Of the books highlighted here in honor of Native American Heritage Month, a number feature values common among indigenous peoples of North America. Traci Sorell’s We Are Grateful is one of these. I, in turn, am grateful for these books and their authors, who have expanded my exposure to Native American traditions and history.
In addition to other positive qualities, I appreciate the frequency with which elders—grandparents, neighbors, aunts, uncles—appear in these stories. Many celebrate relationships between young and old, as well as the role of the latter as preservers and conveyors of knowledge and heritage.
In the process of compiling this list I was struck by the multiplicity of indigenous nations and tribes in the United States and Canada. As it happens, through no intention on my part, nearly every author and illustrator included here represents a different group. Some, like the Wapisewsipi of Northern Alberta, were entirely new to me.
One bit of ethnography I gleaned is that the Métis, represented here by Julie Flett and Nicola Campbell, are officially recognized in Canada as distinct from First Nations and Inuit peoples. They descend from combined indigenous and Scottish/French/English ancestry dating to before the middle of the eighteenth century.
According to Kevin Maillard, author of Fry Bread, federally and state recognized tribes number more than 640 in the U.S. and over 600 in Canada.The U.S. Census Bureau reports 169 Native American languages spoken in the United States (American Community Survey Brief, 2011, Julie Siebens and Tiffany Julian). Many are endangered. Several of the titles below incorporate vocabulary from indigenous languages. Bowwow Powwow (see Powwow Day) is completely bilingual, in English and Ojibwe. Perhaps these samplings will encourage budding linguists to pursue further investigation into these languages and their writing systems.
For those who wish to delve deeper, the Native American Heritage Month website, sponsored by the Library of Congress and various federal entities, offers a host of resources, including videos, images, teaching guides, a calendar of events, and links to additional educational sites.
Fry Bread, by Kevin Noble Maillard, ill. Juana Martinez-Neal
(Roaring Brook, 2019, 48pp, ages 2–6)
Maillard’s concise text and Martinez-Neal’s lively illustrations showcase this pastry commonly associated with North American indigenous peoples. An eight-page author’s note details the significance of the descriptors employed throughout the book: “Fry bread is sound… color… flavor… time… history… place… nations.” Maillard includes his family recipe, handed down by his Aunt Maggie. The nations listed on the end papers acknowledge hundreds of both official and unofficial tribes in the U.S. and Canada.
Still This Love Goes On and On, by Buffy Sainte-Marie, ill. Julie Flett
(Greystone Kids, 2022, 40pp, ages 2–7)
Simple yet vivid verse delivers a lilting ode to the Cree lands of Alberta. Saint-Marie’s lyrics and Flett’s gentle lines and hues encompass changing seasons, family history, natural rhythms, and enduring traditions. The scored melody to accompany the lyrics appears on the final spread. Suitable for bedtime or as a prompt for discussions about Native American traditions or family history. For another volume featuring Julie Flett’s lovely illustrations, see her Birdsong (Greystone Kids, 2019).
We Are Grateful, by Traci Sorell, ill. Frané Lessac
(Charlesbridge, 2018, 32pp, ages 2–7)
Sorell has produced a sizeable number of children’s titles for various ages since this, her debut. Several of her works have been published in Spanish, and classroom guides to a few are available on her website. This selection traces the seasons and associated traditional activities, some unique to the Cherokee and some shared by other Native American groups. In addition to the repeated word for “grateful,” otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah), each page introduces a Cherokee word in Latin script, Cherokee orthography, and phonetic pronunciation. The Cherokee writing system appears in a chart at the back. For more on its origins, see Sequoyah, by James Mumford, featured in a February 2023 Story Warren post (“The Wonders of Orthography”).
At the Mountain’s Base, by Traci Sorell, ill. Weshoyot Alvitre
(Kokila, 2019, 32pp, ages 3–8)
Layers of significance underlie spare poetry and thoughtful art. Comic book artist Alvitre’s illustrations are by turns realistic and ethereal. The author’s note recognizes the military service of Native women and the families who have supported them. One such was “Millie” Rexroat, the only Native woman among the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of WWII and recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.
Awâsis and the World-Famous Bannock, by Dallas Hun, ill. Amanda Strong
(Highwater Press, 2018, 32pp, ages 3–8)
This fairy tale-styled story starts with Awâsis’s being sent by grandmother to take bannock in a basket to a relative, à la Litte Red Riding Hood. Fortunately, Awâsis comes to no greater grief than losing her bannock when it falls into a creek. The forest creatures she meets along the way can’t supply her with more bannock, but they do offer up the ingredients to make more. This unlikely development provides the opportunity to introduce Cree vocabulary such as “rabbit,” “owl,” “salt,” “flour,” “sugar.” A glossary and recipe in the back enable to readers to make their own biscuit-like creations. Curious about the term “bannock,” which I associate with the British isles, I found online sources connecting it to both Scottish and North American Indian traditions.
Thunder Boy Jr., by Sherman Alexie, ill. Yuyi Morales
(Little, Brown, 2016, 40pp, ages 3–6) Comical illustrations and Thunder Boy Jr.’s spunky voice will appeal to young readers of any ethnicity. Indeed, the author’s (and narrator’s) Native American heritage are somewhat incidental to the story. At issue is Thunder Boy’s desire for a name that does not belong to his father but is wholly his own. A playful text that celebrates parents as well as individual identity.
Powwow Day, by Traci Sorell, ill. Madelyn Goodnight
(Charlesbridge, 2022, 32pp, ages 4–8)
A young girl’s hopes to dance at an annual powwow are thwarted by her protracted recovery from COVID. A very contemporary dilemma makes for relatable reading while demonstrating the vibrant traditions of present-day Native Americans. Other books with windows into powwow traditions include Jingle Dancer, by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Morrow Junior, 2000), Josie Dances, by Denise Lajimodiere (Minnesota Historical Society, 2021), and Bowwow Powwow, by Brenda J. Child (Minnesota Historical Society, 2018).
A Day with Yayah, by Nicola I. Campbell, ill. Julie Flett
(Crocodile Books, 2017, 32pp, ages 4–8)
A foraging expedition supplies the opportunity to introduce Salish vocabulary as well as traditional foodways. Yayah reminds her grandchildren to give thanks for the bounty they gather and wards them away from poisonous plants. A glossary provides a welcome pronunciation guide for the Nłekepmxcín orthography. A succinct introduction to an endangered language and, potentially, a step toward preservation. Crossing Bok Chitto, by Tim Tingle, ill. Jeanne Rorex Bridges (Cinco Puntos Press, 2008, 40pp, ages 7–13) This moving story was inspired by a song the author stumbled upon in 1992. It recounts a slave family’s miraculous escape across the Bok Chitto, a river in Mississippi, to protected Cree lands. Fueled by friendship, compassion, and a sense of justice, the Choctaw collaborate to aid the flight. Tingle’s text draws analogies to Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea. Bridges’s haunting illustrations suit the otherworldly nature of the narrative.