Finding solid literary works on Native Americans is not an easy task. The relationship between the first settlers (as well as modern Americans) to the Native Americans is complex, making it almost impossible depict accurately. To compensate for these difficulties writers have a tendency to depict either a noble savage/white devil or a savage/savior dynamic in a way that can feel ugly and judgmental. I imagine the truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
We cannot change our ancestors actions, but we can change ours. Books are an incredible way to open the minds of young people to allow for them to absorb the mistakes of forefathers and ponder what they can do better in their own time. Below are some books that can open a conversation with your kids about this difficult and complex time in history.
As always, if you like what you see click-through and buy it on Amazon. It’s not cost to you but Amazon kicks some back to me which is enormously helpful in putting turkey on the table.
Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie
A fabulous children’s book written by a Native American authors who grew up on an Indian reservation. It is the story of Thunder Boy, a young boy named after his dad. (His mom wanted to name him Sam.) Even at a young age Thunder Boy wants to be known for something he’s done and not something his father is. What follows is a silly game of trying to figure out exactly who he is until he and his dad finally find the perfect name.
An easy, light introduction some aspects of Native American culture. It doesn’t deal with violence or history or scalping or smallpox. Just a simple story of a young man and his dad. If you are looking to introduce your young one to another culture this is a great start.
Death of the Iron Horse by Paul Goble
A story I missed in history class is the 1867 Cheyenne attack of a Union Pacific freight train. Years earlier a Cheyenne prophet had foretold strange people would invade their land. When reports began reaching the tribe indicating the prophecy was coming true a set of warriors leave to investigate. They learn of a huge iron horse that is coming nearer and devise a way to stop it. What results is the only successful derailment by Native Americans.
This book stays fairly true to the story while glossing over the deaths of the train crew (I think it’s important to be accurate, but save that for when the kid is a little bit older). It’s a fairly age appropriate way of introducing the hardships of the Native Americans, but be aware your child will probably need to talk it out. It is written by a British author who has had a long-standing love of Native American culture and spirituality since he was young.
Squanto’s Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac
Most kids in 1st grade will be talking about the first Thanksgiving, what it means and how to be thankful. Most likely they will know the story from the viewpoint of the white settlers. What makes this book so amazing is it is the story of the first Thanksgiving told entirely from a native perspective.
Squanto is abducted and sold as a save to Spain. Spanish friars help him escape and teach him the language, when he returns to his homeland he works as a mediator between his tribe and the new colonies. Historically, it was the cooperative work of Squanto that allowed for the early Plymouth Colony to survive. Bruchac, a well known author of Native American decent includes an afterward which describes the research he underwent to be able to tell this story.
The book is entirely historically accurate and will help your young ones to understand what a valued role Native American’s play in history.
Malian’s Song by Marge Bruchac
Young Malian lives in an Abenaki village near Montreal during the 1700’s. She is happy with her parents and extended family until their village is attacked and her father killed. She moves through the difficult next months by singing her “loneliness song”. This book is real piece of oral history passed down from generation to generation in the Abenaki tribe, an incredible thing to share with a child.
Marge Bruchac is this sister of Joseph Bruchac (see above). Both are dedicated to holding onto their culture and presenting it in a historically accurate way to children and young adults. This book is brilliant as it explains in simple non confrontational language the brutal attack on the Abenaki in the mid 1700’s. While the subject matter is difficult it is written appropriately for this age group and will certainly spark conversation between you and your little loved ones.
Chickadee by Louise Erdrich
The story of an Ojibwa family living in northern Minnesota in the middle of the 18oo’s. Chickadee and his twin brother Makoon play a prank on a man who mocks Chickadee’s name and size. The man’s sons are incensed by the prank and carry Chickadee away into servitude. Chickadee’s family is determined to find him and Chickadee is determined to escape, which leads to a middle reader book full of suspense, culture, and fun.
Erdrich was born to a German-American mother and Chippewa father. Her writings all focus on Native American culture, characters and settings. Chickadee is a fun and easy way to introduce children to some aspects of Native American life. It also has the added bonus of Chickadee being small but strong and brave, a solid message for this age group.
The Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac
Based on a true story during the American Revolution, a young Abenaki Indian experiences his family being slaughtered by white men. Happening concurrently is the life of a young Quaker boy, tired of being teased for his pacifism. The book is told in alternating viewpoints allowing the reader to see how both of the boys views culture and their differences.
Bruchac is a long time writer of Abenaki children’s books. He is a poet, novelist, storyteller, and scholar of Native American culture. He travels throughout the world sharing culture and stories of the Abenaki. His commitment to telling culturally true and sensitive stories makes him a great pick for this age.
Kaya: An American Girl:1764 by Janet Shaw
Who, of my generation, didn’t love the American Girl storybooks? My parents gave me the pioneer Kirsten and her book set one year for Christmas and we became inseparable. A close friend had colonial Felicity and we often invented games where we were the heroes of the eras our dolls were from. The books sparked our imagination in a way that forever made me interested in historical fiction.
Kaya is a Nez Perce girl who is head strong and impulsive but is willing to learn from her mistakes. She has hopes to someday be a great leader. Each of the six books in the series introduces the young reader to a different obstacle that Kaya must be overcome and it’s easy to become enmeshed in this world. Written for a little older crowd than some of the the previous American Girl books is a good fit for the 9-10 year age range.
A bonus to this book is all the research that went into making it historically accurate, the project took five years to complete. The process for publication included approaching the cultural arts coordinator for the Nez Perce tribe, who in turn approached the tribal elders. The company genuinely wanted a book that accurately displayed the life and times of a Native American girl of 1764, and the tribe agreed to the project. Following, there was an eight member advisory board consisting of Nez Perce tribal elders, historians, and educators that reviewed all the books before they were released.
My Name is America: The Journal of Jesse Smoke, A Cherokee Boy by Joseph Bruchac
My mom is a sucker for a historical novel and putting these lists together I’m realizing how much of that she imparted onto us. I had a great love for the “Dear America” books as a pre-teen. If you are unfamiliar, this series consist of a string of diary entries that tell a story written from a female voice. “My Name is America” has the same idea but is told from the viewpoint of a male protagonist.
This book is the journal of sixteen year old Jesse Smoke as he records the events that lead up the the Trail of Tears and the subsequent, brutal, journey out west. It is written in journal format and describes everyday life as a Cherokee.
While part of a series this particular book is written by a Native American author who researched seemingly every aspect of the Trail of Tears. He integrates the Cherokee creation story, politics, tribal practices in a way that will help your junior high student understand why this is such a big deal.
If you’d like the female voice on a similar topic check out The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, New Mexico 1864 by Ann Turner
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
This is a semi-autobiographical story of Junior, a sixteen year old boy who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. His mother gets a job in Washington DC and he leaves everything he knows on the reservation for a chance at a better future at a school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. It’s a simple book but very deep thinking as it reflects on life, relationships, how Native Americans have been treated, and why education is important.
One of the best parts about the book is it is an incredible look at what it means to be Native American in today’s society, it respects the cultural differences while acknowledging poor treatment. Teenagers are also notoriously horrible to each other and it will give the junior high reader a chance to reflect on their own treatment of people different from themselves. Warning, this book does have some have a very brief mentioning of masturbation and looking at girl’s breasts. If this bothers you or if your kid is still a bit too young give The Warriors by Joseph Bruchac a try. It has a similar premise with a strong focus on Lacrosse.
The Primrose Way by Jackie French Koller
This book is making the list for one pretty amazing reason…I like Rebekah is open to having her mind expanded. At an age where your opinions are starting to set and what other people think is so important I appreciate a heroine who is about to think for herself and look outside her own cultural norms.
Rebekah is sixteen year old who moves to a Puritan missionary settlement. The move is not what she expects, the living conditions are poor and the treatment of the native people shocking. She begins to question her own faith and beliefs while making a Pawtucket friend. Her friend eventually introduces her to a kinsmen and Rebekah falls in love.
The book has a pretty substantial biography, as well as glossaries and an afterward which lends it much historical credence. It is well researched and (after the first couple of chapters) it moves quick. Adults might fight the love story a cliché… but its age appropriate and has good lessons for the emerging teenager.
Lower Classmen (9th/10th)
Into the Americas (A novel based on a true story) By Lance and James Morcan
A coming of age story about nineteen year old blacksmith John Jewitt who (along with one other person) survives an attack by the Mowachaht tribe in the Pacific Northwest. He is taken into a life of slavery and eventually falls in love with Eu-stochee . When Eu-stochee becomes pregnant he has a difficult choice to make
This book is the result of a father and son team plus thirteen years of research and writing. Into the Americas is based off the real journals of a historical John Jewitt. The authors acknowledge that in the storytelling process it becomes necessary to add to or take away from the true account and write an afterwards alerting the reader what is historically true and what is embellished.
Upper Classmen (11th/12th)
The Red Heart by James Alexander Thom
Five year old Frances Slocum is abducted from her Quaker family by Indians during the Revolutionary War. The book follows her journey of growing up as a member of the tribe, eventually marrying a Miami chief, and being found by her family nearly sixty years after she was abducted. A bonus is this book is based on a true story and historical figure.
The Red Heart is somewhat guilty of painting a nobel savage picture. Historical records indicate the Indians who carried off Frances also took two other children who were later killed for crying too much. The author edits this information into a Disney version for the book, painting a kinder picture of a difficult situation. Regardless this book is a worthwhile read and an easy conversation starter.
For this blog I contacted a friend of mine who is working on her PhD in Native American Studies, she had some brilliant thoughts that helped inform this article. If you’re looking for further reading in any of these ages she recommended Sherman Alexie who writes mostly at a junior high level and Louise Endrich who writes many books at junior and senior high level.