Readers’ Advisory: Native American Heritage Month
Thanksgiving is a time for celebrating family traditions, sharing our gratitude — and feasting! Unfortunately, it can be a difficult time for Native Americans as negative stereotypes and misinformation are perpetuated in the stories we share about Thanksgiving and Native American history. Native American Heritage Month offers an ideal time to explore how we share these stories in children’s books. LibrarySparks writer Megan Schliesman, from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), suggests books by and about Native Americans that offer authentic, engaging and accurate perspectives.
So Many Books … So Little Time
“My name is Buffalo Bird Woman, Waheenee, and my people are known as the Hidatsa. When I was young, they called me Buffalo Bird Girl — after the little brown bird that lives on the prairies of the Great Plain.”
S. D. Nelson’s stellar work Buffalo Bird Girl is written in the first-person voice of a Hidatsa girl who was born in the 1830s and grew up on the Great Plains. Nelson’s narrative, in which Buffalo Bird Girl describes a year in her life, is adapted from Buffalo Bird Woman’s own story, as told to anthropologist Gilbert Wilson and originally published in the early 20th century.
There is so much I appreciate about Buffalo Bird Girl, especially the author’s note that follows the main narrative. The note begins with “My Story,” in which Nelson writes, “As a boy living in North Dakota, one of my favorite meals was my Lakota mother’s corn soup.” He then describes childhood experiences that reflect the traditions Buffalo Bird Girl was living generations before. Nelson’s personal memories are an important reminder that American Indian cultures are not just part of history; they are part of contemporary life.
In many communities, books are one of the few ways children learn facts about Native Americans, so it’s important to offer them resources that are reliable accounts of not only the past, but also the present. The challenge is finding books that are authentic and engaging and that don’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
One such book is Buffalo Bird Girl. Another is the picture book Kunu’s Basket, written by Penobscot/Ho-Chunk author Lee DeCora Francis. Kunu, a Penobscot Indian boy, is frustrated by his first attempts to make a basket. Kunu’s grandfather asks Kunu to help him with a basket he is making. As they work, the older man points out his own first basket — sitting in the corner of the room — noting it took him 7 tries to get the base right when he made it. This inspires Kunu to try working on his own basket one more time. Kunu’s sense of frustration, and later pride and accomplishment, are wonderfully realized in this story about a contemporary Native family, as is the sense of continuity across generations.
Two of my favorite books about contemporary Native children are by author Cynthia Leitich Smith. In the picture book Jingle Dancer, Jenna wants to jingle dance at the next powwow, but she doesn’t have any jingles for her dress. Resourceful and determined, Jenna visits her great-aunt, an older cousin and a family friend. She asks each woman if she can borrow a row of jingles. There are lyrical turns of phrase in this picture book about a contemporary Muscogee/Ojibwe child who achieves her dream with love and support from her elders.
In her easy chapter book Indian Shoes, Smith introduces young Ray Halfmoon, who lives with his grandpa in Chicago. Each chapter relates a believable, engaging adventure for this Seminole-Cherokee grandfather and grandson.
As important as it is to have and share books about contemporary Native children, Native Americans’ history should not be forgotten. The history of Native Americans is complex and often painful, so it’s important to find books that address the past in a way that is both accurate and age appropriate for elementary readers. For example, the experiences of Native children in government-run boarding schools in the United States and Canada have been movingly explored in such picture books as Home to Medicine Mountain by Chiori Santiago and Shi-shi-etko and Shin-Chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. Campbell.
Louise Erdrich has continued the cycle of novels she began with The Birchbark House in Chickadee. Eight-year-old Chickadee and his twin, Makoons, live with their family away from white settlements and the danger of disease, following the rhythm of the natural world like their mother did as a child. But when Chickadee and Makoons anger a bitter, older Native man with a practical joke, the man’s adult sons kidnap Chickadee. Chickadee escapes and tries to find home again as his family heads west in search of their beloved boy. Erdrich’s writing is pitch perfect in a story that is full of charm, humor, warmth and edge-of-your seat moments, while revealing difficult and important truths.
A requisite text for every school library is 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac. Created in collaboration with Plimoth Plantation, this photodocumentary shows a historic reenactment of the first Thanksgiving based on meticulous research.
And after November is over? Continue to share 1621 and other books that offer children today a chance to read about American Indian life in the past and in the present. The American Indians in Children’s Literature blog from Debbie Reese has thoughtful discussions of books (both positive and negative) as well as recommended reading lists. Also seek out books for children by Native authors, including Joseph Bruchac, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve and Jan Bourdeau Waboose.
From year to year, the number of books published for children about American Indians is woefully small. But among those small numbers, there are great books — and great authors and artists — to discover.
- For more recommended books on Native American history, check out the American Indian Library Association’s Youth Literature Award.
- LibrarySparks provides engaging children’s activities, book recommendations and ready-to-use resources from top experts.