A still of Jaysalynn Western Boy taken from the opera film, “Mináǧi kiŋ dowáŋ: a Zitkála-Šá opera,” which translates to “My Spirit Sings” in the Dakota language. Western Boy plays Dakota artist and activist Zitkála-Šá at age 20. Credit: Sequoia Hauck

An original opera film celebrating the life of Dakota artist and activist Zitkála-Šá debuts in Minneapolis Friday, highlighting a woman whose story has waned with time.

The “Mináǧi kiŋ dowáŋ: a Zitkála-Šá opera,” which translates to “My Spirit Sings” in the Dakota language, focuses on Zitkála-Šá, a Dakota woman born in 1876 on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota. Zitkála-Šá (pronounced: Zeet-KA-la-sha) is not widely known today, but she was highly influential during her lifetime as a prolific artist and activist who was a published writer. She also performed in the Oval Office in 1900, premiered an opera in 1913, and co-founded the National Council of American Indians in 1926.

The 30-minute film will be shown for free at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Water Works Park, 333 1st St. South, Minneapolis.

The Opera was created by local artists and An Opera Theatre, and performed by an all-indigenous cast from the Midwest. One-third of the filmed opera is sung in Dakota, the language Zitkála-Šá spoke, and the rest is sung in English.

“I really wanted to tell the story of a native person who not a lot of people knew,” said Sequoia Hauck, the production’s artistic director.

Sequoia Hauck, a multi-disciplinary artist in the Twin Cities who works in theater, film, and poetry. Credit: Sequoia Hauck

Hauck was conducting research in late 2020 on prominent Indigenous figures to base an operatic film on when they came across Zitkála-Šá’s story in online articles. Hauck said Zitkála-Šá’s accomplishments feel relevant to the Indigenous community today. 

“Once I discovered her and her story and read more about her, I couldn’t get her story out of my head,” Hauck said.

Hauck is a multidisciplinary artist in the Twin Cities focused on creating theater, film, poetry, and performance art that decolonizes the process of art-making. Their family is from the White Earth Nation and the Hoopa Valley.

Finding an all-Indigenous team to make and perform the opera was one of the most challenging hurdles to overcome, Hauck said.

“We first started finding seeing if they were local here,” Hauck said of the performers. “I knew that they needed to be Dakota or Lakota, and I knew that they need to sing in Dakota, but I wasn’t interested in finding professional opera singers.

“To me, it was really important to tell her story with people who have lineage around her. I wanted all those singers to be able to feel that their story was woven into this. I want people to watch this and be able to see themselves in whatever manner that’s possible, or relate to it.”

I think my biggest hope is that people younger than me, musicians younger than me, see that this will be an opportunity for them to view themselves as belonging in a space like this.

Lorna “Emmy” Her Many Horses

Lorna “Emmy” Her Many Horses plays 30-year-old Zitkála-Šá in the opera. Her Many Horses is Siċaŋġu and Oglala Lakota, from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. She wanted to join the production to inspire other actors and singers.

“I think my biggest hope is that people younger than me, musicians younger than me, see that this will be an opportunity for them to view themselves as belonging in a space like this,” said Her Many Horses. 

The plot of the operatic film follows Zitkála-Šá’s life in chronological order, “but as much as we could fit in 30 minutes,” Hauck said. Zitkála-Šá was also known by her missionary and married name, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. She was a Yankton Dakota writer, editor, translator, musician, educator, and political activist. She wrote several works about her struggles with cultural identity, the pull between the majority culture and her Dakota heritage.

“A lot of people know about their story but not everyone,” said Hauck, adding that Zitkála-Šá’s name was taken off of her work by a white professor she worked with. “History does not typically tell stories about native women.” 

Hauck explained that incorporating Zitkála-Šá’s native language into the opera was crucial to telling her story.

“It was really important as a non-Dakota person to uphold the fact that she was a Dakota woman,” Hauck said. “I knew that I really wanted part of this to be in Dakota in the language, because language to me is so important. Language to me is how the ancestors spoke. It’s the original language, so I wanted to get back to those roots.”

Hauck said it was a struggle to find someone who could accurately translate parts of the opera into Dakota.

“Originally, it was written in English to be translated,” Hauck said. “We had to find the right person. We asked Sisoka Duta, a Dakota Language Teaching Specialist at the University of Minnesota, if he could translate a third of the opera into Dakota, and then which was sort of a process in itself because a lot of the words don’t exist in Dakota, like ‘dandelions’ and ‘concrete.’”

The production is put on by An Opera Theatre, a new opera company in the Twin Cities intent on breaking down the classical art form’s barriers and bringing communities together. 

“I’m so tired of this obsession with this genre and being so obsessed with trying to define what it is,” the company’s executive director, Kelly Turpin, said of traditional opera. “I can’t think of any other musical genre that is so obsessed with trying to define itself and keep itself boxed. This is why we love working at An Opera Theatre, because it’s all people that are focused on this just being a genre of art. That is musical storytelling.” 

Turpin has been a theater lover since she was young; she smiled as she told stories of her parents taking her to the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul when she was a child. She later went on to study theater and opera, but left the industry after realizing that the culture wasn’t for her.

“I was questioning everything,” Turpin said. “This isn’t why I got into this– from auditioning to the rehearsal room, to performing–it’s just, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’”

The theater company’s main goal is to break down societal, financial, and cultural barriers.

“Art should be of and for the people, and that is what An Opera Theatre is all about,” said Turpin. “The other layer of it is that we’re hoping that people are having those conversations of decolonization. We also hope that they’re talking about the cross-cultural creation of something that is very westernized and Eurocentric. We’re not trying to be a trend with this. That’s not what we’re about. It’s not a trend. This is storytelling. This is art.”

Her Many Horses also struggled early in her career with feeling like she didn’t belong in the world of performance and music. 

“I have been singing and doing music and performing since I was a kid, but I’ve kind of stepped away from that in the last 10-12 years,” Her Many Horses said. “When I was younger, I was really passionate about classical music, but it felt like I didn’t belong in that world.” 

An old instructor once pigeonholed her because of her cultural background.

“I was told that I should be singing ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’ because it aligned with my name,” Her Many Horses said. “I didn’t know what to do. I think that’s what kind of led me down the path to leaving that program–I didn’t feel like it was someplace that I was supposed to be.”

Zitkála-Šá’s story brought Her Many Horses back to the art form that had caused her so much heartbreak.

“It took the right project to bring me back to classical music,” Her Many Horses said.

How to watch the film and related live performances:

The opera’s main project is the film, but the theater company also plans on touring across the country with live performances, as well as releasing a documentary about making the film.

The film will be shown for free on October 14 at Water Works Park, 333 1st St. South, Minneapolis, at 7:30 p.m.

Free live performances from the opera will be held at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Center, 788 E. 7th St., St. Paul, Minnesota, on:

  • October 21 and 22; a community festival will start at 7 p.m. and a film screening will be held at 8 p.m.
  • October 23; a community festival will start at 4 p.m., and a film screening will be held at 5 p.m.
  • The October events at Indigenous Roots Cultural Center will include art and food vendors, music, and roundtable discussions with the artists. Each screening is limited to 75 seats. Reservations can be made here.

More information about An Opera Theatre and “Mináǧi kiŋ dowáŋ: a Zitkála-Šá opera” can be found here

Nikhil Kumaran is a student at The University of Minnesota. He is studying journalism and political science.