9 Books About Native Peoples

Photo by monkeybusinessimages / iStock
Photo by monkeybusinessimages / iStock

By Rachel Ward

If you’re up on your Thanksgiving history, you’re familiar with the Wampanoags—the Native people who, way back in the 1620s, gave the settlers at Plymouth the know-how and skills they needed to survive along the coast of present-day New England. Native peoples’ history is American history, plain and simple. Luckily, there are many great books for the under-five set that celebrate the beautiful diversity among the tribes of Native peoples. Covering topics from origin stories to tepees to Native peoples’ relationship with the natural world, these nine books teach the story of our country through the lens of the people who, for millennia, have called it home.  

Jingle Dancer cover
JACKET ART © 2000 BY CORNELIUS VAN WRIGHT AND YING-HWA HU. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

1. Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Age group: Preschool and up

The local powwow is coming up, and Jenna wants to be able to jingle dance just like the other women in her family. There’s just one problem: She doesn’t have any jingles for her dress, and it’s too late to order any! This heartwarming tale celebrates the power of community and teaches children that sometimes all you have to do is ask to receive.

North American Indians cover
North American Indians by Marie and Douglas Gorsline. Used by permission of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.

2. North American Indians by Marie & Douglas Gorsline

Age group: Preschool and up

This 1978 classic is chock full of interesting facts about different tribes of Native peoples. For instance, the Blackfeet tribes would paint their tepees with scenes of the inhabitants’ feats of bravery and the Anasazi tribe liked to defy gravity by building their homes in apartment-like structures on the sides of cliffs.

Thunder Boy Jr cover
Text copyright © 2016 by Sherman Alexie. Front cover and illustration copyright © 2016 by Yuyi Morales. Used by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved.

3. Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie

Age group: Toddlers and up

Thunder Boy Jr. is on the hunt for his own name because he’s tired of constantly being called “Little Thunder” (can you guess what his dad’s nickname is?). Plus, names in his culture are important—they’re supposed to describe an individual’s personality or accomplishments. Luckily, his dad’s on his side, and together they find the perfect name for him!

Very First Americans cover
The Very First Americans by Cara Ashrose. Illustrated by Bryna Waldman. Used by permission of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved.

4. The Very First Americans by Cara Ashrose

Age group: Toddlers and up

Geography has everything to do with how Native Americans lived, and this book helps children make those connections. For example, the Plains tribes hunted buffalo for food and lived in easily disassembled tepees to follow the buffalo herds, while the Northwest tribes fished in the rivers for their food and lived near the rivers in longhouses made of wood.

Corn Is Maize cover
Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers. This selection may not be re-illustrated without written permission of HarperCollins.

5. Corn Is Maize: The Gift of the Indians by Aliki

Age group: Preschool and up

Corn is a-maize-ing and this book explains why! Its growing process, its importance to Native American tribes, how corn helped European settlers survive their first years in America—fascinating kernels are waiting on every page.

D is for Drum cover
Text copyright © 2006 by Debbie and Michael Shoulders. Illustration copyright © 2006 by Irving Toddy. Used by permission of Sleeping Bear Press. All rights reserved.

6. D Is for Drum: A Native American Alphabet by Debbie & Michael Shoulders

Age group: Toddlers and up

This alphabet book will help your child learn his letters and all about the culture of the Native peoples, from their favorite sport (lacrosse for the letter L) to an important food source for plain-dwelling tribes (bison for the letter B). Short four-line stanzas will keep your youngster’s focus while more detailed information is provided in the margins for older (or super curious) readers.

Tepees cover
Tepees by Jack Manning. Used by permission of Capstone Press. All rights reserved.

7. Tepees by Jack Manning

Age group: Preschool and up

Many kids are fascinated with tepees—and this book gives them insight into the real thing.  Your little reader will find out what tepees looked like, how they were constructed, and why tribes chose to live in them. (Other books in the American Indian Home series explore pueblos and longhouses, also recommended!)

SkySisters cover
Selection from SkySisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose and illustrated by Brian Deines reprinted by permission of Kids Can Press Ltd., Toronto. Text copyright © 2000 Jan Bourdeau Waboose Illustrations copyright © 2000 Brian Deines.

8. SkySisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose

Age group: Toddlers and up

Night has fallen, but Ojibway sisters Allie and Alex are excitedly getting into their coats to head outside. Tonight, the SkySpirits are coming, and the girls must trek to their favorite vantage point. The beautifully illustrated SkySpirits (also known as the Northern Lights) make the wait for the last few pages worth it.

The Iroquois cover
From THE IROQUOIS by Emily J. Dolbear. Scholastic Inc. Copyright © 2011 by Emily J. Dolbear. Reproduced by permission.

9. The Iroquois by Emily J. Dolbear and Peter Benoit

Age group: Preschoolers and up

The Iroquois features beautifully vivid photographs of modern-day Iroquois and explores the tribe’s history, social structure, and way of life. Even better, this is one book in a series about different Native tribes—so your little one can become an expert on the tribes in no time!
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