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15 Books to Share Stories of Native American History and Experience with Kids and Teens

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

I traveled in and out of the U.S. often during my childhood, but was in Silver Spring, Maryland, at four years old, in time to celebrate a “First Thanksgiving” with my kindergarten class. I remember the boys building a fort with those cardboard brackish-looking giant blocks, while us girls, as “Pilgrim women,” wore dresses and tore hunks of baked chicken into smaller bits for the big meal. I don’t know which is sadder: the fact that I, along with my (not that many) Black classmates were playing the roles of white colonizers in this theatre of the absurd, or that I don’t remember who played the Indians. I don’t even remember if anyone did; they are erased from my memory, as Native and Indigenous people so often are erased from the narrative of the American past, present, and future.

On Indian Country Today, Christina Rose writes, “Without guidance, too many teachers may celebrate Native American Heritage Month in the only ways they know how: paper bag vests and feathers, classroom pow wows, and discussions on who Indians were.” Many of us who celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday would be hard pressed to know who the Wampanoag people were and are, what the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Thanksgiving Address is, or that government policy forced “relocation” of Native Americans away from their productive farmland and the crops, like corn and pumpkin, that remain symbols of the Thanksgiving holiday today.

November, designated as Native American Heritage Month, offers an opportunity for all of us to become more educated about that complex history and current state of affairs. Like all stories, Native stories are not a single story of defeat, bows and arrows, or of “the past.” They include stories of joy, of cultural pride, of meeting everyday challenges, fun, and celebrations of family and friendship. Along with resources such as  How To Tell The Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Anti-Indian Bias, Vision Maker Media, A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children, and American Indians in Children’s Literature, and the books below, we can begin to tell more complete and honest narratives of the rich and varied Native American story in the United States.

  • Picture Books

  • When the Shadbush Blooms

    by Carla Messinger and Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden

    A lovely celebration and affirmation of tradition and change, this story of a Lenni Lenape girl experiencing the joys of the seasons and remembering the ways that her ancestor did the same is timeless. Video, activities, and more inspired by the book can be found online.
    (Ages 3+)

  • Dragonfly Kites

    by Tomson Highway, illustrated by Julie Flett

    This bilingual (English/Cree) story is a celebration of heritage, the power of imagination, the small joys of family life, and the beauty of the natural world. This second book in Highway’s Magical Songs of the North trilogy is “a loving portrait of a family in communion with their environment,” according to Publishers Weekly.
    (Ages 4+)

  • When We Were Alone

    by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett

    This gorgeous story of a young girl who learns why her grandmother chooses to dress and speak in ways that celebrate her Cree heritage offers a narrative of resistance set in a boarding school experience. Kirkus writes, “A beautifully quiet, bold strength arises from the continued refrain ‘When we were alone’ and in how the children insisted on being themselves.”
    (Ages 4+)

  • Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina

    by Maria Tallchief with Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Gary Kelley

    This inspiring story of Maria Tallchief, who grew up on an Osage Indian reservation and went on to become a world-renowned prima ballerina, will appeal to any young reader with a passion (or two).
    (Ages 5+)

  • Thunder Boy Jr.

    by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales

    Yuyi Morales’s exuberant illustrations alone are more than worth the price of admission on this one. The familiar story of a “Jr.” wanting to establish his own identity (when your dad is “Big Thunder,” you don’t necessarily want to be known as “Little Thunder”) feels entirely original when told with Alexie’s signature humor and heart. Readers will cheer as Little Thunder realizes that he has been, and will always be, his own special self.
    (Ages 5+)

  • The People Shall Continue

    by Simon J. Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves

    The announcement of a new 40th-anniversary edition of Ortiz’s classic was welcomed by many, as this book’s clean, lyrical language and “unembroidered” art make it a valuable teaching tool and wonderful read-aloud. Serving as a counterpoint to common Thanksgiving tropes, young readers will gain perspective on the long history of Indigenous people in North America and the various ways in which they have endured despite European colonization.
    (Ages 6+)

  • I Am Not a Number

    by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland

    Based on the experiences of Dupuis’s grandmother, I Am Not a Number tells a story of the boarding schools that the United States created to “civilize” Native children. The children were often punished for speaking their own languages, physically abused, and forced to give up their very identities. Kirkus writes that “I Am Not a Number is perfect to get the conversation about residential schools started with your children. It opens the door for them to ask questions about the subject and the story is relatable in a way they can follow.”
    (Ages 7+)

  • Middle Grade

  • Chickadee

    by Louise Erdrich

    Set around the same time period as the ever-popular Little House books, the Birchbark House series has become a classic narrative in its own right. “I want people to enter into this world, and children especially to identify and enter into a world where they are among a Native American family. This family had its angers, trials, happiness, pains, heroism, desperation, and annoyances. You know, everything that anyone's family has,” said Erdrich in an interview. The award-winning Chickadee kicks off a new arc in this delightful series, featuring Chickadee, who has been separated from his twin and is on a quest to be reunited with his brother. Followed by 2016’s Makoons.
    (Ages 8+)

  • Talking Leaves

    by Joseph Bruchac

    Raised by his mother and uncles, Uwohali is longing to reconnect with his father, Sequoyah, who returns to his community with a new family. Torn between loyalty to the family who raised him and his newfound passion to help his father preserve Tsalagi tradition, Uwohali comes of age in Bruchac’s vivid and history-rich tale.
    (Ages 9+)

  • Super Indian Books

    by Arigon Starr

    Originally a series of radio plays developed and produced by Kickapoo tribe member Arigon Starr, Super Indian is a two-volume comic collection loaded with humor and love. “You can look at it as satire or parody — but underneath the yuks, it’s great to explore issues of identity, community and how Native folks are perceived,” said the author in an interview with Indian Country Media Network. Fans of both classic and modern superhero tales will devour these stories.
    (Ages 10+)

What other books would you add to this reading list? Share with us in the comments below.

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