Why I Built This Kit
One of the things I love best about children’s books, about books in general, is their ability to reflect so many different selves and lives, and to transport us from one life to another, from one individual to another. The late Walter Dean Myers has written about the humanizing effect that occurs when a reader sees some aspect of their life reflected in a book. It is especially important for children to see themselves in books. This kit compiles a list of books, materials, and activities that reflect and respect American Indian people and cultures.
Of course, the flipside to the ability to reflect people’s lives and cultures is that books can also misrepresent and hurt people with stereotypes. American Indians have a long history with facing such misrepresentations in books (and other media). Unfortunately, these misrepresentations are not just relegated to the past. They continue to happen in publications today. Luckily, the number of children’s books by Native authors is expanding. However, the number of books about American Indians is actually falling. A study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at UW-Madison shows that while the number of children’s books published each year has remained stable at around 5,000 between 2003 and 2013, the number of these books that were about American Indians has dropped from 95 to just 34. With such small numbers coming out, it can be difficult to find books about American Indians. This kit highlights some fabulous books and suggestions of materials and activities to complement them.
- American Indians in Children’s Literature – Debbie Reese, who is tribally enrolled at Nambe Owingeh in northern New Mexico, is an expert in American Indian Studies and children’s literature and writes about, reviews, and offers critical perspective on American Indians in children’s books. Her website is a treasure trove of information and ideas, and a great way to stay up to date on publications.
- Techniques for Evaluating American Indian Web Sites by Elaine M. Cubbins – an older set of guidelines, but still relevant
- American Indian Library Association – The AILA has compiled a wide variety of resources here, including this digitized collection of Native American language children’s books from New Mexico.
- Native American Nations by Lisa Mitten – a compilation of links organized alphabetically by tribal name. These list also indicates whether a website is maintained by Indian Nations or individuals with a drum symbol.
* You may notice that many sites about or for American Indians look outdated in that they are mostly text based, without many images or fancy web design techniques. This is because many American Indian children use older computers, and so these sites are specifically designed with them in mind.
Spark Their Interest!
1. Native Americans were the first people to live in the land that became the United States and Canada. They lived here for thousands of years before Christopher Columbus arrived.
2. “American Indian,” “Native American,” and “First Nations people” are synonyms. That means they refer to the same people. You might also hear them referred to as “indigenous people.” This is a broader term that can be used to describe any culture that lived in a place. There are indigenous peoples all around the world. Most indigenous people in the United States use “American Indian,” and most indigenous people in Canada use “First Nations.” “Native Americans” and “indigenous Americans” are also often used to refer to people in both countries.
3. Most American Indians identify themselves primarily by their tribe. Today there are 562 Indian Nations (or tribes) that the government of the United States recognizes. They all have their own distinct cultures and traditions. About 229 of these are located in Alaska. They have their own governments and are guaranteed the right of self-government on their land.
4. Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada speak about 150 different languages!
5. Over 5 million people in the United States identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. That’s a lot of people!
6. The 10 states with the largest American Indian and Alaska Native populations are:
- New York
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
7. Look at maps of present day American Indian Areas such as this one from the 2010 U.S. Census. This map, also from the 2010 Census, shows Alaska. Find where you live on the map. What area is closest to you? Here is another map that shows where Native American tribes have lived in each state in the past, as well.
Learn more at Native Languages American Indian FAQ for Kids.
Other sources: U.S. 2010 Census, National Congress of American Indians
Questions to think about with your child as you read:
- What tribe(s) do the characters belong to? If it isn’t obvious in the story, can you find out?
- Is the author American Indian? How about the illustrator? If it doesn’t say anywhere in the book, how can you find out?
- What part of each story can your child identify with? What feels familiar? Help them see the commonalities in situations, emotions, concerns, etc.
Modern-day stories featuring Native American characters
The Good Luck Cat by Joy Harjo, illus. by Paul Lee – A story for any pet lover about a cat and its run of good luck, the Native American girl who narrates has an appealing voice and is beautifully illustrated. Ethnicity is incidental to this story.
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illus. by Cornelius Van Wright & Ying-Hwa Hu – A contemporary Native American girl follows in her grandmother’s footsteps (literally and figuratively), dancing the traditional jingle dance at the powwow. Jenna, a member of the Creek Nation in Oklahoma, dreams of dancing the jingle dance with the women of her tribe and is delighted when her grandmother tells her that she can dance with the other girls at the next powwow. But there is one problem—there won’t be enough time to order the materials to make the four rows of jingles that are attached to the dress. (Kirkus Reviews)
Wild Berries by Julie Flett - a lovely story about a young boy and his grandmother picking wild blueberries together while seeing lots of animals. Dotted with sounds and words in the Swampy Cree dialect, this is a stunning combination of oral and visual storytelling.
When the Shadbush Blooms by Susan Katz & Carla Messinger, illus. by David Kanietakeron Fadden – A young Lenni Lenape girl travels through the seasons, dreaming of great great grandmother's life, planting seeds, picking berries, playing in fallen leaves, and romping in the snow. Told from the viewpoints of Traditional Sister and Contemporary Sister, each from her own time, this is a book about tradition and about change. (whentheshadbushblooms.net)
Whale Snow by Debby Dahl Edwardson – A young Inupiaq boy learns about traditions in his family and community and their deep ties with whaling and the environment in this joy-filled wintry tale.
The Blue Roses by Linda Boydon, illus. by Amy Córdova – Every spring Rosalie and her grandfather (Papa) sow tiny seeds that blossom into bright vistas of flowers and vegetables. A red rosebush that is planted under Rosalie's bedroom window when she is born, is later joined by pink and yellow ones "to make a sunset." When Rosalie asks for a blue bush to represent the sky, Papa explains that roses do not come in blue. The winter after Papa dies, Rosalie's blue roses come to her in a dream, symbolizing love, memory, and transcendence. With gentle words and magical images, this contemporary Native American story tenderly embraces the natural cycle of life. (Publisher)
Kunu’s Basket: A Story from Indian Island by Lee DeCora Francis, illus. by Susan Drucker – Young Kunu wants to make a pack basket on his own. He's watched his dad and his grandfather make baskets on Indian Island, but now that he's trying to make one for himself, it s not as easy as he thought it would be. Kunu isn't a quitter, but he gets so frustrated that he has to go outside to cool off. When his grandfather asks Kunu to help him with some basket-making tasks, Kunu comes to understand that it is the tradition in his family for one generation to help the next. He also learns that it might take several tries before he gets it right. Can he be patient enough to try again and again? His grandfather shows him the way, and at last Kunu's first basket is something to celebrate. (Publisher)
Greet the Dawn: The Lakota Way by S. D. Nelson – Nelson takes readers through a day in the life of Lakota children. Like any kids, they wear jeans and sneakers as they ride a yellow bus to school, but their traditional Lakota ways are part of that day, too. Nelson’s distinctive style of illustration blends the realistic here-and-now with representations of the spiritual dimensions of Lakota life. (Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature for SLJ)
SkySisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose, illus. by Brian Deines – Two Ojibway sisters set off across the frozen north country to see the SkySpirits' midnight dance. It isn't easy for the younger sister to be silent, but gradually she begins to treasure the stillness and the wonderful experiences it brings. After an exhilarating walk and patient waiting, the girls are rewarded by the arrival of the SkySpirits — the northern lights — dancing and shimmering in the night sky. This powerful story, with its stunning illustrations, captures the chill of a northern night, the warmth of the family circle and the radiance of a child's wonder. (Publisher)
Historical fiction, history, and legends
Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story as told by Salish elder Johnny Arlee, illus. by Sam Sandoval - A long time ago, fire belonged only to the animals in the land above, not to those on the earth below. Curlew, keeper of the sky world, guarded fire and kept it from the earth. Coyote, however, devised a clever plan to steal fire, aided by Grizzly Bear, Wren, Snake, Frog, Eagle, and Beaver. These brave and resourceful animal beings raided the land above and risked all to steal fire from Curlew. (Publisher)
The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin, illus. by David Shannon – An Algonquin Cinderella story...A powerful invisible being will marry the woman who can prove that she's seen him; a poor man's two proud daughters try and fail, but the third, her face and hands scarred from tending the fire, has the understanding to see him everywhere in the world and is lovingly received. (Kirkus Reviews)
A Boy Called Slow by Joseph Bruchac, illus. by Rocco Bavtera – Like most Lakota Sioux boys, Slow yearns for the special vision or manly deed that will inspire his permanent, adult name. Encouraged by splendid stories of his father's bravery, wisdom and leadership, Slow focuses his energy on becoming a warrior. Friends gradually begin to associate his name with careful deliberation. When the moment of his manhood arrives, Slow rides heroically against Crow warriors, earning the name Tatan'ka Iyota'ke (translated, on the final page, as Sitting Bull). Bruchac's (see Gluskabe and the Four Wishes, reviewed above) meaty yet cohesive narrative is richly complemented by Baviera's large, atmospheric paintings. Employing a somber palette marked by radiant bursts, the first-time children's illustrator evokes the solemnity and awe of ripening adulthood. Satisfying for its attention to historical and multicultural issues; stirring in its consummate storytelling. (Publishers Weekly)
Thanks to the Animals by Allen Sockabasin, illus. by Rebekah Raye – As a family transports its home and belongings for the winter, a toddler accidentally falls from the family sled. One by one, the animals of the forest encircle and protect him until his father returns. Detailed watercolors bring this story of physical and emotional warmth to life. The final page includes information on the Passamaquoddy people. (Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature for SLJ)
A Kid’s Guide to Native American History: More than 50 Activities by Arlene Hirschfelder and Yvonne Wakim Dennis – A terrific reference book for your family with loads of activities that are respectful of North America’s indigenous peoples. Several of the activities below are derived from this book!
The first three apps are language-learning apps. Encourage your child to practice using the words and phrases they learn in everyday situations. Take time to learn about the tribe(s) that speak each language. Where do they live today? What is their culture like? Where did they live in the past? How has their culture changed?
- Anompa: Chicasaw Basic – Learn the Chicasaw language through words, phrases, songs, and videos from native Chickasaw speakers.
- Navajo Toddler – Don’t be putt off by the name of this app, it is a great Navajo language learning app designed for children ages 2-9.
- Ojibway – Another language learning app, this time to learn Ojibway
- Bramble Berry TalesThree apps exist in this award-winning series so far which tells stories about Thomas and Lily who learn tales and have adventures based on oral traditions from different indigenous tribes. In each case the story can be heard in the appropriate indigenous language as well. The apps are: The Story of Kalkalilh, The Great Sasquatch, and The Little People. Some of them feature what might be considered scary elements, but the narration and interactions are intended for a fairly young audience. You might want to prescreen as you know your child best!
Watch, Listen, Learn
- All Spirits Sing – Listen to Iroquois singer Joanne Shenandoah’s award-winning music. All Spirits Sing is an album she created for children. Check out this and other albums of hers and listen to full songs from each on her website. Many of her songs can also be found on YouTube, like this one called “Grandmother Moon.” I also love this video of her singing a lullaby at one of her performances. Shenandoah is a member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Nation.
- Sesame Street – Award-winning singer-songwriter Buffy Saint-Marie shares her mouth bow and sings “Cripple Creek.” Then listen to her sing “Listen to the Wind Blow!”
- Chickasaw TV – a wonderful website with loads of videos and content about and from the Chickasaw Nation. Many of the videos feature kids. Even though the site and content are not specifically geared towards children, many of the videos are short clips and young kids will enjoy seeing other young people and the many activities they partake in.
- Attend a Powwow“Pow Wows are the Native American people’s way of meeting together, to join in dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships, and making new ones. This is a time and method to renew Native American culture and preserve the rich heritage of American Indians.” (www.powwows.com) Powwow's are not so much traditional, as a newer invention to celebrate tradition, and make new traditions within the community. This new tradition includes inviting people outside the culture to learn about native peoples. Search for a Pow Wow near you, learn about Pow Wow etiquette, and check out these other resources on the Pow Wow Visitors Guide.
- Learn a Round, or Friendship, DanceMost powwows feature a round, or friendship, dance in which guests are invited to join a circle. The circle is symbolizes the circle of life, which has no beginning and no end. Find a song by looking online, at your library, or purchasing a round dance or powwow cd. Begin by holding hands and moving clockwise from left to right. Vocalize the beat saying “boom,” and move your feet in time. Switch directions occasionally. When you move clockwise, think about (and tell your child to think about) the good things in your life. When you change directions, think about some of the frustrating or less pleasant things in your life. Change directions again, and revisit the positive events and memories. (adapted from A Kid’s Guide to Native American History, p. 6)
- Make Baskets This is a great activity to follow a reading of Kunu’s Basket! Penobscot artists use fallen bark (bark already fallen from the tree so that they do not actually harm the tree) such as birch bark as well as materials like sweet grasses to weave beautiful baskets. Help your little one fashion their own basket. I love the look of these newsprint baskets, using a form like a paper towel roll or an empty 2-liter bottle, or you could try making one out of brown paper bags.
- Learn all about one tribeOne of the best ways to learn about and respect Native American culture is to spend time focusing on one tribe. Help your child select a tribe to learn about by finding a tribe near you. Here is a listing of tribes in the United States by state and in Canada by province. Try calling one of the tribal leaders to see if they have suggestions about how to learn about the tribe today. Visit the tribe’s website. Look for books and stories about the tribe or members of the tribe.
- CookTry cooking up some American Indian recipes, both traditional and contemporary. How about this one for Chokecherry Pudding? Check out other recipes on this site.
- Insect Music Read the Papago story about how butterflies came to be found in ch. 8 (and able to be read in its entirety here on Google books) of Keepers of the Animals. Help your child appreciate insects and not just think of them as pests through listening to the symphony insects create. Take your child out to an area where crickets, grasshoppers, or cicadas are making noises. Close your eyes and focus on listening. How many different noises can they hear? Then ask them to imitate the insect calls. Try making instruments out of combs, sticks, cans, boxes, etc. Encourage your kiddo to play their instruments for the insects. Do the insects respond? What does your child think? Find more stories and activities in Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children by Michael Caduto and Joseph Bruchac.
- Make a Visit. Take a field trip with your child to visit a tribal library, Native American Indian heritage center, historical site, art exhibition, or other cultural center. Use this directory to find a site near you.
About Alexandra H.:
Greetings from central Maine! Things you should know about me: I am the mother of an inquisitive, active toddler who keeps me on my toes. I work in a small, independent children’s bookstore where I get to help kids, teens, and their grown-ups find books that will keep them up reading all night long. Just kidding about that last part, they go to sleep eventually, I swear. Well, I don’t swear, but I assume. But matching people and books? My favorite way to play matchmaker! Before moving to Maine I worked as a historical researcher for American Girl, where I learned about everything from steamboats to wars to parrots. I am also a children’s book author myself, with my first picture book due to come out in 2015! When I’m not knee-deep in books or blocks or a sandbox, I bake a lot, avoid cleaning at all costs, and try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. For the record, I would love to be a neat and orderly person, it just doesn’t seem to be my style. I’m working on it.