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Zitkala-Sa by filmmaker Yvonne Russo
Discovering New York Suffrage Stories

Zitkala - Sa


Zitkala-Sa (Red-Bird) is an animation that depicts a critical moment in American history where an indigenous woman made remarkable contributions to American history. Zitkala-Sa is a prominent Dakota suffragist who advocated for Native American and women’s rights during a time when the United States Government did not grant citizenship to Native Americans, and gender equality was in question.

A Suffragist You Should Know.


Her Dakota name is Zikala-Sa (Red Bird) her English name was Gertrude Simmons-Bonnins. She was a Dakota Activist, Orator, and Musician. Born on February 22, 1876, a member of the Yankton Dakota Sioux raised by her single mother, her father abandoned the family when she was eight years old. Quaker missionaries chose Zikala-Sa to attend residential school at the White Indiana’s Labor Institute. She spent her formative years assimilating into American culture; she learned to become a prominent writer, orator, activist, and musician. She advocated for Indigenous rights, fought for Sioux freedom and self-determination through education reform. She wrote, “Americanize the First American: A plan of regeneration.”

What most people don’t know is that citizenship in the United States was not extended to American Indians as a whole by federal statue until the Citizenship Act of 1924. Native Americans were not considered United States Citizens in their own country. Our ancestors did not have a right to vote. Many tribes and Nations became citizens after they accepted the legal terms of assimilation. Citizenship was pat of treaty negotiations as well as allotment legislation. Zitkala-Sa also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnins was one of those women who stood up for Native American rights and lead the charge in advocating for all Indigenous people and for women. She spoke in Washington and in various social circles and was known for being a woman of high stature.

Her elegance and sophisticated presence graces the stage. She is prepared to perform in front of the Washington Monument to an all white audience. She’s dressed in a beautiful gown and wears indigenous jewelry. She’s a woman who walks in two worlds - gracing her nativeness and also confident in her stance. Zitkala-Sa is ready to perform a movement from her Sun Dance Opera, the first of it’s kind. The audience is taken by the beauty of the moment.


Yvonne Russo


Yvonne Russo
Yvonne Russo Director and voice of Zitkala-Sa with Joe Vagnoni audio engineer

Yvonne Russo, an award-winning producer, director and writer of film, television and digital, most recently serving as Producer on Kelly’s Bar an indie drama about a Mi’kmaq Indian man and an Irish-American woman who fall in love in an impoverished and racially divided 1980’s South Boston. She’s producing with Sea Change Media. She recently worked as a production advisor on Woman Walks Ahead, a period epic feature film circa 1889, which follows widow Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) leaves behind her unsatisfying life in New York City to pursue her dream to be a painter, and bravely travels alone to the Dakota Territory, with the goal of painting the infamous Lakota Chief, Sitting Bull - The film was written by Academy Award nominated Steven Knight, produced by The Bedford Falls Company and Black Bicycle Entertainment. Russo has recently entered a television development deal with Handmade Films to adapt the 1989 cult classic film Powwow Highway based on a novel by David Seals. She has a deal with Warner Brothers Television and Bad Robot to Executive Produce a new television series currently in development.

She is currently serving as director, producer and writer of the feature documentary, Viva Verdi! about life inside Casa Di Riposo per Musicisti of Milan, the home that Giuseppe Verdi built in 1896 for retired opera singers and the incredible musical artists who live there. Viva Verdi! is currently in post-production.

Russo recently directed, wrote and produced an animated short Minnie's War Bionnet, for PBS and is now being utilized in K-12 educational programs in the USA.

She served as liaison and advisor on the HBO mini-series, Lewis and Clark, produced by Playtone/PlanB/Class 5.

As an independent producer, Russo has worked on a diverse range of national and international productions in the United States and over 17 countries from Rajasthan, India, to the East African Nation of Rwanda. Her projects include, 40 Under 40, a documentary featuring America’s top 40 visual artists under 40 years of age, a CBS/ Smithsonian Network production; the National Geographic series, Nat Geo’s Most Amazing Photos; National Geographic’s Capturing the Deep, as well as Nat Geo’s All Roads Film Project and TLC/Discovery’s Bringing Home Baby series, which she also directed; Nat Geo’s Top Ten Photos of 2010; The Other Milan, an episode from the series Nat Geo’s Most Amazing Photos, are among her writing credits. She has produced over 75 Behind the Photo segments that were syndicated on the National Geographic International Channel and for NGM digital studios.

Russo feature film work includes the 2012 feature documentary, The Rescuers: Heroes of the Holocaust, where she served as co-producer. The film was nominated for “Outstanding Documentary” at the 2012 NAACP Awards. She served as producer on the award-winning indie feature Naturally Native that had its launch at Sundance, played theatrically at Landmark Theatres, and was acquired by Turner Classics. Russo produced the feature documentary, True Whisperers: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers, in association with Gale Anne Hurd’s Valhalla Motion Pictures. From 1996 to 2002, Russo served as vice president of production for Red-Horse Productions. She started her film career as a voice-over actor on the animated film, My Neighbor Totoro, and segued into television series and feature film. Her acting credits for television include Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Stolen Women, Captured Hearts, a television special; Naturally Native and American Indian Graffiti are among her feature film acting credits.

A member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Russo is also a member of the Producers Guild of America where she served on the Board of Governors. She was founder and co-chair of the PGA Diversity Workshop. Russo is a long-standing member of SAG/AFTRA, a board member of New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT) and the founder and director of The Akatubi Film/Music Academy, which focuses on teaching Native American youth entertainment and new media production. She’s on the advisory board for the Language Conservancy that works to revitalize endangered languages worldwide. In 2014, she was a grantee of Awesome Without Borders, a chapter of the Awesome Foundation for her upcoming feature documentary, Viva Verdi! She was accepted into the Sundance Institute and Women in Film’s Financing Intensive for Women Filmmakers in April 2014. In 2004, she was a Sundance Producers Lab fellow; a Tribeca All Access Program fellow in 2005 and a juror of the National Geographic Society’s All Roads Film Festival in Washington, D.C. In 1999, Russo received the “Producer of the Year Award” from the American Indian Film Festival, and the “Outstanding Achievement in Producing” from the First Americans in the Arts. She has been a guest lecturer at Harvard University and University of Miami. Russo is a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post covering media and entertainment. Russo is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Tribal Nation.

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Major support for Discovering New York Suffrage Stories was provided by The National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor, by the Susan Howarth Foundation, and KeyBank in partnership with First Niagara Foundation. With additional funding from the Fred L. Emerson Foundation and Humanities New York.