Did you know that Native American Heritage Month takes place in the United States every November? While I love books about gratitude and thankfulness and even have favorites about the Thanksgiving holiday itself, I usually hold off on featuring them on our front-facing bookshelf till closer to Thanksgiving. Instead, we take the first part of November to focus on reading and educating ourselves about Native Americans, in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
According to the National Congress of American Indians, Native American Heritage Month is
“A time to celebrate rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people. Heritage Month is also an opportune time to educate the general public about tribes, to raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.” (from the NCAI website)
For more information about Native Americans in children’s literature, I love Dr. Debbie Reese’s website, American Indians in Children’s Literature, and the First Nations Development Institute Children’s Literature Recommended Reading List.
Now, keep reading to see our favorite books to read that are written by and feature Native Americans, for your November and year-round reading pleasure!
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Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk, illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis — Written as a bedtime story, Kalluk’s debut picture book is a lyrical ode of love to a new baby and the nature surrounding the family. Through the book, Kalluk and Neonakis describe and show us the ways that nature blesses newborn babies through gifts, whether physical and tangible (such as the Snow Bunting birds that bring flowers and seeds) or more spiritual and emotional (such as the powerful, protective nature of the Muskox). This one is a new addition to my list in 2020, and it’s absolutely delightful! Be sure to keep this in mind for a unique baby shower gift! Ages 0-6.
My Heart Fills With Happiness / Ni Sâkaskineh Mîyawâten Niteh Ohcih by Monique Gray Smith, illustrated by Julie Flett — Though this book comes in an English-only board book version, we bought (yes, bought, because we loved the board book from the library that much!) the version written in Plains Cree AND English. This is the sweetest story about things that make our hearts happy, and my favorite part about it is how much it connects my children to Native American children, as aside from cooking bannock, my girls can relate to everything that fills the narrator’s heart. While I love books that highlight diversity, I also love books that help my children recognize that despite diversity, we all have lots in common, too. Board book age range 1-3, bilingual age range 3-5.
Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal — While many books on this list focus on the history of indigenous peoples, Fry Bread is a modern-day Native American story. New in 2019, this intergenerational tale celebrates the American Indian tradition of making fry bread, first believed to have been made more than 150 years ago but still cooked and celebrated today. Be sure to check out the lengthy Author’s Note about fry bread, but maybe read this part on your own instead of with small children. Maillard also includes a recipe for Fry Bread. Ages 3-6.
We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade — Many environmental protection movements in America have been led by our indigenous peoples, and those movements inspired this gem! With a repeated refrain of “We stand / With our songs / And our drums. / We are still here” running throughout the book, we watch various individuals and groups of people protect the earth, starting with its water. Lindstrom includes a page of information about Ojibwe culture and water protectors, as well as Further Reading, a Glossary, an Illustrator’s Note, and an Earth Steward and Water Pledge in the back matter. Ages 3-6, though I’d stick with the higher end of this range and go up from there, as this one is a fairly abstract book.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frané Lessac — A wonderful own voices book that teaches readers how the members of the Cherokee Nation express and celebrate gratitude year-round. Sorell also provides readers with Cherokee vocabulary, meanings, and pronunciation, as well as an Author’s Note and information about the Cherokee syllabary, created by Sequoyah in the early 1800s. Ages 3-7.
The Forever Sky by Thomas Peacock, illustrated by Annette S. Lee — Many young readers will connect with the boys in this one, as their grandmother recently passed away and they miss her. Fortunately, their Uncle is able to share with them their beliefs that Nooko’s spirit lives on in the stars (hence, the “forever sky”). This is one you’ll read over and over again because of the illustrations. Each time I flip through it, I notice something else, such as repeated figures or images or the fact that the boys appear in present-day clothing in some illustrations. Peacock includes a Glossary (with pronunciation key) for the Ojibwe words used throughout the book.Ages 3-7, though I’d skew to the high end of this range and beyond.
You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith, illustatrated by Danielle Daniel — Simply written and stunningly illustrated, this is a gentle ode to the support families and friends give to each other. Be sure to take time with both the dedication and the Author’s Note about the Indian Residential Schools. This is also available in an English/Cree bilingual edition. Ages 3-7.
When We Were Alone by David Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett — Narrated by a young girl, Robertson shows a conversation between girl and grandmother, a conversation centered around grandmother teaching the girl about her time in a residential school. Though the topic is certainly dark, Robertson handles it very gently, as a real grandmother might when broaching it with her young granddaughter. Ages 4-8.
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu — Have you ever watched your parent or grandparent do something really neat and set your heart on doing it yourself? Jenna watches her grandmother dance to the powwow drum and decides she’s going to jingle dance, too… and she doesn’t let the fact that they can’t possibly order and receive the rolling jingles she needs for her dress in time. Ages 4-8.
At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre — Loosely based on the life of Ola Mildred Rexroat, the only Native American female pilot to fly in World War II, Sorell gives us a short but tender story of a family separated by war, waiting for their pilot to return. Sorell gives us insight into the life of this Cherokee family, as they work to keep on while the pilot flies. This one might make you tear up and is perfect not only for Native American Heritage Month, but also Veterans Day. Ages 4-8.
Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina by Maria Tallchief and Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Gary Kelley — Many of us know and celebrate Misty Copeland, but Maria Tallchief’s story is also worth knowing. Born on an Osage Indian Reservation, Tallchief grew up in a time when women were forbidden to dance, as was “the white man’s way.” Her family made great sacrifices, however, so that she could dance… And dance she did! Ages 5-8.
Birdsong by Julie Flett — We first read this one over the summer of 2020, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. A beautifully written story of intergenerational friendship, community, loss, and change, we travel over the course of a year with a girl, Katherena, who moves from the city to the country one spring. Katherena is an artist who loves to draw, but she has trouble finding artistic inspiration and drive after the move… Until she meets Agnes, her elderly neighbor on the next hill over… Agnes teaches Katherena about art and farm life, and Katherena returns the favor by bringing Cree culture and vocabulary to Agnes. You’re definitely going to want to read this one! Ages 5-8.
Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes by Wab Kinew, illustrated by Joe Morse — Okay, so I have to be totally honest and say that I have a slightly hard time reading this out loud… The rhythm and rhyme don’t roll easily for me, and I debated leaving it off the list as a result. But, the information about indigenous heroes is just too good to pass up. You’re likely to have heard of some of these heroes, such as Tecumseh, Sacagawea, and Jim Thorpe, but many were new to our family. Kinew is a member of the Midewin and wrote this book (based off a rap song he wrote!) in order to inspire young children and remind them that “you’re a person who matters.” Ages 5-9.
When I Was Eight by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard — A great companion to When We Were Alone for older readers, this is a powerful true story of overcoming obstacles, of courage, of resilience, of achieving things other thought you couldn’t. But it is dark and hard to read, though an accurate depiction of Margaret’s experiences at her Native American residential school. Ages 6-9, but stick with the older end of that age range. This would also be a powerful introduction to the residential schools for even older audiences. Even older readers might opt for the chapter story memoir off of which this is based, titled Fatty Legs.
The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz, illustrated by Sharol Graves — Originally published in 1977 and reissued in 2017 with a special Author’s Note, this story (written in poetry form of oral traditions) tells the history of the indigenous peoples in North America. Starting “many many years ago,” continuing through European settlement and culminating with a message about the struggles of many of America’s diverse groups, this is a powerful read for older elementary students. Ages 8-12.
What books do you read with your children to teach them about and celebrate Native Americans and indigenous peoples?