In choosing multicultural literature, there are many great titles, and some pretty awful stories too that perpetuate stereotypes. When choosing books about Native Americans, it is imperative to make sure the story does not depict indigenous characters inaccurately or negatively, nor lump together various tribes and people into a general and indistinct group. There also is a tendency to erroneously teach young children about tipi-living, feather-wearing, tomahawk-carrying “Indians.” Native American people are not static or extinct; in fact they are contributing members to society, with deep-rooted traditions and values that are pertinent to our world today. Here are 5 wonderful Native American books for kids to begin the conversation about American Indians.This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for your support!
Numbering over 3 million, today there are 500 American Indian tribes who live diverse, contemporary lives across the US. In Canada there are 630 First Nations governments not including Inuit nor Métis. It is so important not to teach your children about a generalized single story, but rather share the magnitude of the diversity among the different tribes, and specify which group and time period you are discussing.
I chose the following 5 books to share with your children for several reasons. First, these are 5 great stories, who happened to have American Indian characters. These books are written about the everyday experiences of children in specific native nations, and do not push stereotypes onto the reader. In fact, the authors devote their time to educate the public about their specific language and culture, and several of the books have additional resources in the back to expand our knowledge. Also, the adventures and characters are interesting, and easy to relate to, and illustrate that Native Americans are not an extinct group of people. The illustrations are works of art by themselves, and completely enhance these unique stories.
The first book appeals to even the youngest readers. In “Thanks to the Animals,” by Allen Sockabasin a 1900’s Passamaquoddy family is moving from their summer home on the coast to the deep woods for the winter. They take apart their wooden house and stack the cedar logs on the bobsled, and make their way through the snowy forest. Baby Zoo Sap falls off the sled and is kept warm and dry by all of the animals of the forest. Joo Tum, his father notices he is gone and turns back on the trail to find him. He thanks each animal for their help in keeping his precious baby warm. In the back of the book, there is a Passamaquoddy language glossery of animals, and we learned that “moose” must come from the Passamquoddy word “mooz.” Listen here to author Allen Sockabasin reading Thanks to the Animals in Passamaquoddy, with his daughter Kendra Sockabasin reading in English.
In “Jingle Dancer” by Cynthia Leitich Smith we meet Jenna, a young girl of Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Ojibway (Chippewa/Anichinabe) decent who lives in a contemporary community with her family in Oklahoma. Jenna wants to dance in the powwow, but her dress doesn’t have enough jingles (aluminum cones attached to the dress to give it a voice). In a sweet story about love and tradition, Jenna is able to achieve her goal with her family’s and community’s support. My girls loved this warm story, and enjoyed watching a clip of jingle dancers after the story. When you watch the video, notice the woman in white about halfway through. My girls noticed “she has a TON of jingles mommy!” An article in the back of the book explains the jingle dance in more detail, and provides a glossary of terms.
The next story is a must read for teachers and parents hoping to break the stereotypes of American Indians. When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger is dual story of a family’s activities through the cycle of the seasons. It begins with a Lenape Indian girl going to the creek, as she knows they did in previous generations:
“My grandparents’ grandparents walked beside the same stream where I walk with my brother, and we can see what they saw.”
The story continues with the pages on the left showing how the activities were traditionally done, and the pages on the right showing how the contemporary sister does similar activities: fishing, planting, harvesting, playing soccer (and a traditional ball game), getting ready for winter, sledding hearing stories, and collecting maple syrup. All ages will appreciate the story, marvel at the illustrations, and enjoy this gentle introduction to Native American literature.
The Good Luck Cat was written by Joy Harjo, of the Muskogee-Creek tribe. It is a story about a cat belonging to a modern family that is American Indian. The cat survives quite dangerous encounters and almost uses up her 9 lives in doing so. I did not miss the subtle hints of Native American culture woven into the story and its illustrations, such as the references to the powwow, the outfits for the Indian dance in the trunk, and the jewellery. Often times books with Native Americans as characters focus on the past, and give the reader the idea that the culture doesn’t live in the present. This book is an example of a contemporary family, who happens to be Native American.
Author Jan Bourdeau Waboose is a Nishinawbe Ojibway woman from Canada, and writes about her people’s respects for the winter “SkySpirits.” SkySisters is a short story about 2 lovely Ojibway sisters (Nishiime and Nimise) who hike through the cold snow one night to Coyote Hill, where they are rewarded with the views of the northern lights. Along the way they meet a rabbit, deer, and howl with a coyote. Their playful and loving bond shine through the book as the older sister helps the younger sister, as they play and make snow angels, and as they share the view in awe together.
Do you have any favorite Native American books that do not perpetuate negative stereotypes? How do you talk with your kids about the diversity of cultures?