Almost 100 years ago, the first attempts were made to establish a holiday honoring American Indians. These days, some state and local governments have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, and since 1990, November has been widely recognized as Native American Heritage Month. This November, encourage the children in your life to learn more about American Indian cultures.*
In the world of children’s and teen books, American Indians have long been represented as strange, savage, and dangerous. Remember Little House on the Prairie? Books about Thanksgiving are especially problematic. Many books, while attempting to celebrate the friendship between European settlers and American Indians, contain nothing more than caricatures and stereotypes of a variety of cultures that are very much alive today. To balance this inequity, here are three books for youth that are written by American Indians, with contemporary American Indian characters.
In Jingle Dancer, by Cynthia Leitich Smith, young Jenna, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in contemporary Oklahoma, watches footage of her Grandma Wolfe performing a jingle dance. She too wants to dance at the upcoming powwow and hopes she will be able to gather enough cone-shaped tin pieces to make her dress sing. Jenna visits four women in her community who all contribute to making her dance a success. Set in a contemporary suburban neighborhood, Jingle Dancer offers a great counterpoint to the notion that American Indians are a culture of the past.
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve has written countless nonfiction books about American Indians for children. She turns the focus to her own childhood in her picture book The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood. The daughter of an Episcopal minister father and Lakota Sioux mother, Virginia grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. In this story, she recalls the cold winters on the reservation and how she longed for a new, warm coat. Because she was the minister’s daughter, though, any charity donations went first to more needy children. After a long wait, Virginia finally gets a beautiful red coat for Christmas. The Christmas Coat is a great story of family and generosity.
For older readers, Sherman Alexie has written the story of the average teen in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. That is, if that teen is a gawky, artistic outcast who is routinely bullied, prone to seizures, and lives on a reservation. Although life on the "rez" is rough, Junior bands together with his aptly named best friend, Rowdy. But when he transfers to a rich, white school, he finds himself a different kind of outcast among his reservation friends and family. When tragedy strikes his family in the form of death and alcoholism, Junior must cope with loss along with the growing pains of a teen who is trying to find his identity. Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, using biting wit and plenty of humor to face down the complex realities of a kid growing up as a modern-day American Indian.
For more great children’s books by and about American Indians, check out Debbie Reese’s blog, “American Indians in Children’s Literature.” She is a tribally enrolled Nambe Pueblo teacher and children’s literature professor.
Author’s note: American Indian or Native American? Indigenous peoples or First Nations? You may have noticed that throughout these reviews, I have mostly used the term “American Indian.” This term is sometimes used interchangeably with “Native American,” but they are not without controversy. Whenever possible, I have used the author’s preferred term, and/or their accurate tribal affiliations. To learn more, read Amanda Blackhorse’s article “Blackhorse: Do You Prefer ‘Native American’ or ‘American Indian’? 6 Prominent Voices Respond.”
Sarah Stippich is a children’s librarian and the early literacy coordinator for the Free Library of Philadelphia.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu 2000 New York: Morrow Junior Books
The Christmas Coat: Memories of My Sioux Childhood
By Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, illustrated by Ellen Beier 2011 New York: Holiday House
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney 2007 New York: Little, Brown & Co.