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Dakota Midday: 'The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band'

Sissy Roberts believes she has a family curse: being a listener. Just like her mother, people tell her the bad things she doesn’t want to know, things they wouldn’t confess to a priest. Sissy is a young Lakota woman with dreams of going to college, but since she can’t figure out how to pay for it, she works as a waitress and plays guitar and sings on Saturday nights with the Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band. The group’s handle is also the name of Frances Washburn’s third novel, set in the year 1969.

As the book opens, the band is playing in a rough bar north of Pine Ridge in Scenic, South Dakota for the 4th of July rodeo and dance. After the raucous night of drinking and dancing is over, Buffalo Ames is found dead along the railroad tracks near the bar. Because Sissy is the person who hears everyone’s confessions, she’s drawn into the FBI investigation into Buffalo Ames’ death.

The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band is more than a murder mystery, though. It’s the story of a strong, young woman at the beginning of a journey to fulfill her potential at a time when American Indian communities are on the verge of historic change.

Frances Washburn is an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the American Indian studies at the University of Arizona. She was born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Her two previous novels are Elsie's Business and The Sacred White Turkey. Washburn joined Dakota Midday and discussed The Red Bird All-Indian Traveling Band.

Karl was born to northeastern South Dakota crouton farmers, but was orphaned as a toddler during the Great Salad War (1966-67). Rescued by a flock of chickadees, he grew up in the woodlands of Sica Hollow. Legends of a bird boy living in the trees attracted the interest of renowned ornithologist and amateur bandoneon repairman Dr. Vogel Gehrke. With a handful of suet, Dr. Gehrke coaxed the timid boy down from the trees. He adopted him, named him Karl and taught him not to molt on the carpet. Dr. Gehrke’s book, The Bird Boy of Sica Hollow, was a best seller and Karl became a minor celebrity and teen idol. He appeared as a guest star on numerous television programs, most notably an awkward role on The Love Boat as the boyfriend of Captain Stubing’s daughter, Vicki. After critics panned his 1980 album, Bird Boy Does Disco, Karl retreated from public life and returned to Sica Hollow. Living in an isolated tree house, Karl achieved a reputation as a mystic. Pilgrims and seekers from around the world came to ask him about the meaning of life and for vinaigrette recipes. Growing tired of answering questions, he climbed down from his tree, shaved his massive white beard and took a job as the host of SDPB Radio’s Dakota Midday where he could ask the questions instead. After three years in that position, he ran out of questions and became host of Jazz Nightly instead. Karl makes his home in Vermillion with his charming wife Kari and three delightful children, Kodey, Kasey and Spatula. His hobbies include reciting the alphabet, combing his hair and doing volunteer work with delinquent songbirds.
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