In the spirit of October 11th being Indigenous Peoples’ Day and November being Native American Heritage Month, I’ve compiled a list of picture books with concepts and characters that call attention to Native American heritage. A lot of Native American stories and myths were preserved through the generations with the help of oral storytelling. In pre-colonial times, a Native American tribe might have gathered around a fire, with leaders weaving powerful tales involving that tribe’s history, nature and animals, and nearly every story culminating in a valuable life lesson.
According to the Education Resources Information Center, orally retelling stories to children can boost a child’s senses of empathy and personal identity as they connect with characters in the story. It may also benefit a child’s communication and listening skills.
The following five picture books contain elements of Native American storytelling tradition and/or feature Native American protagonists, and can be recited to your child day or night.
1. How Chipmunk Got His Stripes by James & Joseph Bruchac (2003)
Many Native American stories are meant to take place during pre-human times, and host instead a lively cast of animals. How Chipmunk Got His Stripes is one of these stories. It features a boastful bear and teasing squirrel who get into a fight over the bear’s alleged control over the rising sun. The squirrel ends up with stripes on his back, and is called a chipmunk from that day forward. The moral of this fun, lighthearted tale is that braggers nor teasers will come out on top. For more on How Chipmunk Got His Stripes, follow this link.
- “Very thoughtful, very well written, and the illustrations are always fun.”
2. Sharice’s Big Voice by Sharice Davids (2021)
Written by U.S. Congresswoman Sharice Davids, this book is based on Davids’ own journey to Congress. As a girl of Native descent who looked different than the other kids, Davids’ path to Congress required lots of hard work and determination. Sharice’s Big Voice contains educational elements, as we learn that Davids descends from the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin, who call themselves “People of the Big Voice.” It’s a story about chasing dreams and defying circumstances. Secure your own copy here.
- “This book is a great example of the ever-evolving narrative critical to our growth as a society. I cannot wait to read this book to my children and grandchildren. This is a great purchase for new parents and seasoned parents alike. Everyone can learn something from this powerful story. It is the perfect blend of educational and empowering.”
3. Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend by by Donald F. Montileaux (2014)
This story follows a young Lakota warrior as his tribe discovers and tames a vividly colorful and never-before-seen animal: horses. But with pride also comes a fall, and the Great Spirit ends up temporarily removing horses from the lands. Even the ledger-style illustrations in this book contribute to its uniqueness, and point to a heritage rich with both land and legend. Learn more about the legend of Tasunka here.
- “Tasunka: A Lakota Horse Legend is a fascinating story that pays tribute to the stories Native peoples have told for hundreds of years. I highly recommend it.”
4. First Laugh –– Welcome Baby! by Rose Anne Tahe, Nancy Bo Flood and Jonathan Nelson (2018)
Readers of First Laugh –– Welcome Baby! can’t help but learn about Navajo life and traditions as two parents seek to welcome their beloved newborn. The first person to make a baby laugh in a Navajo family hosts something called a First Laugh Ceremony, and this book finds us wondering which family member that will be. Laughter is a “holy gift” to the Navajo people, and this book certainly treats it as such. Get in on the joke by following this link.
- “I love the story about a really tender tradition in the Navajo culture, while also showing how the whole family, including the young and the old, stay closely connected, even today. There is so much information about the culture and the value of each member of the family, as well as the community, in a short, delightful book.”
5. The Owl and the Two Rabbits by Nadia Sammurtok (2019)
Inuit writer Nadia Sammurtok makes clear the toils of disobeying good advice in The Owl and the Two Rabbits. Another pre-human picture book, this story follows two rabbit sisters who play outside despite their parents’ warnings, and a predatory owl who suffers for his greed. This is another written retelling that “presents a centuries-old narrative for a new generation of readers.” Attain your own copy of The Owl and the Two Rabbits here.
Whether they further the course of existing Native legends, follow Native protagonists, or are written by authors of Native descent, all of these picture books uplift the voices and stories of various Native tribes. Many of them come complete with universal lessons on fellowship, kindness and humility that are simply too important to overlook.
Don’t forget that November is Native American Heritage month, and feel free to check out the Cardinal Rule Press website for more titles that encourage kindness and empathy among our youth.
A senior in the University of Michigan-Flint’s Secondary English Teacher’s Certificate Program, Lauren is an aspiring writer and English educator. Along with interning at Cardinal Rule Press, Lauren has worked for UM-Flint’s Writing Center and student newspaper. She enjoys running, being outside, and (naturally) reading in her spare time.