Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring 1998, pp. 102-11.
In 1913 Gertrude Simmons Bonnin (Zitkala Ša, 1876-1938) collaborated with local Duchesne, Utah, music teacher William F. Hanson to produce and stage a spectacle that combined the musical style of operetta, a melodramatic love triangle, and traditional Plains Indian ritual. In regional performances, The Sun Dance Opera provided a stage for Bonnin and other Native American singers and dancers to participate in rituals whose practice was forbidden by the United States government. Twenty-five years later, just months after Bonnin's death in 1938, the opera was selected and presented by the New York Opera Guild as opera of the year.
The composition of the opera presents the challenges of forging distinct and disparate cultures by harmonizing traditional Native melodies and perspectives into the pinnacle of artistic expression in western civilization: grand opera. Opera, literally the plural of opus or "works" of artistic expression, provides a holistic context that represents varied and complex manifestations of culture. Visual presentation and costuming, singing, dancing, storytelling, and even incorporation of a trickster- like heyoka depict aspects of Plains culture in The Sun Dance Opera. At the same time, an orchestral accompaniment and dramatic plot infuse elements of western civilization. As a classically trained musician, Bonnin used her skills to affirm her Sioux cultural identity and to engage the conventions of popular culture.1 Hanson used his fondness for Indian peoples and his association with them in what critics would now recognize as an artistic colonialism. The result is an uneasy duet of two cultures.
Gertrude Simmons Bonnin had emerged from an obscure, reservation childhood, through the Indian boarding school system, to become a public figure. She compiled and published a book of traditional stories, Old Indian Legends.2 She also had written compelling articles about her childhood and life experiences for Harper's Weekly and the Atlantic Monthly. She compiled and published those stories in 1921 in American Indian Stories.3 In 1902 when she married Raymond Bonnin, also a Yankton Sioux, she temporarily abandoned her public career. Although she would later emerge in the national arena of pan-Indian politics, her years in Utah (ca. 1904-16) were spent in relative obscurity. The local attention given The Sun Dance Opera reintroduced Gertrude to the popular stage.
A challenge in studying the opera is the lack of Gertrude's own voice while William F. Hanson's participation is well documented. The whole score is archived at Brigham Young University where Hanson (1887-1969) had a lengthy career as a professor of music education. Fifty-four years after the debut of the opera, Hanson published a memoir that loosely recounted an Indian history in Utah, his association with Gertrude and her husband, Raymond, and the composing and staging of the opera.4 However, Gertrude left no documentation of her involvement with Hanson and the performances. During this period, even her regular letters to the Catholic Indian Missions have no mention of the opera.5 Likewise, her diaries of the last years of her life focus on her family and her political concerns and do not mention the N ew York restaging of the opera.