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13 Children’s and YA Books That Celebrate Native American History and Experience

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.

  • Middle Grade Books

  • 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+)

  • Two Roads

    by Joseph Bruchac

    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+)

  • Soldier Sister, Fly Home

    by Nancy Bo Flood, illustrated by Shonto Begay

    Thirteen-year-old Tess feels out of place both at school — where the students call her Pocahontas — and at home on the Navajo Reservation, where her half-whiteness stands out. When her sister, Gaby, enlists to fight in the Iraq war, Tess is bereft, though she agrees to look after Gaby’s wild stallion, Blue. Authentic and heartfelt, this story of family ties and self-discovery is unforgettable.
    (Ages 10+)

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated in 2019.