Here’s the story of the remarkable woman who inspired Red Dove, Listen to the Wind.
Red Bird, or Zitkala-Sa, as she preferred to be called, was born in 1876. Half Dakota, she lived her early years on the Yankton Reservation, but at age eight, was sent to boarding school. She describes the misery she encountered there in The School Days of an Indian Girl.
Intelligent, ambitious and curious, Zitkala-Sa lived many lives. Besides being a writer, she was a violinist and composer. Her musical, the Sun Dance Opera, was produced on Broadway in 1938—but it was her white male collaborator, William Hanson, who received most of the credit.
In later years, Zitkala-Sa became an effective advocate for Native American rights and worked for the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to all indigenous people.
I wanted to write about this remarkable woman, but whenever I tried, the story refused to cooperate. Fellow authors may recognize the experience of watching characters go where they want instead of where you intend. So, abandoning the idea of writing a biography, and realizing this was to be a work of pure fiction, I decided to describe the movie I saw playing in my head: Old Tom in his battered hat, slumped next to his sister Jerusha, with Red Dove and her brother sitting in the back of the wagon, headed for boarding school and watching their world disappear.
And, as it turns out, wonderful biographies about Zitkala-Sa have already been written. One of my favorites for young readers is Gina Capaldi and Q.L. Pearce’s Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist. I encourage you to read those, along with, of course, Zitkala-Sa’s own work.