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15 Children’s & YA Books That Celebrate Native American Heritage

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

native american heritage
Background image credit: Ann Muse/Shutterstock

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.

  • Picture Books

  • First Laugh – Welcome, Baby!

    by Rose Ann Tahe, Nancy Bo Flood, and Jonathan Nelson

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    A lovely celebration and affirmation of Navajo tradition, this story centers on a family eagerly awaiting a baby’s first laugh, which initiates the family’s formal welcome of the baby into their clans. The scene moves from the baby’s home in the city to its grandparents’ home in the country, and the whole family is thrilled when, at long last, they hear the baby laugh for the first time.
    (Ages 2 – 5)

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  • Rabbit's Snow Dance

    by Joseph Bruchac and James Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman

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    Joseph and James Bruchac reimagine an Iroquois folktale on the importance of patience, the seasons, and listening to friends in Rabbit's Snow Dance. Rabbit loves winter, and uses his Iroquois drum, song, and dance to make it snow early this year. But the other forest animals aren't so happy to welcome winter. Will Rabbit listen to them and realize when enough is enough?
    (Ages 3 - 5)

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  • We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga

    by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lessac

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    This picture book introduces readers to otsaliheliga, the word that members of the Cherokee Nation say to express gratitude. The expression is used to celebrate the small joys of family life and the beauty of the natural world throughout the year, as well to show appreciation of loved ones.
    (Ages 3 – 7)

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  • At the Mountain's Base

    by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre

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    This lyrical picture book illustrates the everyday lives and traditions of a Cherokee family as they wait for their loved one, a pilot, to return home from war. A celebration of family and tradition as well as Native American service members, it’s an excellent addition to home and school libraries.
    (Ages 4 – 8)

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  • Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina

    by Maria Tallchief with Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Gary Kelley

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    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 - 8)

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  • Go Show the World

    by Wab Kinew, illustrated by Joe Morse

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    Go Show the World is a tribute to historic and modern-day Indigenous heroes, including Tecumseh and Sacagawea. With lyrical text, Wab Kinew's book introduces readers to both popular and lesser-known Indigenous people in the U.S. and Canada. His message rings true throughout: We are people who matter.
    (Ages 5 - 9)

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  • Priscilla and the Hollyhocks

    by Anne Broyles, illustrated by Anna Alter

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    Priscilla and her mother are slaves, and when her mother is sold, she only has the hollyhocks they planted together to remember her. Everywhere she goes, Priscilla plants hollyhocks — hoping for a better life. Her story culminates in her forced march along the Trail of Tears — where a chance encounter leads to her freedom. This true story will educate young readers.
    (Ages 6 - 9)

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  • Chapter Books & Middle Grade

  • The Whale Child

    by Keith Egawa and Chenoa Egawa, supplement by Jessica Hernandez

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    A look at the changing environment written by two Indigenous authors, The Whale Child tells the story of Shiny, a whale child who is turned into a boy in order to go to land and alert humans about the harm facing the oceans. On land, Shiny meets Alex, a Coast Salish girl who learns that the living spirit of water exists everywhere. With Shiny's help, Alex promises to teach future generations about the importance of protecting Mother Earth. This illustrated chapter book is perfect for early middle grade readers.
    (Ages 7 - 10)

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  • Children of Native America Today

    by Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Arlene Hirschfelder

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    This book of photography features children of Native nations who live in tribal communities. This celebration of culture shows children living, learning, and participating in activities in their close-knit societies.
    (Ages 8 - 12)

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  • Talking Leaves

    by Joseph Bruchac

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    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 10+)

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  • Two Roads

    by Joseph Bruchac

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    In this powerful historical novel, Cal and his father live a transient life after losing their farm during the Great Depression. Planning to join other veterans at a protest in DC, Cal’s father reveals their Creek Indian heritage and sends Cal to the Challagi School, a government-run boarding school for Native Americans. There, with fast friends who become family, Cal learns the language and customs of his community, as well as the injustices they’ve been dealt.
    (Ages 10+)

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  • Young Adult

  • Code Talker

    by Joseph Bruchac

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    “Readers who choose the book for the attraction of Navajo code talking and the heat of battle will come away with more than they ever expected to find,” writes Booklist in a starred review. Bruchac tells a masterful and inspiring tale of 16-year-old Navajo boy Ted Begay who, like many Native “code talkers,” used his language and culture to save countless lives, and became an American war hero.
    (Young Adult)

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  • American Indian Stories

    by Zitkala-Sa

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    Born in 1876 and raised on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, Zitkála-Šá was eight years old when Quaker missionaries appeared, offering children a free education if only they were to leave their parents — and, implicitly, abandon their cultural roots. Expecting adventure, Zitkála-Šá begged her mother to go, and though she was a model student, she refused to accept the estrangement, going on to become an activist and found the National Council of American Indians. This collection of her memories and work is ideal for teen readers, parents, and educators.
    (Young Adult)

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  • All the Real Indians Died Off (And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans)

    by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker

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    Tackling commonly held but false beliefs, such as “Columbus Discovered America” and “Sports Mascots Honor Native Americans,” Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker offer a deftly accessible resource that is a perfect companion to Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. It’s an adult title, but would complement any older teen’s exploration of Native American history.
    (Young Adult)

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  • Where the Dead Sit Talking

    by Brandon Hobson

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    A 2018 National Book Award Finalist, Where the Dead Sit Talking tells the remarkable coming-of-age story of Sequoyah, a 15-year-old Cherokee boy who’s placed in the foster care system in 1980s Oklahoma. In the Troutt family’s home, he meets and bonds with Rosemary over their shared background and troubling histories. Hobson’s book confronts intergenerational trauma and the damaging effects of forced assimilation.
    (Young Adult)

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated in 2020.