Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist


"I remember the day I lost my spirit." So begins the story of Gertrude Simmons, also known as Zitkala-?a, which means Red Bird. Born in 1876 on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Zitkala-?a willingly left her home at age eight to go to a boarding school in Indiana. But she soon found herself caught between two worlds—white and Native American. At school she missed her mother and her traditional life, but Zitkala-?a found joy in music classes. "My wounded spirit soared like a bird as I practiced the piano and violin," she wrote. Her

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"I remember the day I lost my spirit." So begins the story of Gertrude Simmons, also known as Zitkala-?a, which means Red Bird. Born in 1876 on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota, Zitkala-?a willingly left her home at age eight to go to a boarding school in Indiana. But she soon found herself caught between two worlds—white and Native American. At school she missed her mother and her traditional life, but Zitkala-?a found joy in music classes. "My wounded spirit soared like a bird as I practiced the piano and violin," she wrote. Her talent grew, and when she graduated, she became a music teacher, composer, and performer. Zitkala-?a found she could also "sing" to help her people by writing stories and giving speeches. As an adult, she worked as an activist for Native American rights, seeking to build a bridge between cultures. The coauthors have told about Zitkala-?a's life by weaving together pieces from her own stories. The  artist's  acrylic illustrations and collages of photos and primary source documents round out the vivid portrait of Zitkala-?a, a frightened child whose spirit "would rise again, stronger and wiser for the wounds it had suffered."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Capaldi and Pearce document the life of Gertrude Simmons, an author, musician, and activist best known by her pen name, Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird). Drawing from semiautobiographical stories that Zitkala-Sa wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in the early 1900s, Capaldi and Pearce eloquently describe her experience at a Quaker boarding school, where she laments the loss of her culture, but also develops passions for violin and women's suffrage. Reconciling her new identity with her roots, she writes and stages "The Sun Dance Opera" and advocates for Native American rights. Capaldi's understated illustrations integrate solid colors and doll-like characterizations with reproductions of period materials, while appended information on Sitkala-Sa rounds out this fascinating portrait. Ages 8–12. (Oct.)
Children's Literature - Lois Rubin Gross
Zitkala-Sa began her life as Gertrude Simmons, a Native American child on a Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Recruited by well-meaning Quakers to go to a training school in Illinois, Gertrude's hair was shorn and she was trained in household arts that would lead to a career as a domestic servant. But Gertrude had greater talents and bigger dreams. She excelled in music and oratory and, over the years of her education in the Anglo world, she blossomed as a violinist and public speaker on behalf of Indian and women's rights. Following her graduation, she remained in Illinois to teach, but found herself drawn back to the reservation only to find that she was a creature between cultures, no longer able to live a traditional Indian life and satisfy her craving for learning and the arts. Her journey took her further east, to the famed Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and to a musical conservatory in Boston. Eventually, her renown as an activist led her to Washington, D.C. where she was instrumental in securing voting rights for Native Americans. Much in the manner of Dave the Potter, this book is a hybrid, both a compelling life story told in the first person and based on the writings of the subject, and a picture book. The illustrations make it more accessible to younger readers. However, this little known story of a courageous woman who exceeded the expectations of her "handlers" and contributed greatly to our knowledge of Native culture is a required purchase for comprehensive biography collections. Reviewer: Lois Rubin Gross
Kirkus Reviews

Zitkala-Ša, whose name means Red Bird, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was Yankton Sioux, a musician, writer, composer and activist who was born in the year of Little Bighorn.

Capaldi and Pearce have taken three of the stories Zitkala-Ša wrote for theAtlantic Monthly, presumed to be autobiographical, and retold them with additional material. While the language has been somewhat modernized, it still sounds quite stilted and overwrought to contemporary ears, although it is very much in the heightened style of the time. The stories are powerful: having her long, thick hair cut short at White's Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Ind.; winning oratory contests at Earlham College while facing a huge banner with the word "Squaw" on it; teaching at Carlisle Indian School and playing the violin before President McKinley; writing the Sun Dance opera (the first Native American to write an opera and have it staged); working in Washington D.C. for the National Council of American Indians. The illustrations use collages of newspaper clippings, railroad tickets,Atlantic Monthlylogos and other archival materials over the loosely drawn, textured images. An afterword, source note and selected bibliographies are included, but the use of the first person may give scholarly pause, especially for young readers, who may not wish to pursue the various bibliographical sources.

An important figure of myriad talents, Zitkala-Ša and her life and works are brought to needed attention here, but it's too bad the treatment isn't a bit clearer.(Fictionalized biography. 8-12)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780761352570
  • Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/1/2011
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 32
  • Sales rank: 781,529
  • Age range: 8 - 11 Years
  • Lexile: 940L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.80 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

As a freelance artist, Gina Capaldi has both written and illustrated books that range from nonfiction, educational, and picture books. Her favorite published works are her historical nonfiction, such as A Boy Named Beckoning: The True Story of Dr. Carlos Montezuma, Native American Hero. One of Gina's earlier books on American Indians has been recommended for elementary school social studies curriculum in the Virginia School systems. Gina Capaldi attended Malibu's Pepperdine University; Art Center & College of Design in Pasadena, California; and Pitzer College in Claremont, California.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2011

    This is amazing portrait of a Sioux woman, Zikala-Sa, recreated through her own stories ...

    The Quaker missionaries had come to the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota where little Gertrude Simmons and her family made their home. When Gertrude, later known as Red Bird or Zitkala-Sa, was a young child she played freely with her friends and celebrated their Indian heritage in games. It wasn't until the decision was made that she would ride the iron horse like her older brother, Dawée, had a few years before, that things would change forever. She too would receive an education, but when she "looked back and watched the lonely figure of [her] mother vanish in the distance," the young eight-year-old began to have reservations. It was 1884 and when little Gertrude rode the train headed to White's Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, people stared and pointed at them.

    Her new found friend Judéwin mentioned that they were planning to cut their hair, in preparation for this new boarding school. Gertrude was strong-willed and claimed, "No, I will not submit! I will struggle first!" Her struggles would prove to be futile as strong ropes held her fast to a chair. A lone tear made its way down her cheek as she beheld a hand holding one of her precious braids. It was then that her spirit flew, a spirit that would not return to her heart for many years until she was known as Zikala-Sa. The Anglos soon set them to work learning and keeping to a strict schedule. The "girls were shown how to be housekeepers" and the "boys were trained to be farmers." The little lost Sioux child was learning many things, but when would her spirit return to her? Would she be able to hold onto her heritage or would it fall to the wayside like a string of broken promises?

    This is amazing portrait of a Sioux woman, Zikala-Sa, recreated through her own stories. When Zikala-Sa, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, was an adult she became a well-known writer, musician, and an activist, dedicating her "life to the Native American cause." The short stories and vignettes in this book were pieced together so well the reader will instantaneously get a feel for Zikala-Sa's inimitable personality and zest for any cause she adopted. Although time can sometimes erase the memories we have of famous people of their time, the book revives them perfectly. It puts that one piece of the puzzle back into place so we can understand Native American culture as she saw it. The artwork meshes perfectly with the tale and brings out the emotional nuances of Zikala-Sa's struggles with every brush stroke. In the back of the book are two photographs of Zikala-Sa, a brief biographical sketch, a selected bibliography, references to some of her writing, and additional recommended book and website resources to explore. This is an excellent, heartwarming biography you may wish to add to your shelves!

    This book courtesy of the publisher.

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