Monday, November 25, 2019

Native American Artists in Opera

A design created by Louie Gong, Seattle artist, educator and public speaker who was raised by his grandparents in the Nooksack tribal community. This unique butterfly—composed of two abstract eagles on either side of the Space Needle—is Louie's homage to a city undergoing rapid transformation. It stands as a reminder to both long-time Seattleites and recent transplants that the city's character is rooted in its rich history and communities, and an understanding of this history should lead our decision making as we plan for the future. Over the last few years, this design has also grown to symbolize Indigenous presence and unity. It was initially developed in 2010 as branding for the Seattle Indian Health Board’s Indigenous Cultures Day event. In 2015, a variation of this design was also adopted as the mark of Seattle’s successful movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.
By Arryn Davis

Seattle Opera would like to acknowledge, today and every day, the territory we work and perform on includes the ancestral homelands of the Duwamish and other Coast Salish people. In honor of Native American Heritage month, and to mark Thanksgiving in 2019, Seattle Opera wanted to shine a spotlight on a few indigenous opera artists from throughout the years. From Zitkala-Ša—a Sioux librettist who wrote her own opera in 1910, to Holden Madagame—a tenor helping to pave the way for other transgender singers, Native American artists have crossed boundaries and broken barriers in opera for over 100 years.

William F. Hanson and Zitkala-Ša. Photo courtesy of Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University


Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Sioux), was a prolific writer and political activist at the turn of the century. Most notably, Zitkala-Ša wrote for Harper’s MonthlyThe Atlantic, and published a book of Sioux stories; creating with the goal of preserving her culture and resisting the U.S. government during the height of assimilation. At eight years old, she was taken from her home by Quaker missionaries to a residential school in Indiana, where she was given the missionary name “Gertrude Simmons,” and where she remained until 1887. In 1910, she collaborated with composer and non-Native, William F. Hanson (both pictured above) to write the libretto for the first Native American opera, The Sun Dance Opera, based on a traditional ceremony that was made illegal. The Sun Dance Opera was performed in 1913 in Utah, and again in 1938 on Broadway in New York, however it was credited only to Hanson. Zitkala-Ša went on to found the National Council of the American Indians, and was instrumental in many reforms and policies that improved the U.S. government’s allocation of land and rights for Native people.

White Eagle. Photo courtesy of

White Eagle

White Eagle (Rosebud Sioux) was a tenor and one of the first American Indians to sing lead roles in musical theater and opera in the U.S. during the 70’s and 80’s. Although there are very few—if any—recordings of his roles in opera, he performed many mixed-genre concerts over the years. In 1993 he was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame.

Barbara McAlister, photo courtesy Barbara McAlister from Oklahoma Magazine

Barbara McAlister

Mezzo-soprano Barbara McAlister (Cherokee) began her career in the 70’s as an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera, and performed in opera houses across Europe for more than a decade. She sang repertory roles like Mrs. Nolan in The Medium and Ulrica in Verdi’s A Masked Ball. Today, McAlister works for the Cherokee Nation teaching music and voice lessons to the next generation of singers. She is also a renowned painter, painting in the Bacone style. You can read more about her life and career here.

Holden Madagame performing with Kiefer Jones at a showcase for Glyndebourne Academy 2017 participants (Sam Stephenson)

Holden Madagame

The tenor Holden Madagame describes himself as “Native American, queer and transgender.” After discovering opera during his school years and moving to Berlin to begin his career, he became severely depressed and dysphoric. Struggling between wanting to live his true identity and risking the side effects that transitioning could have on his voice, he decided to come out and begin transitioning. After surgery and testosterone he had a difficult road ahead retraining his voice, but found a home for his unique training needs at Glyndebourne Academy. Read more about his and other trans opera singers’ journeys here.

Correction: Dec. 10, 2021
An earlier version of this post misidentified Zitkala-Ša’s birth name as “Gertrude Simmons Bonnin.” Gertrude Simmons is the missionary name that was assigned to her by an Indiana residential school and Bonnin is her husband’s name, which she took in 1902.