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

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

native-american-kids-books

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 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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  • Rainbow Crow

    by Nancy Van Laan, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal

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    Stunning illustrations and a solid moral message make this Lenape legend a feast for the eyes and ears. When the crow gave fire to its forest friends, the once-beautiful bird lost its lovely singing voice and colorful feathers as a result. This moving story teaches readers that sometimes you must sacrifice to help others.
    (Ages 3 – 7)

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  • Keepunumuk

    by Danielle Greendeer, Anthony Perry, and Alexis Bunten, illustrated by Garry Meeches Sr.

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    Keepunumuk tells the story of the first Thanksgiving from the Wampanoag Nation’s point of view. Ships bring newcomers who don’t know the land’s language. Weeâchumun (corn) visits the First Peoples in a series of dreams, asking them to help the newcomers, feed them, and teach them how to survive. It’s a beautiful and much-needed holiday story that celebrates the culture and generosity of the Wampanoag Nation.
    (Ages 3 – 7)

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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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  • The Water Lady

    by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Shonto Begay

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    Access to clean, running water is something that most people in our country take for granted. But Cody’s family relies on the services of an elderly woman to get water. This is a heartfelt and eye-opening story about a woman who gives back to her community in a necessary and meaningful way.
    (Ages 4 – 8)

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  • Finding My Dance

    by Ria Thundercloud, illustrated by Kalila J. Fuller

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    Dance, Indigenous culture, and a personal journey make this stunning picture book memoir a must-read. Ria Thundercloud started dancing as a child and learned many dance forms, but she always returned to her roots. Now, she makes a living as a professional dancer. Beautiful illustrations, the warm narrative, and Ria’s reasons for dancing will uplift and inspire young readers.
    (Ages 4 – 8)

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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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  • Kapaemahu

    by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer, and Joe Wilson, illustrated by Daniel Sousa

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    Anyone who has visited Hawaii will love this Indigenous legend from the islands. Four Mahu (two-spirit people) from Tahiti travel to Waikiki to teach the locals about medicine and healing. The islanders build a monument in their memory that visitors can still see on Waikiki Beach. The text appears in English and the Niihau form of Hawaiian, making it an excellent book for anyone interested in the islands’ history.
    (Ages 4 – 8)

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  • Powwow Day

    by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight

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    Head to the powwow for a celebration of culture, community, and friendship with this gorgeous, modern picture book. River is recovering from an illness and doesn’t feel well enough to dance at the powwow. Thankfully, she has a wonderful friend who suggests the perfect solution.
    (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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  • Chapter Books & Middle Grade

  • She Persisted: Maria Tallchief

    by Christine Day and Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger and Gillian Flint

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    If you’ve read Maria Tallchief’s autobiographical picture book, you’ll want to pick up this chapter book that dives deeper into her life. From her childhood to the stage, readers will learn about Maria’s determination, hard work, and courage that helped her become America’s first prima ballerina.
    (Ages 6 - 9)

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  • She Persisted: Wilma Mankiller

    by Traci Sorell and Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger and Gillian Flint

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    Young readers will love this chapter book biography of Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Wilma’s ancestors walked the Trail of Tears, and she witnessed many injustices against her people. Unsurprisingly, she became passionate about preserving the heritage of the First Nations and fighting for their rights.
    (Ages 6 - 9)

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  • 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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  • Peacemaker

    by Joseph Bruchac

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    From beloved storyteller, Joseph Bruchac comes a tale of war, courage, and peacemaking about the beginnings of the Iroquois Confederacy. When Okwako’s best friend gets kidnapped by a neighboring rival tribe, he wants revenge. However, a peacemaker uses stories to offer Okwako a new perspective and inspire him to bring peace to The Five Nations.
    (Ages 8 - 12)

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  • Rez Dogs

    by Joseph Bruchac

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    With four starred reviews, this heartfelt novel in verse set during the Covid-19 pandemic is an irresistible story of community and heritage. It’s perfect for kids that like books about dogs, friendship, courage, and family.
    (Ages 8 - 12)

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  • Indigenous America

    by Liam McDonald, introduction by Doug Kiel, created by Jennifer Sabin

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    This comprehensive and easy-to-read nonfiction book teaches young readers the Indigenous history of America. It covers First Nations history from the time of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy to European explorers’ arrival and the resulting wars, disease, and mass murders. It also discusses topics such as Indigenous legends, stories, genocide, and advocacy in modern times.
    (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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  • The Misewa Saga Series

    by David A. Robertson

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    Readers looking for a Narnia-like adventure based on Indigenous legends will love this action-packed series from a member of the Norway House Cree Nation in Canada. It’s about two Native American children in foster care who bond over their shared heritage. They find a portal to another dimension and get swept up in an unforgettable journey of courage and survival.
    (Ages 10+)

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  • Killers of the Flower Moon: Adapted for Young Readers

    by David Grann

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    True crime and Indigenous history intersect in this young reader’s adaptation of the adult book by the same name. In 1920s Oklahoma, the Osage Nation thrived and became the wealthiest people per capita worldwide. But when the Osage started getting murdered in shocking numbers, the FBI stepped in to investigate. The Osage and FBI pieced together who was behind the killings and exposed a bone-chilling conspiracy.
    (Ages 10+)

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  • Young Adult

  • The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee (Young Readers Adaptation)

    by David Treuer, adapted by Sheila Keenan

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    Adapted for younger readers from the adult title, this essential nonfiction book looks at Native American culture today. It highlights current efforts to preserve Indigenous culture, language, and traditions and offers encouragement through the lived experiences of First Peoples.
    (Young Adult)

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  • Imaginary Borders

    by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky

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    Hip hop artist and environmental activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez shares his passion for climate change in this short but powerful book. It’s an excellent book to jump-start your teen’s education about this critical issue.
    (Young Adult)

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  • Walking in Two Worlds

    by Wab Kinew

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    Modern Native American culture collides with virtual gaming in this speculative fiction series by the bestselling and award-winning author of The Reason You Walk. Bugz and Feng become friends in real life and the virtual world of the game they both play. But as the virtual and real worlds spill into each other, Bugz and Feng must navigate the challenges of friendship, family, and community.
    (Young Adult)

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  • 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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  • Hearts Unbroken

    by Cynthia Leitich Smith

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    New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Cynthia Leitich Smith delivers a heartfelt portrayal of the challenges faced by Indigenous teens today. Louise Wolfe must decide how much of her heart to give away to a boy while her town erupts into anger over an inclusive production of The Wizard of Oz. And don’t miss the spooky follow-up novel Harvest House, publishing in April 2023!
    (Young Adult)

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  • American Indian Stories

    by Zitkála-Šá

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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 founded 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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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated in 2022.