Rethinking Thanksgiving Indians: Children's Books That Share the True Stories of Native Peoples in America
"It is vital we read books that are tribally specific, include Native sovereignty and depict Native peoples as diverse people of today."
Every year, as we enter this holiday week in November, Americans are inundated with messages of good cheer and reminders to focus on family and fun. But most Americans don’t realize that this is also a crucial time of remembrance for all people living in America — a time to recall the Native nations and their families who, for thousands of years, have called this continent their homelands.
The fall is a particularly distressing time of year for Native peoples in America. It encompasses not only Columbus Day (which frames Columbus as a hero who “discovered” America when in reality he committed horrible atrocities against Indigenous peoples who were already here), but also Halloween (rampant with offensive appropriative “Indian” costumes), and Thanksgiving (a devastating reminder to Native peoples of colonization’s impact — genocide, theft of their lands, and near cultural erasure).
This is why activists have worked hard to rewrite this season in the national consciousness as a time of commemoration rather than one of a celebratory patriotism. Some gains have been made. In 2014 Seattle City Council unanimously voted to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a day to honor Native peoples. But we have much more work to do. And as parents, one of the most important things we can do with our kids is read books that center, authentically and with dignity, the stories of the Native nations.
Debbie is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. A former schoolteacher and professor, she has maintained the extensive blog American Indians in Children’s Literature since 2006. Her writings on children’s literature are taught in universities internationally. Debbie has seen way too many Americans ignore Native history and reduce Native peoples and culture to feathered headdresses and tipis, something “past” and “primitive.” The truth is far from that stereotype.
There is actually powerful and living diversity amongst Native nations. For instance, the households and household items of Northwest nations vary visually from those of Southwest nations because of their different use of natural resource. In New Mexico alone, there are 19 different pueblo nations representing four different languages. To date, there are 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States, well-ordered societies with forms of governance all the way back to when Europeans first arrived on this continent. It is vital we read books that are tribally specific, include Native sovereignty and depict Native peoples as diverse people of today.
Following are 10 book recommendations by Debbie as a start toward incorporating Indigenous-centered literature in your family’s library and reading:
Board books about Native peoples
Baby’s First Laugh, by Beverly Blacksheep
A bilingual Navajo/English board book by award-winning Navajo artist and illustrator Beverly Blacksheep. Who will be the first person to make Baby laugh? In addition to picturing Baby’s cradleboard, Native people are shown in traditional clothing that is also worn today by some as everyday attire.
Boozhoo, Come Play With Us, by Deanna Himanga
Published in 2002 by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, this playful bilingual Ojibwe/English board book for toddlers comprises photographs of Native kids at Fond du Lac Head Start and is dedicated to the many children of the Fond du Lac Reservation. Available from Oyate, Birchbark Books, or directly from the Fond du Lac Tribe.
We All Count, by Julie Flett
A beautiful bilingual counting book by Canadian-based Cree Métis artist, Julie Flett. Through colorful collage, animal exploration and pictures of Native peoples, numbers 1–10 are presented in Cree (with Cree pronunciation) and English.
Picture books about Native peoples
Jingle Dancer, by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Author Cynthia Leitich Smith is a tribal member of the Muscogee (Creek Nation). She writes fiction for children centered on the lives of modern-day American Indians. Jingle Dancer is the story of a young Muscogee girl named Jenna who wants to dance at the next powwow. Available from Oyate and Birchbark Books.
Hungry Johnny, by Cheryl Minnema
Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, Hungry Johnny is the story of an Ojibwe kid named Johnny who feels something every kid can relate to -- hungry! Includes Ojibwe words, teachings, food and cultural practice. Ojibwe author Cheryl Minnema and illustrator Wesley Ballinger are both from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Available from Birchbark Books.
School-age and middle-school books about Native peoples
How I Became A Ghost, by Tim Tingle
Tim Tingle is an Oklahoma Choctaw award-winning author and storyteller. He has recorded the stories of many tribal elders in addition to retracing the roots of the Trail of Tears to Choctaw homelands. The first of a trilogy, How I Became A Ghost is a tale of innocence and tragedy told by Isaac, a Choctaw boy who does not survive the Trail of Tears. Available from Birchbark Books.
The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich
The first in The Birchbark series, The Birchbark House follows the life of Omakayas and her Ojibwe community in 1847 near present day Lake Superior. Louise Erdrich is an Ojibwe writer of novels, poetry and children's books and enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, a band of the Anishinaabe. The Birchbark House was a 1999 National Book Award Finalist for young people’s fiction. Available from Birchbark Books.
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse, by Joseph Marshall III
Set on the present day Rosebud Sioux reservation, In the Footsteps follows Lakota boy Jimmy McClean as he embarks on a journey with his grandfather to learn about his Lakota heritage and the resistance of his people. Author Joseph Marshall III was himself born and raised on the Rosebud Sioux reservation and is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota (Rosebud Sioux) tribe. Available from Birchbark Books.
High-school-age books about Native peoples
If I Ever Get Out of Here, by Eric Gansworth
Eric Gansworth is a writer and visual artist, and member of the Onondaga Nation. His 2013 Young Adult debut novel, If I Ever Get Out of Here, is about Lewis “Shoe” Blake, 1970s life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation, interracial friendship, memory, and love of rock ‘n’ roll. Available from Birchbark Books.
Dreaming In Indian, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Leatherdale
Dreaming In Indian is a powerful and arresting anthology of art, poetry and prose from some of the most groundbreaking Native artists today. The collection breaks down Native stereotypes and challenges reader to rethink. Editor Lisa Charleyboy is a First Nations writer, social entrepreneur and editor-in-chief of Urban Native Magazine. Available from Birchbark Books.
Debbie Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo. Her book chapters and articles are taught in Education, English, and Library Science courses in the U.S. and Canada. She maintains the extensive blog American Indians in Children’s Literature.
Sharon H. Chang is a writer activist. She writes on race, racism and Asian America with a feminist lens and is author of Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children In a Post-Racial World.