From Print to Eye: The Cover Art of Zitkála-šá’s American Indian Stories

Zitkála-šá advocated for the preservation of Native American culture for most of her life. As a young girl, she was persuaded to leave the Yankton reservation to receive an education at a white boarding school. While there, white missionaries tried to force Zitkála-šá to abandon her Dakota culture and adopt their white American culture. While this experience drastically changed her – and affected her later work – it also helped to plant the seeds for her later criticisms of such boarding schools and activism surrounding Native Americans rights.

The Zitkála-šá’s writing has remained in publication since she first began publishing in 1900. Her book American Indian Stories – in which she writes about her childhood experiences in boarding school – has been republished several times since its original printing in 1921. Each of these publications has delivered different visual presentations of her and her work through cover art. Here, I will be examining four different editions of American Indian Stories to see what each suggests about what tactics publishers used to attract readership to Zitkála-šá’s works. It also offers a small glimpse of how American society’s perception of Indigenous people has changed from the days since Zitkála-šá wrote her book.

The first edition of American Indian Stories from 1921 was distributed by Hayworth Publishing House and would have been seen by Zitkála-šá herself. (In fact, the copy held at Johns Hopkins Library includes an inscription by her to an unknown person that states, “We are friends.”) The cover features a red and black geometric pattern adorning both the front and back. While I have not been able to confirm if the pattern is a traditional Dakota Sioux pattern, it appears to at least mimic the artistic style featured in Sioux art and clothing (see below) . Additionally, the color scheme could perhaps be an homage to Zitkála-šá’s name as its original meaning is “Red Bird.”

The publisher’s decision to include or gesture towards Sioux Art continues in more modern publications as shown in the 2003 publication of her book by Penguin Random House. This edition features a depiction of “Girl’s Dress” on the cover. This dress was made by people of the Dakota/Eastern Sioux and was reportedly worn by Minnie Sky Arrow, a pianist and member of the Sioux people. The design pattern seems to be typical of Sioux dresses, as is evident in comparison to one in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum. While it is still culturally accurate to her people, the dress is unrelated to Zitkála-šá herself. Instead, it seeks to achieve a similar goal as the cover of the original publication. Should a reader see this cover, they can associate what is recognizable as Indigenous art with the contents of the book without much background knowledge.

Both a Dover Thrift edition of 2014 and a Modern Library edition of 2019, discussed in more detail below, similarly follow strategies established by the original publication, as both of their covers feature portraits of Zitkála-šá. In the original publication, the portrait was featured on the inside as a frontispiece. In lieu of an interior portrait, both newer editions include her image on the cover, but neither sue the same image from the original publication.

Frontispiece portrait of Zitkála-šá in the 1921 edition of American Indian Stories

The original publication features a bust portrait of Zitkála-šá from around 1895. I could not find much information about the portrait itself other than that it is held by the Library of Congress and is a photomechanical print of her, meaning that it was transferred to the book using an inked plate not photographic processes. However, compared to the two portraits that follow, this one depicts her as more reserved with her hair formally plaited and a neutral expression.

The 2014 Dover Thrift edition features a portrait of Zitkála-šá that is in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. The original photograph was taken by Joseph T. Keiley, a lawyer and photographer who sought to connect artists in different realms of art like painters and photographers. Sometime between 1898 and 1901, Joseph T. Keiley met Zitkála-šá in New York when she was performing with the Carlisle Indian Band as a violinist during which time he took several photos of her including the two below.

These photos of her capture a spirit that is different from the one included in the first edition of her book. These photos appear less formal and more intimate – in one, she appears reclined and relaxed as she sits back in her seat with her hair and the fabrics of her clothing spread about her, in the other, she gazes at the camera and her long, loose hair frames her face. Her hair reminds us of the chapter “The Cutting of My Long Hair” in the autobiographical “Impressions of an Indian Girlhood,” where she describes the importance of long hair in Sioux culture as a sign of the strength of a warrior. Hence, Zitkála-šá’s long flowing hair represents her strength and the strength of her narrative. In the second photo, her strength is again on display, as she meets the viewer’s eye with a seemingly challenging expression.

Interestingly, alongside her photo in this edition is the painting View of Chimney Rock, Ohalilah Sioux Village in the Foreground by Albert Bierstadt. This painting was completed in 1860, just before Zitkála-šá was born. Bierstadt’s art often tried to capture the spirit of the American West using landscapes. Some scholars from the American Art Collaborative have noted the irony of the focus and timing of this piece. This painting is one of Bierstadt’s few pieces that focus on humans and humanity, yet it was painted just before what many historians consider to be the period of drastic decline of Native American life and culture. Perhaps, the choice by the publishers to include this piece alongside a resistant portrait of Zitkála-šá was intentional and alludes to the resistance of Native American culture to settler colonialism and assimilationist practices that Zitkála-šá advocated for in her work and life.

Lastly, the most recent 2019 edition published by the Modern Library features a portrait of Zitkála-šá that is housed in the National Museum of American History. This photo was taken by Gertrude Kasebier in 1898 and is similar to Keiley’s portrait in spirit. Here, Zitkála-ša’s takes up more of the frame and she looks off into the distance with her hand shading her eyes as though she is searching for something. She is more dynamic and has more agency than in her original frontispiece portrait. Additionally, she is dressed in a mixture of tribal and Western clothing, alluding to her mixture of experiences and the spaces in which she works.

The more modern design of the cover combines a few of the techniques seen in previous editions to convey to readers what the book is about. For instance, the same color scheme of red and black from the first edition is used. The symbolism of this color scheme is taken a step further, as her portrait is overlaid with the silhouette of a bird – hence, she is literally the “Red Bird.”  

Through all of these different editions and publications, the publishers have tried to create a visual indication to readers of the contents of Zitkála-šá’s book. In the first addition, the cover and her portrait simply indicated that she was an Indigenous author telling stories from her community, but this set of visual signals has gradually expanded. Later publishers also utilize depictions of what would be easily recognizable as Native American culture, as seen with “Girl’s Dress” and Bierstadt’s painting. However, the change that I personally enjoyed was how through the differing choices of portraiture, the covers of more recent editions have come to demonstrate more of Zitkála-šá’s agency. The resistant spirit so evident in her writing becomes more visible on the cover, and readers just need to glance at the book to see it.


“Albert Bierstadt.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2020, from

Zitkála-šá. American Indian Stories. Washington: Hayword Publishing House, 1921. Digital. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from

Fisher, D. “Zitkála-šá: The Evolution of a Writer.” American Indian Quarterly, 5(3), 229–238. JSTOR. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from

Girl’s Dress, Dakota (Eastern Sioux), Yanktonai or Lakota (Teton Sioux). ca. 1900. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from

“Joseph T. Keiley.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. No date. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from

Juravich, N. “Life Story: Zitkála-šá.” Women & the American Story. No date. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from

Pair of Parfleches, Brulé Sioux. 1880-1885. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from

Possible Bag, Sioux. ca. 1900. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from

“Photomechanical Prints.” Preservation Self-Assessment Program. No date. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from

“The Dakota People.” Minnesota Historical Society. No date. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from

Bierstadt, Albert. View of Chimney Rock, Ohalilah Sioux Village in the Foreground. 1860. Oil on board. Colby College Museum of Art. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from

Kasebier, Gertrude. Zitkála-šá, Sioux Indian and activist. ca 1898. Platinum Print. National Museum of American History. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from

Keiley, Joseph T. Zitkala-sa. 1898. Photogravure. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institutions, Washington D.C. Retrieved March 1, 2020, from

Editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Zitkala-Sa, American writer.” Encyclopedia Britannica. April 26, 1999. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from

“Zitkala-Sa: Bibliography of Secondary Sources.” (n.d.). Retrieved March 1, 2020, from

Zitkála-šá (Gertrude Bonnin), a Dakota Sioux Indian. 1985. Photomechanical Print. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from

“Zitkála-šá (Red Bird/ Gertrude Simmons Bonnin).” U.S. National Park Service. No date. Retrieved March 1, 2020, from

“Zitkala-Sa.” Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. (n.d.). Retrieved March 1, 2020, from

Keiley, Joseph T. Zitkála-šá. 1898. Photogravure. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Google Arts and Culture. Retrieved March 6, 2020, from

Zitkála-šá. American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. No date. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s