While many Americans mark today as Columbus Day, here in Minneapolis, I’m glad to say, we also honor it as Indigenous People’s Day.
As Columbus didn’t discover the Americas — numerous peoples and vast civilizations were already here when he arrived — and as he wasn’t the first European to find the Americas — did you know that yesterday was officially Leif Erikson Day? — and as he stumbled across the continents quite in error…you must admit, it’s a bit of a strange holiday. Not to mention the aftermath.
I much prefer to honor the First Nations in their fascinating array of cultures, from the whale-hunting, blanket-tossing peoples of the Arctic to the pueblo-building, basket-weaving peoples of the Southwest. Native Americans continue to be largely overlooked and misunderstood in our nation’s conversations about history, racism, and civil rights. Becoming acquainted through the small but growing shelf of children’s literature is a valuable step in the right direction.
A gorgeous array of cradleboards from various nations.
All of the titles I chose for today happen to cover peoples from more northerly regions, from the Arctic stretching down through the Great Plains of Canada and the United States and across to the Eastern Woodlands. I hope you can find them in your libraries or bookshops.
Dragonfly Kites (Pimithaagansa), written by Tomson Highway, illustrations by Julie Flett
published in 2016 by Fifth House
Canadian publishing houses are doing an amazing job of putting out gorgeous, well-crafted stories featuring First Nations characters, both historical and contemporary. Three of the 5 books I have for you today come out of Canada. Thank you, neighbors!
The vast, quiet, wild spaces of northern Manitoba are the summer home for Joe and Cody, two lucky boys whose days are filled with imaginative outdoor exploration.
Along with their faithful dog, Ootsie, the boys forge worlds from sticks and stone and string, adopt a wild tern, commune with chipmunks and eagles, and create delicate, iridescent kites with dragonflies and a large dose of gentleness.
Written in both English and Cree, I am telling you — this story tugs on my non-electronic heartstrings! What a lush life. Julie Flett is an award-winning artist, quite a favorite of so many of us, and her work here is spacious, elegant, pristine. I love this book! Ages 3 and up.
Buffalo Bird Girl: A Hidatsa Story, written and illustrated by S.D. Nelson
published in 2012 by Abrams Books for Young Readers
Buffalo Bird Girl was a child of the prairies, born in the 1830s to the Hidatsa people who lived in what is now North Dakota.
S.D. Nelson tells the story of her rich life and culture in this fascinating, beautiful book. The enormously-strong earth-mound lodges and grandmother’s hot, hearty breakfasts; the seasonal farm chores, buffalo hunting and favorite children’s games; the frightening attacks from the Lakota and the changes that came with the traders and missionaries.
All of this is told vividly, accompanied by Nelson’s captivating acrylic paintings, graphite drawings, and historic photographs. Each page is full of appeal while the story of this amazing woman’s life grabs hold of us, mesmerizes us straight through to her old age.
A lengthy Author’s Note provides extensive information about Buffalo Bird Woman, the Hidatsa people, and the clash of cultures that came with European arrivals. A timeline correlates her life with events from 5000 BCE to 2009. A fantastic read for ages 5 and up.
Grandpa’s Girls, written by Nicola I. Campbell, illustrated by Kim LaFave
published in 2011 by Groundwood Books
Four cousins are charged with excitement! Because today they’re going to visit Grandpa!
Grandpa lives on an old farm, right alongside Hwy. 5 in British Columbia. There are chickens to squawk at, a root cellar to explore, and one lofty rope swing for sailing through the sweet, hay-scented air of the barn.
Best of all, there is Grandpa. A World War II vet. A cowboy, rancher, businessman. A storytelling, candy jar-keeping, memory-laden, wonderful man. No wonder these girls love to visit him!
This warm, family story is fully contemporary, with lighthearted illustrations conveying a sunny, casual vibe. A few words in the Interior Salish language — which my computer does not even have the characters to write! — are the only real clue that Grandpa and his girls are members of an indigenous people. I love finding books which portray the ordinary lives of contemporary Native Americans, and this one is an absolutely delightful example. Ages 2 and up.
Fatty Legs: A True Story, written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes
published in 2010 by Annick Press; 103 pages
Our most northerly story today is the brave, lamentable account of a little girl who lived with her dear family and Inuit community on “the scattered islands of the Arctic Ocean.”
Margaret Pokiak-Fenton spent her childhood on Banks Island, a five-day journey across open ocean from the mainland where small outposts perched along the coasts of Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories. By the time she was 8 years old, she had only traveled a few times to this outside world.
But her sister had been “plucked” like a fledgling from its nest by the outsiders, taken to be schooled in Aklavik, and had returned home with the magical knowledge of Reading. How Margaret longed to read! To read for herself the beautiful book called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its tantalizing rabbits and strange tunnels.
Margaret begs for years to be allowed to go to that school, but her parents vehemently forbid it. When she finally wears them down and begins school, it’s not the fairy-tale setting she expects, but a nightmare of abuse all too familiar to the thousands of Native children educated in boarding schools across the Americas.
Margaret’s daughter-in-law, Christy, has written this powerful memoir. It is a sorrowful page-turner about a resolute young girl, illustrated with strong, emotive illustrations and Pokiak-Fenton’s family photographs. We need to know these stories, hard as they are to bear. This one’s for ages 8 and up. The author has parsed out several episodes of this story in picture book format for younger children, if you’re interested.
When the Shadbush Blooms, written by Carla Messinger with Susan Katz, illustrated by David Kanietakeron Fadden
published in 2007 by Tricycle Press
The Lenni Lenape people lived in the forested lands in what is now the northeastern United States. If you live in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, these were one of the First Peoples in your region.
Carla Messinger, a member of the Turtle Clan Lenape, has written a marvelously inventive account of her culture. Walking through the 12 months of the year, Traditional Sister and Contemporary Sister narrate the activities associated with the changing seasons.
The happenings remain constant, although these two live centuries apart. The dress, the look of the land, the means of farming, fishing, playing, preparing — these all vastly change as witnessed by the colorful, ingenuous illustrations. Each two-page spread features the traditional way of life on the left, morphing smoothly into the contemporary scene on the right. Brilliant!
Even the names of the months — each richly tied to the moon — are differentiated, with the Lenape language on the left and its translation into English on the right. An Afterword tells us more about traditional Lenape culture.
Again, I love seeing the contemporary lives of indigenous peoples. This book allows us to view both worlds. Read it and let your children discover the fascinating differences between the pages. Ages 3 and up.