a list of …five books with Native Americans in the spotlight

I have been reading stacks of picture books featuring Native Americans over the past months, in order to give you a week’s worth of titles focused on these diverse peoples.  I have wanted to do this since this past January when,  in conjunction with Martin Luther King’s birthday, I blogged about books featuring African Americans for a whole week.  I sorrow over the way native peoples have been treated historically and continue to be overlooked today, even by many working in the area of racial reconciliation.  This is my small attempt to bring Native Americans to your attention, through some lovely picture books, followed by a novel, a non-fiction title, and a poem later this week.


Dreamcatcher, by Audrey Osofsky, illustrated by Ed Young

Among the paper birch and dappled sunlight, beside the dimpled blue lakes in the lands of the Ojibway, one little baby sleeps peacefully.  Throughout the day he lies, snug, on his cradleboard, at times dozing, at times watching the activities of mother and grandmother, sister and father.

Berry picking is part of that day, as well as hoeing the garden, fishing, weaving, swimming and games for the children.  His big sister is busy all day crafting a dreamcatcher to hang over his cradleboard.  It is a delicate hoop with a net like a fine spiderweb, and when it is finished she suspends it over the dear sleeping baby to trap bad dreams like so many flies, and only permit the sweet dreams to whisper through the netting and soothe him.

Beautifully written, this rich text touches on many interesting details of Ojibway culture as we follow one family through their day.   Grandmother’s toy squirrel that she crafts for baby, a description of the raggedy man who troubles dreams, and specific children’s games…all are tucked skillfully into the brief, poetic lines.  Ed Young’s artwork, done in pastels, is gorgeous, full of the jewel tones of the land, the hush of living in the forest, and bordered by stunning panels resembling the embroidery work done by Ojibway women.

The Night the Grandfathers Danced, by Linda Theresa Raczek, illustrated by Katalin Olah Ehling

Autumn Eyetoo is eagerly anticipating her first Bear Dance, a long-held tradition of the Ute Mountain Utes.  Spring has awoken, the pale greens have spread across the land, the warm sunshine has nudged the sleeping bears, and today is the day.  Autumn feels pretty in her pink, ribboned shawl and beautiful, beaded hair clip and belt as she walks to the dance grounds.

When the takatakataka rhythm of the notched sticks begins, and the Cat Man enters, it’s time for the young women to rustle about, brushing the boys with their shawls.  When that happens, the boy is obliged to dance with the girl.  Autumn is too young to have her heart set on any boy, but she longs to dance this old, beloved dance, so when the boys run away from her and the other girls, she is stung with disappointment.

Autumn, however, is still not giving up.  There are the old grandfathers, sitting serenely, watching the young people.  They never dance anymore, but if she asked…would they?

This is a sweet, intergenerational story, a nice intermingling of a modern girl and the intriguing, ancient tradition of the Bear Dance.  An Author’s Note explains the history and customs more fully. Ehling’s illustrations are fabulous batiks!  So unusual among the thousands of children’s books I’ve seen.  The toasty warm golds, browns and  bittersweets of her palette are accented with highly-patterned clothing and beautiful hair styles of the Ute people; the entire camp is set amid a landscape of vast skies and distant, stone mountains.  Altogether, she achieves a fantastic Southwestern feel.

Doesn’t Fall Off His Horse, written and illustrated by Virginia A. Stroud

Saygee’s great-grandfather is like a living book, filled as he is with fascinating stories from his nearly one hundred years on earth.  One day, he tells Saygee the story of how he received his name, Doesn’t Fall Off His Horse.

As a Kiowa boy, living in Oklahoma Territory in the 1890s, his heart’s desire was to count coup, thus earning honor for himself and his tribe.  Counting coup was a bold statement of one’s courage and wits, but too dangerous for young boys.  Nevertheless, a very young Grandpa and several of his friends had decided to count coup by stealing some ponies from a Comanche camp nearby.

After sneaking out of thier own camp at night, and riding across the scruffy Oklahoma prairie to the Comanche camp, the boys began squiggling their way along the ground towards the Comanche ponies.  Just after they’d cut the hobbling ropes and begun to break away, the cry went up from the camp and their enemies were after them.  Rifle shots rang out, Grandpa was hit and severely injured, but he managed to hold onto his horse as it galloped for home.  Although Grandpa was expected to die, he recovered, was given a stern lecture along with the other boys, and was also given his new name, Doesn’t Fall Off His Horse.

Virginia Stroud is a Cherokee woman, who was adopted by a Kiowa grandfather, the true hero of this story.  Her writing rings with reality — the impetuous eagerness of the boys, the terrifying retreat, as well as the slow, sweet recollections of a very old man.  Stroud’s paintings are bold, bright acrylics, alive with pattern and color and motion.  An exciting account of by-gone days which demonstrates just how tame life is for most children today!

On Mother’s Lap, by Ann Herbert Scott, illustrated by Glo Coalson

Michael loves to sit on mother’s lap, secure in her strong arms, comfortably snuggling into her softness.

As they rock, Michael collects some of his favorite things — a toy boat, an Inuit doll, a reindeer blanket, his darling puppy — so that soon, Mother has quite a full lap!

At this point, Baby wakes up.  She is crying.  Mother tells Michael that the baby would like to rock, too.  But Michael does not like the idea of sharing Mom’s lap with his baby sister.  It requires Mom’s patient wisdom to collect everything and everyone into one, big, snuggly, content heap on her lap.

One of the reasons I like this book is that the story is simply a story of a mother and her children, which happens to feature a Native family.  I really wish there were more books featuring Native Americans, or other minority children, whose storyline was not heavily culture-specific; stories about everyday life, illustrated with people from various racial/ethnic groups.  Native history is fascinating, and stories of Native cultures before the destructive collision with European peoples are important and captivating.  Yet Native peoples are modern, too, and Native children like birthday presents, worry about school bullies, love their pet dogs…in other words, they fit neatly into the standard storylines of children’s literature and should be represented within those stories, rather than only in stories of long ago.

The illustrations by Coalson are fantastic, soft pastels that seem to glow with warmth and tenderness despite the world of snow and ice just outside the door.  I understand this book was published earlier with a different illustrator; I would definitely search for this one.  Her work is absolutely beautiful.

Taku Wadaka He? (What Do You See), by Joanne Zacharias, illustrated by Steven Smith

Part “I Spy”, part Dakota language lesson — that’s what you get in this eye-catching book.

A little girl and her grandfather are conversing as they walk along the way.   Each time grandfather asks, “What do you see?” we are given a tipi to look at, painted with a collage of images of special interest to the  Dakota people.  Each time the granddaughter answers, she points out another object hidden in that collage.  An eagle.  Lightning.  Thunderclouds.  A fancy shawl dancer.

Turning the page, we see that object in a striking, full-page illustration, this time in its natural surroundings rather than camouflaged, so to speak, in the tipi design.  Each page is captioned with one sentence, written in Dakota and translated into English.  A complete glossary and pronunciation guide are also included.  In this way,  Joanne Zacharias, a member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux and a Dakota language teacher, gives us a small, fascinating peek at the Dakota language.

Steven Smith’s artwork pops off the page in bold colors, shapes, and patterns.  Each illustration gives a strong, vigorous, sunlit glimpse of an important piece of Dakota culture.

Here are Amazon links to these books:

Dreamcatcher (Orchard Paperbacks)

The Night the Grandfathers Danced

Doesn’t Fall Off His Horse

On Mother’s Lap

Taku Wadaka He?/ What Do You See?