Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) and William Hanson: The Sun Dance Opera
Below are some basic questions about the opera. We discussed most of these questions in class. Recall your peers’ answers.
What references to Native taboos do you detect in the opera?
What indications of power structures, or struggles, are made by the opera?
Gender roles? Community roles?
Page 137 – the claim, by the Chief Crier, that “We must away to our
circle. Our chieftain comes with word. Circle, circle camping Sun Dance
land under pipestone cliffs.”
Winona’s monologue and aria: 139-142
144: What role, to the plot of the opera, does the Shoshone Maid play?
What is the significance of her claim that she “Defied the rules of modesty”?
146: Who/what is to shout the name of the winning suitor, after the Sun Dance
concludes, to aid in the father’s decision?
Why is it important that Winona is a princess?
147: To what does Shoshone Sweet Singer refer in the line: “He shall
fall, my victim. He shall weary stagger, weary stagger, faint and fall,
shall fall my victim” (147).
Why intertribal difficulties does the opera consider?
What intercultural difficulties does the opera consider?
How – or where-- does the opera conform to Euro-American expectations, in
terms of language use (both in conformity to “white” language patterns and
in stereotypical employment of “Native” ones?
What of the plot? Is the plot a “Western” plot, one that you recognize from other plays, operas, or novels? If Hanson added Shoshone Maid as a character, who plays a central role in the plot, what does this say about his desire to create an opera that presented a Native tradition in a way that would conform to the white audience’s expectation?
Repetition? Does repetition in the opera indicate conformity to certain Nation oral performance customs or does the repetition and word-usage in the opera replicate stereotyped “indianist” depictions of Native culture?
Below I am including the first paragraph of a presentation I recently gave at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association regional conference about the opera. The paper’s title is “‘Inner life of people little understood’:
Gertrude Bonnin, William F. Hanson, and The Sun Dance Opera”
Nearly one-hundred years ago, Gertrude Bonnin began her collaborations with William Hanson on The Sun Dance Opera, an opera which, according to the 1938 publicity materials, would provide white audiences a glimpse into the “secret life” of Native people, in fact, the “inner life of people little understood.” This paper examines the collaborative relationship between Bonnin and Hanson and the dynamics of cultural translation that occurred during their work together and that emerged for the first time on the stage in 1913 in Vernal, Utah, and finally in New York City in 1938. The basic plot of the light opera concern a love triangle between the maiden Winona, her beloved Ohiya, and the rival suitor Shoshone Sweet Singer. The simple plot, culminating with the dance of Ohiya at the Sun Dance, forms the basic frame of the first Utah versions of the opera. To later versions, Hanson made significant changes (adding a major singing character, the Shoshone Maid) and omissions, most notably the omission of the name “Zitkala-Sa” (Bonnin’s self-given Lakota name) from the title page (Smith par 8). While it appears that Hanson late in life recognized the significance of Bonnin’s contributions, and corrected some of his memoir manuscript pages to reflect this, his understatement of Bonnin’s role in the opera’s creation and performance brings to light power dynamics of race and perhaps gender that left lasting imprints on the opera itself. These power relationships, and the negotiations therein, transcended the venues of the music room and the performance hall. Hanson at times advertised Bonnin’s role as a collaborator and at other times obscured it. By examining her actual role and isolating her contributions, we reattach, incontrovertibly, Bonnin’s name to The Sun Dance Opera, in all of its incarnations.