When I was a kid, most teachers’ idea of good literature representing the Native American experience was The Song of Hiawatha and Last of the Mohicans. And in case you didn’t know this, neither Henry Wadsworth Longfellow nor James Fenimore Cooper were members of an American Indian tribe. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way in the decades since, and there are many great books written by and about the indigenous peoples of this continent. In celebration of American Indian Heritage Month this November, we’ve chosen some of our favorites.
Just like the many tribes that have inhabited North America, there is a wonderfully diverse range of books available for kids about Native Americans. We’re not talking about historical fiction romanticizing the way a few clever Indians helped the white man conquer their ancestral land. There are some historical fiction tales in here, but they have so much more truth to them when written by their own people. There are picture books for young readers that connect contemporary life to old traditions. There are poems weaving together the present and the past, the real and the mythical. And there are inspiring true tales as well.
Whether your child has Ojibwe, Inuit, or Choctaw blood or not, these stories will have a certain power over them. They will transport young readers and listeners, and in the process, they will banish the notion (still so often perpetuated in pop culture) that Native Americans are but obsolete ghosts of a tragic past.
As Thanksgiving nears, people often begin to bring back those Eurocentric views, telling the story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. Some schools still encourage children to dress up as “Indians” with feathered headbands for the occasion. But if they’ve been reading books from these other perspectives, they’ll have a head start on seeing the original Americans for who they really were and are, not just dinner guests with interesting fashion sense.
Our mission at SheKnows is to empower and inspire women, and we only feature products we think you’ll love as much as we do. Please note that if you purchase something by clicking on a link within this story, we may receive a small commission of the sale.
‘First Laugh — Welcome Baby!’ by Rose Ann Tahe and Nancy Bo Flood
The Navajo have a special ceremony to commemorate babies’ first laughs, but this baby is making his family work for it. Ages 2-5.
‘Fry Bread,’ by Kevin Noble Maillard
What was once a makeshift food invented by necessity on Indian reservations is now a well-known delicious treat. It’s also a cause for celebration in this winner of several book awards in 2020. Ages 3-6.
‘We Are Water Protectors,’ by Carole Lindstrom
Ojibwe author Carole Lindstrom lyrically explains to young readers why humans need to protect water, as so many American Indians have tried to do at Standing Rock, because it is a part of us. Illustrator Michaela Goade makes it a very beautiful part indeed. Ages 3-6.
‘Bowwow Powwow,’ by Brenda J. Child
Inspired by her uncle’s stories, imaginative Windy Girl falls asleep and dreams of an all-dog powwow. The award-winning story is told in both English and Ojibwe. Ages 3-7.
‘Jingle Dancer,’ by Cynthia Leitich Smith
You can almost hear the music and see the dancers (in illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu) move as young Jenna longs to dance like her grandmother, and finds the resources from within her community to make her dress “sing.” Be sure to look for more works by Smith (who is Muscogee) too. Ages 4-8.
‘Kamik Joins the Pack,’ by Darryl Baker
Not many kids can resist a good boy-and-dog story, and this one is made even richer by the Inuit culture and values in the tale. There are two other books about Kamik in this series, also. Ages 5-7.
‘Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker’s Story,’ by Joseph Bruchac
Chester, a Navajo boy once taught in Catholic boarding school that his language was worthless, joins others of his tribe in using that language to help the U.S. Army evade enemy spies during World War II. Illustrations by Liz Amini-Holmes turn this true biography into a transporting tale. Ages 7-9.
‘Indian No More,’ by Charlene Willing McManis
When her father can’t find work in their native Oregon, Regina Petit and her family move to Los Angeles in the late ’50s and struggle to make a new life, stripped of their Umpqua tribal identity but not exactly fitting in with their new surroundings. Ages 8-12.
‘The Birchbark House,’ by Louise Erdrich
This is an answer of sorts to Little House on the Prairie, telling the story of a young Ojibwe girl who lives on an island in Lake Superior in 1847. Ages 8-12.
‘How I Became a Ghost: A Chocktaw Trail of Tears Story,’ by Tim Tingle
This isn’t just a middle-grade novel imagining what the Trail of Tears was like for a boy. Choctaw member Tingle, whose great-great-grandfather walked that very trail, and he is a collector of tribal stories, which he uses in his novels. Ages 9-12.
Leave a Comment