Children often learn about indigenous cultures from history but it’s just as important to know that Native American Indian cultures are still alive and strong in the modern-day, too.
Picture books like these show Native North American and Native Canadian cultures incorporating tradition, culture, and language in the present day.
Read these books about these original inhabitants of North America to learn how you can appreciate and understand the richness of so many different First Nations and American Indian cultures.
Incidentally, American Indian / Native American Heritage Month falls in November with National (U.S.) Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebrated the day after Thanksgiving in the U.S. and late June for Canada.
As I find more books, I’ll add them to this list.
Please comment if you have recommendations!
Picture Books About Indigenous Families and Native Cultures
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
First Laugh Welcome, Baby! by Rose Ann Tahe and Nancy Bo Flood, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson
This beloved new baby is warmly welcomed by all his family members both in the city and on the reservation. Big sister cooks blue cornmeal mush. Nima weaves a tree-of-life rug. Papa tick-tickles baby’s tummy. As each person spends time with this cerished baby, they all try to make him laugh. Because when a baby laughts for the first time, it’s an important moment and subsequent ceremony for welcoming a new Navajo baby into the clan. Beautiful illustrations with evocative, sensory language captures this loving family’s culture and traditions.
Bowwow Powwow by Brenda J. Child, illustrated by Jonathan Thunder, translated by Gordon Jourdain
Windy Girl and Itchy Boy’s uncle shares stories with them as they all drive to the powwow where it’s a time for gratitude and family, singing and dancing. Windy falls asleep and dreams about powwows from the past — with dogs representing people. When she wakes, she notices the influences of history on the powwows of today. It’s a dual language story is also written in the Ojibwe language. I love the illustrations!
Wild Berries by Julie Flett
Grandma and Clarence have a tradition of picking berries together. “Grandma likes sweet / blueberries / ininimina, / soft blueberries, juicy blueberries. Clarence likes big blueberries, sour blueberries, blueberries that go POP in his mouth.” In nature, the two notice many things — an ant that tickles up Clarence’s leg, a fox, a spider, and birds. Many Cree words, part of the Algonquiana language family, are included throughout this sweet slice-of-life story about a grandma and boy. I love the simplicity of the text as well as the many sound words that give this book a sensory atmosphere.
Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbar M. Joosse, illustrated by Barbara Lavalle
A mama reassures her daughter that she loves her no matter what, no matter if she gets scared, sad, or angry because the mama will always adore her child “more than a dog loves his tail, more than a whale loves his spout.” It’s wonderful how this book depicts an Inuit mother and child in illustrations that reflect the beauty of the area and culture. Beautiful!
Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi! by Art Coulson, illustrated by Madelyn Goodnight
Thunder Boy by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Thunder Boy wants a name all his own, not just a smaller version of his dad’s name. So he begins brainstorming the best name, all the while figuring out who he is. The story is humorous and playful while placing importance on knowing yourself.
The First Blade of Sweetgrass by Suzanne Greenlaw and Gabriel Frey, illustrated by Nancy Baker
It’s time for Musquon’s first harvest. Her grandmother teaches her all about sweetgrass–where it grows, how to identify it (and other grasses that are different,) and how to carefully pick it in the traditional way, leaving the first blade she sees in the ground. Musquon’s grandmother shares the importance of sweetgrass to Wabanaki culture, economy, and religion. As Musquon searches, she imagines her ancestors in the marsh picking sweetgrass with her. Beautifully written, this small moment story stands out with its celebration of sweetgrass, a loving familial relationship, and culture with soft, earthy illustrations. Back matter explains even more about the perennial grass and how it is used to make baskets as well as defines some of the Passamaquoddy Maliseet words.
We Are Grateful Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frane Lessac
“Cherokee people say otsaliheliga to express gratitude,” begins this celebration of the seasons, traditions, and family. As the families spend time outdoors and indoors, you’ll notice how gratitude encompasses all aspects of life from enjoying a feast for the Cherokee New Year to elder’s sharing stories to kids making corn-husk dolls to even saying goodbye to soldiers serving our country. Each season is written in English and in Cherokee. The pictures are vibrant and colorful. It’s a lovely book honoring Cherokee culture.
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu
MUSCOGEE (CREEK) / OJIBWAY (CHIPPEWA / ANISHINABE)
I like this modern-day story about a girl named Jenna who wants to have a jingle dress and dance in the powwow just like her Grandma Wolfe. Jenna borrows rows of jingles for her Grandma and three other women dancers which, when she dances, makes her proud to continue their legacy. Readers will notice the traditional powwow dance sharing space with modern life.
We All Play by Julie Flett
See the similarities between humans and animals! Simple sentences show animals in playful action plus kids doing the same, showing the similarities between animals and humans. “Animals hide and hop // sniff and sneak // and peek and peep. // We play too! kimetawanaw mina.”
Birdsong by Julie Flett
Cree words interspersed throughout and earthy-toned collage illustrations give this book so much richness. Readers will understand that just like the season of nature, our human lives have seasons, too. With her classic simplicity filled with meaning, Flett tells the story of a girl through the seasons of a year. Moving to a new home is hard but its made easier when the girl, Katherena, befriends her older neighbor, Agnes. They spend time together, becoming good friends. Throughout, Katherena notices the seasons, the moon and the geese, the birds and the snow. One day, it’s time to say goodbye to Agnus whose life is at its end. The girl’s heart is sad and full, powerfully capturing the seasons of life.
Nibi’s Water Song by Sunshine Tenasco, illustrated by Chief Lady Bird
Nibi is thirsty but she doesn’t have clean water to drink! She visits a different neighborhood and asks for water. She searches and searches then advocates for cleaner water. Kids will understand thirst and feel empathy and concern when they learn about this real problem that some indigenous communities continue to face– the need for potable water.
Grandmother’s Dreamcatcher by Becky Ray McCain, illustrated by Stacey Schuett
Kimmy’s dad and mom are in Chicago while Kimmy stays with her grandmother. Her grandmother teaches Kimmy about dreamcatchers to help her keep away bad dreams. Relatable and comforting, this story shows one way to help with separation anxiety.
Shaped by Her Hands Potter Maria Martinez by Anna Harber Freeman and Barbara Gonzales, illustrated by Aphelandra
Maria learns century-old Tewa pottery from her aunt. She uses water, clay, and volcanic ash which she rolls into coils to make bowls. She also figures out how to make black pottery. She and her husband work together to sell pots and teach others. It’s a beautifully-written, inspiring story.
Sharice’s Big Voice A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman by US Congresswoman Sharice Davids with Nancy K. Mays, illustrations by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley
Narrated in first person, Sharice shares how she learned to listen to others and explains her passion for serving her community starting with little things to big things like working in Congress. Beautiful colorful illustrations with vibrant cobalt blue backgrounds help this biography stand out among the rest.
When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett
Narrated in a gentle way that children can understand, you’ll read about when the girl’s grandma (Nókom) had to live at a residential school where her culture wasn’t permitted…This is why, she tells her granddaughter, the grandmother chooses to wear so many colors, have long hair, speak Cree, and spend so much time with her family. Beautifully illustrated, this story shares information in a way that is truthful about the past yet focused on the present. It’s also a celebration of curiosity and a grandparent-grandchild relationship.
We Are the Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade
Narrated from the point of view of Indigenous Peoples, a black snake threatens the Earth’s water with poison. “We are the stewards of the Earth,” cries the narrator sharing a pro-Earth stance to fight for the plants and animals who can’t fight for themselves. Amazingly beautiful illustrations!
Buffalo Wild by Deidre Havrelock, illustrated by Azby Whitecalf
One night, Declan finds a way to release the buffaloes in the stars back onto the prairie where he lives…but it’s too many and they’re destructive so he asks Creator for help. Creator lets a few Buffalo stay behind and returns the rest to the sky. Playful purple and pink illustrations.
Thunder and Noise Storm by Jeffrey Ansloos and Sheeza Ansloos, illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley
At school, it’s too noisy for Thunder, it makes him feel awful. His Mosum (grandfather) takes him for a walk and suggests that Thunder listen with wonder to the quiet of water, wind, trees, birds, and river. Thunder walks slowly, gets still, breathes, and listens with his heart. This practice helps when he returns back to school. Now he listens to his heart and ignores the other noises.
Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp
A simple but beautiful message of thankfulness that is still used in the Six Nations even today at ceremonial gatherings.
Historical Books You Will Also Want to Read
Stolen Words by Melanie Florence
When I Was Eight by Margaret Pikiak-Fenton
Buffalo Bird Girl by S.D. Nelson
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