of assimilation?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
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