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Zion’s Suffragists podcast: Episode 6 — Side by side with you

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The cover art for “Zion’s Suffragists,” a Deseret News podcast that tells the story of how Utah women became the first to vote in the United States.

The cover art for “Zion’s Suffragists,” a Deseret News podcast that tells the story of how Utah women became the first to vote in the United States.

Jeremy Ames, Boncom

(Subscribe to Zion’s Suffragists on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get podcasts.)

Dianna Douglas: A high school graduation in Wabash, Indiana, on a June day in 1895. The graduates were a mix of native peoples from tribes all over America. The school’s philosophy was simple: 

Voice over: “Kill the Indian and save the man.”  

DD: A 19-year-old named Gertrude, a Yankton Sioux, had endured this philosophy since she had started at the school at 8 years old. Now, braids cut, reading and writing in English, she stood up to speak. 

Voice actor portraying Zitkála-Šá: “Half of humanity cannot rise while the other half is in subjugation.”

DD: Gertrude came from a matriarchal society, where women kept the land and held power. She had been educated in a patriarchal society — where men held absolute power.  

ZS: “When women are kept down, men must necessarily occupy the same level.”

DD: Her graduation speech was a call for voting rights. The Wabash Times said it was “a masterpiece that has never been surpassed in eloquence or literary perfection by any girl in this country.” A woman in the audience offered to pay for Gertrude to go to college. 

Gertude soon took the Lakota name Zitkála-Šá. Red Bird. Her voice for the rights for American Indians would echo across the country.

This is Zion’s Suffragists, a podcast from the Deseret News about voting rights for women in Utah. Today, we meet two women who fought for civil rights for their communities well into the 20th century, and fought like their lives depended on it. 

When wagon trains of white Americans began settling in Utah, they considered the people already living there as foreigners — the Paiute, Ute, Shoshone, Goshute, Navajo.

U.S. law said that “if an individual should leave his nation or tribe, and take up his abode among the white population, he would be entitled to all the rights and privileges which would belong to an emigrant from any other foreign people.” In other words, if you wanted civil rights like voting or access to the courts, you had best try to assimilate, and fast. Convert to Christianity, speak English.

Farina King, a historian at Northeastern State University, and a citizen of the Navajo nation, says the country eventually turned toward a kind of paternalism toward native peoples only after centuries of war. That’s where these boarding schools came from.

Farina King: It was seen as benevolent. We can’t have this full-scale genocide. We can’t just kill them off in these conflicts. What are we going to do with them? 

DD: When Zitkála-Šá was in boarding school she was punished for speaking anything other than English. She was tied to a chair and her hair was cut. Some of the children at the school died from neglect. 

Voice over: Kill the Indian and save the man.

DD: Zitkála-Šá learned to play the violin at school, and learned the art of public speaking. So when that rich lady offered to pay for her to go to college, she took it. But college was incredibly lonely. At Earlham College, she found herself without a single friend. 

ZS: Often I wept in secret, wishing I had gone West, to be nourished by my mother’s love, instead of remaining among a cold race whose hearts were frozen hard with prejudice.

DD: Her writings are read by an actor. An oratory competition at the school caught her eye. So she entered. Her speech was once again about equal rights. This time, she argued that native peoples were Americans — with equal claim to the same land. 

ZS: We come from mountain fastness, from cheerless plains, from far-off low-wooded streams, seeking to unite with yours our claim to a common country. That we may stand side by side with you in ascribing honor to our nation’s flag. America, I love thee. 

DD: She brought down the house. Took first place. She went to a bigger competition, representing her college in front of thousands of people. Some people in the crowd unfurled a banner when she got up to speak. It had a crude image of an Indian girl and the word “squaw.”  

ZS: The Indian loved his native land. Is patriotism a virtue found only in Saxon hearts?

DD: The flag had lowered back into the crowd by the time her name was announced. She had won second place. Her schooling had kindled a fire within Zitkála-Šá for the rights of native peoples. But, she took a job as a teacher in one of these Indian boarding schools — where native languages and beliefs were being stomped out. The school, for all its faults, brought her into close contact with American Indians from all over the country. 

FK: You have these close relationships develop because of these schools that were supposed to be a part of colonizing — they have these unexpected impacts of actually enabling indigenous activism.  

DD: Zitkála-Šá felt pulled west, to be with her mother and her tribe on the great plains — even though she didn’t really fit in there anymore. She also felt pulled east, to play the violin in the great halls of Boston — she also didn’t really fit there, either. She was stuck. 

FK: She did leave the school, would again return home to the Yankton Sioux reservation, connect with family. She did connect to her husband, Raymond Bonnin, who worked with the Uintah and Yuray reservation — Utes. That’s where she has her time in Utah.

DD: In Utah, living on Ute lands, she had an idea — a way that she could bridge the enormous gap between white and native Americans.  

FK: Makes the first American India operas, the “Sun Dance Opera,” based on Dakota and Ute ceremony. 

DD: The sun dance was a religious ritual — and Indians were forbidden from performing it by the government. 

DD: A musician at Brigham Young University named William Hansen worked on the opera with Zitkála-Šá. They performed the opera in Utah, with local Ute tribal members. They performed their own sacred traditions in a theater — in a way that wouldn’t scare people. 

FK: Operas were a big deal. It was part of reaching an influential class. These were people who said the only good Indian is a dead Indian — that was still being perpetuated.

DD: The “Sun Dance Opera” showed that native cultures and peoples weren’t something to be destroyed, weren’t some problem to fix. They were something to be celebrated and even inspired by.

In Utah, Zitkála-Šá also voted. Remember, women could vote in Utah, and Zitkála-Šá’s people, the Yankton Sioux, had voting rights in the U.S. But her neighbors and friends on the Ute reservation could not. 

Everywhere Zitkála-Šá went among native peoples, she saw the same thing — their land was being stolen from under their feet. She wrote stories about American Indians being raped, robbed and murdered for their lands. Her writing was beautiful — The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s magazine published her stories. She wanted to change a whole country’s views of native peoples.

FK: Zitkála-Šá was at the front of that. Saying we are human. We play the violin like you. We sing like you. We have a way of spiritually connecting like you. 

DD: She wanted citizenship for all American Indians — no more being treated like the citizens of a foreign nation. When American women were enfranchised in 1920, she had an opening. 

ZK: Now the time is at hand when the American Indian shall have his day in court through the help of the women of America. The stain upon America’s fair name is to be removed, and the remnant of the Indian nation, suffering from malnutrition, is to number among the guests at your dinner tables. We would open the door of American opportunity to the red man. We seek his enfranchisement.

DD: Finally, in 1924, Congress wrote and passed a law called the Indian Citizenship Act. A strong catalyst was the 12,000 Indians who had served in World War I without the benefit of citizenship. 

But, one of the great privileges of citizenship — the right to vote — was still regulated by the states. It was often denied to Native Americans on reservations in Utah and many other states. 

And, not all Native Americans were excited about the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. Their concerns persist to this day. 

Kimball Bighorse: I’m Kimball Bighorse, citizen of the Cayuga Nation, of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations, or Iroquois Confederacy. 

DD: Back in 1924, the Haudenosaunee were concerned that American citizenship would erode the sovereignty of tribal nations. The government might be free to ignore the treaties between tribes and the United States. 

KB: We have our own forms of governance. The American system was imposed upon us. To me, it was a move to subjugate tribal people for the most part. 

DD: Zitkála-Šá hoped the tribes could be more powerful if they banded together. And more powerful if they voted. She started the National Council of American Indians. Indians were already working with the U.S. government on behalf of their individual tribes — she brought them into her council. She crisscrossed the United States to get American Indians connected.  

This kind of work was painstaking — interviewing people, collecting signatures for petitions, asking Congress to help. She did it until she died. 

At another Indian school, in the 1920s, a Shoshone girl from Utah, named Mae Timbimboo, was told to stand on a chair and answer her teacher’s questions. 

Mae Timbimboo Parry: And I was standing up there on the chair, but I would not talk and He went over there and yanked me off of the chair. And he says to me, “You will never amount to anything.” He says, “You’re going to be just as filthy and dirty as the rest of the Indians.”

DD: Mae Timbimboo was recorded in 2006, in her late 80s — still remembering the sting of a teacher telling her that she was a dirty Indian. Mae grew up in Washakie (Box Elder County), Utah, and was chosen by her grandfather to be the keeper of the tribe’s stories. The story he most wanted Mae to know happened one winter morning in 1863, when he was about 10 years old. His entire community along the Bear River came under a surprise attack by federal troops. 

MTP: He ran into his grandmother and Grandma says, “Why don’t we drop down on the ground and play dead?” 

DD: The troops were mowing people down all around them. Some people tried to hide from them in the frozen Bear River. Yeager Timbimboo and his grandmother lay on the ground and didn’t move — hoping the troops would pass by them in the snow. 

MTP:  One of the soldiers came along, walked over to grandpa, aimed at him, and then something beyond description happened. The soldier put his gun down and walked off and left Grandpa. 

DD: Yeager said he survived so he could tell the story of what happened that day. Mae heard people around her talk about the Battle of Bear River — saw it on plaques and history books. But she knew it wasn’t a battle — hundreds of Shoshone men, women and children were slaughtered that day — aided by the settlers in Utah. 

MTP: And Grandpa says, “I think you have been picked to fill this mission: that’s telling the story of the massacre of Bear River.” 

Darren Parry: She was an activist. She was in Washington, D.C., more than 10 times to testify before Congress. The Bear River Massacre site used to be called the Battle of Bear River by the National Park Service. And she worked tirelessly to make sure that it was changed. 

DD: This is Mae’s grandson. 

DP: My name is Darren Parry. I serve as the chairman of the Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation. 

DD: Darren is carrying on Mae Timbimboo Parry’s work as a keeper of stories. Now, he tells stories about her.

DP: She helped develop the Indian’s Reparations Act, a federal act to return Native American artifacts and human remains when they’re found at private digging sites. She was just really instrumental in changing how the government interacts with Native Americans today. 

DD: It took a long time to get the government of Utah to give people living on reservations the vote. 1957. Utah, in fact, was the last state. Darren said he gets strength from his grandmother’s legacy of political activism for Native People’s civil rights. 

DP: Our women have always had rights. I mean, always. They did everything. The decisions were made by our women — and gratefully and thankfully so.  

DD: I said two Utah women in today’s episode, but let’s meet one more. 

Dalene Redhorse: My name is Dalene Redhorse. I’m from the Navajo Reservation and I’m also enrolled with the Navajo Tribe. 

DD: The Navajo Reservation today stretches across Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The roads are mostly unnamed. Fifty-thousand homes and businesses have no address. 

DR: A lot of people use directions to their houses — like so many miles from a certain landmark — and that’s very complicating when you try to register it as a data into the computers. 

DD: Without an address, it’s easy for voter registrations to have mistakes.  

DR: I went over to see mine, surprisingly, I was pinned to reside near a sewer pond in Bluff (San Juan County). That would put me in the wrong district than where I actually live. So I’m not sure what was happening to my votes all these years. 

DD: She’s working on a solution to this problem with the help of Google.  

DR: We’re giving all residents on the reservation on the Utah side physical addresses using plus codes. 

DD: What’s a plus code?

DR: Plus codes is a 6-digit number or code, that’s shortened from the coordinates we used from the satellites, the longitude and latitude. 

DD: This isn’t just a nice thing to do. This code lets emergency medical services find the sick or distressed when they call. And it lets people register to vote. It brings Navajo voices to the San Juan County government, to the Utah state government, and to the federal government in Washington, D.C. 

DR: Navajos were underrepresented. I decided to let Navajos know, we’re being walked on, we’re pushed aside. This is our state as well, this is our reservation, this is our county. We make a majority of the county. I said, let’s get in, get you registered. Let’s let county know we live in Utah, not Arizona. 

DD: This is the kind of work that requires a ton of driving. Sometimes she’ll drive for miles and miles and finally come to a cluster of four houses. Dalene takes a deep breath, and knocks on the doors of strangers. 

DR: When you go to introduce yourself, you include your clan, and then that way people will know how you’re related. They’ll have that trust or that confidence in you.  

DD: It’s been more than 150 years that Utah women have been doing this kind of work — house by house, block by block, trying to make sure that the people in Utah count. Dalene Redhorse is just one more in a long line of Utah women trying to expand the electorate — trying to make America a democracy.

(Subscribe to Zion’s Suffragists on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you get podcasts.)