Indigenous Peoples’ Week: American Indians in (Children’s) Literature

I’m a huge fan of kid lit and YA books. There are a few books from my childhood and early teen years that stick out because of how many times I read them, how strongly I connected with them, and how much I treasured them. And you know what? It turns out my favorites weren’t random at all. There was a constant theme in these books, specific to (you guessed it) American Indians. My fascination with all things related to pioneers and westward expansion and natives  hasn’t wavered the older I’ve gotten. In fact, it’s persisted. Probably something to do with having grown up in Arizona, now that I think of it…

For today’s Indigenous Peoples’ Week post, I’m going to be sharing some of my favorite books from my younger years which featured strong themes related to American Indians. These books piqued my interest and stimulated my imagination and opened up a world to me which I would have previously not known anything about.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison by Lois Lenski


By far one of my favorite and most memorable reads. This book tells the true story of Mary Jemison, a young girl whose entire family was captured by the Seneca tribe of Iroquois Indians in 1758 in Pennsylvania. Her family was massacred the next day, but Mary was the only one whom they chose to keep and bring back with them. The book details her difficulties in adjusting from “white life” to “Indian life” but they are kind and compassionate to her and she lives with them for virtually the rest of her life, becoming a highly respected woman among both natives and whites.

Kokopelli’s Flute by Will Hobbs

Kokopelli's Flute cover.jpg

This book tells the story of Tepary Jones, a young boy who lives on a seed farm with his family near a cliff dwelling. One night during a lunar eclipse, he is transformed by magic into a small animal (some kind of prairie mouse, as I recall) and must rely on an old man by the name of Cricket to help him learn the secrets and break the spell. Although this book was a little abstract for me at the time I read it (age nine or ten) I loved the magical aspect of it, the settings of the ancient burial grounds and the mystery surrounding the land outside Tep’s family’s farm.

Mama, Do You Love Me? By Barbara M. Joose and Barbara Lavalle


This is such a sweet picture book for small children. I have no idea where I first found it or read it, but it’s stuck out in my mind for many years because of the illustrations. They are bold and bright and memorable as with any other picture book you’d learn to read with. Except with these illustrations, they showcase the beauty of life for Alaskan natives’ and how strong their connections to nature are.

American Girl Series: Kaya and Kirsten series, both by Janet Shaw

The American Girl books are great historical fiction stories that cover so many decades in history. Two in particular cover the 1800s involve prairie life and American Indians.

 Kirsten cover.jpg

First, Kirsten. Kirsten Larson is a ten-year-old girl from Sweden who is having a hard time adjusting to her new life in America, particularly when it comes to learning English. Her teacher at school is strict, and Kirsten’s life becomes miserable when the teacher comes to stay with her family. One day while she is out getting water, Kirsten crosses paths with a young Indian girl named Singing Bird. They become friends and Singing Bird takes Kirsten back to her camp, telling her that her family is leaving soon to follow the buffalo and that she’d like Kirsten to go with her. Kirsten seriously considers this, though in the end she doesn’t want to leave her family. I absolutely loved the Kirsten books and this was one of my favorites because in my mind, I would have gone right ahead with Singing Bird to live a life that was sure to be way more exciting than whatever she was going to learn in school 😉

 Kaya cover.jpg

Next, Kaya, an American girl whose series came into existence shortly after Kirsten. Kaya is a Nez Perce Indian and her story is set in 1764 in the Pacific Northwest. She’s a smart and resourceful girl who is determined to make her family proud. She tries to race her horses with the boys, goes on adventures without telling anyone, and her pride sometimes gets her into trouble. This series, as with all American Girl books, does a wonderful job of painting a picture of a specific period in time. However, I remember being seriously tripped up by some of the vocabulary in these books. Even though definitions were provided for any and all words that young readers may have trouble with, it was a little bit of a turn off because the struggle to learn and memorize the words eclipses the enjoyment of reading.

Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder


Do I really have to explain what this series is about? 🙂 Anyone who reads the Little House books will instantly fall in love with the pioneer lifestyle. Whether that’s because it’s been romanticized by these books or not, you have to admit there is something exciting and exhilarating about the idea of packing up a wagon and setting out for the west. Laura and her family encounter many things along the way including, (you guessed it) Native Americans whom they sometimes but not always interact with. The few encounters Laura does have are never negative or violent. However, the stories they hear in town about attacks on whites, and Pa’s warnings of the potential for danger, make Laura and Mary wary of keeping their distance.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich


Set in 1847, this book tells the life story of  Omakayas, an Ojibwa girl living with her tribe in the Lake Superior area. As I recall, this books spans all of Omakayas’ life and was very detailed and long, in both a good and a bad way. It was thorough and fascinating but the length may be a deterrent to younger readers. This book did an exceptional job of showcasing native peoples’ lives by portraying them as they were and not in contrast with any other people, which is kind of rare for these types of books.

And of course, every book by Sherman Alexie, the author, poet, filmmaker and advocate, including:

The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian

 Part-Time Indian cover.jpg

To be fair I didn’t begin reading Sherman Alexie’s books until recently, but because a good portion of them are YA, I’m including them all here.

If you happen to have read any of these books or know some that are similar, I’d love to hear about it! 🙂


2 thoughts on “Indigenous Peoples’ Week: American Indians in (Children’s) Literature

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