five full of beauty and history…it’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

Today in Minneapolis, as well as in about 12 other states and numerous cities, we celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
It’s a meaningful opportunity to recognize the amazing cultures and hundreds of sovereign nations that preceded Europeans in North America, the gross injustices inflicted on them, and the diverse Native populations across the Americas today.

Today I’ve got five favorite titles to recommend, one for each of five age groups, all written and illustrated by Native authors and artists. The final title, a choice for adults or motivated older teens, has been one of my favorite new reads of 2020. For lots more excellent choices for a wide variety of ages, see my Native American/First Peoples list here.

Ages 0-2

Wild Berries
written and illustrated by Julie Flett
published in 2013 by Simply Read Books

Gorgeous, simple, contemporary. I adore this little book. It’s the graceful, quiet story of a child and his grandmother picking wild blueberries. The artwork, hushed by white space, elegant in its compositions, features a color palette of moss green, dark chocolate, and toasty persimmon.

Cree translations of a dozen key words are included, one to a page. And there’s a recipe for wild blueberry jam. A tiny piece of perfection.

Ages 2-6

Dragonfly Kites
written by Tomson Highway, illustrated by Julie Flett
published in 2016 by Fifth House

Here’s another lovely book coming out of Canada from the Cree nation.

The vast, wild spaces of northern Manitoba are the summer home for Joe and Cody, two Cree boys whose days are full of imaginative outdoor exploration. Along with their trusty dog, Ootsie, the boys forge worlds from sticks, 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, it’s a banquet of lush, non-electronic life. Flett’s artwork is, once again, spacious, elegant, pristine. An entirely happy choice.

Ages 6-9

The Birchbark House
written and illustrated by Louise Erdrich
published in 1999 by Hyperion Children’s Books
256 pages

Omakayas is a young Anishinabe (also known as Ojibwa or Chippewa) girl, living on an island in Lake Superior in the late 1800s, a time when as yet only a few White  traders, trappers and missionaries had arrived in these great forests.  She lives a fairly quiet life with her family, each season bringing its own tasks and lifestyle.  Summers are spent in a birchbark house, autumn brings a move to the ricing camp, and in wintertime they hunker down in a little log house at the edge of town.

Erdrich’s story comprises one full year in Omakayas’ life.  Constructing the new birchbark house with Grandma, cleaning hides for tanning, running errands to Old Tallow — a six-foot- tall, eccentric woman with a pack of ferocious dogs, tending to Baby Neewo, feasting, celebrating, enduring hunger and sorrow — all this and so much more fills Omakayas’ days. It’s a beautifully written story with a delightful main character offering a Native American experience during the same time period of the Little House books.

A myriad fascinating descriptions of the old way of life among this forest-and-lake dwelling people are woven into the book — homes, clothing, and food, skilled craftsmanship and natural remedies, spirit worship and celebrations. Beyond this swirls a captivating plot revolving around the mystery of Omakayas’ birth.  Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and relied on family history and further research in order to write this award-winning, authentic account of her people. Great read-aloud from about age 7, or for sturdy readers who can cope with its foreign words and realistic sufferings on their own. It’s the start of a series of 5 books so if you love this first volume, help yourself to more!

Ages 9-12

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse
written by Joseph Marshall III, illustrated by Jim Yellowhawk
published in 2015 by Amulet Books
176 pages

This powerful piece of historical fiction illuminates the conflicts between the Lakota people and U.S. government during the 1800s. It is cleverly structured around a road trip taken by a contemporary Lakota boy and his grandfather through South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana as they visit historic sites associated with their hero, Crazy Horse.

Along the way, Grandfather launches into stories passed down from his grandfather, regaling his grandson, Jimmy, with the history of his people and Crazy Horse’s epic leadership. These stories carry us effortlessly into a different time and place, and reveal the critical perspective of the Lakota people. Reading a fuller account of the history of the American West is an eye-opening experience for all of us raised on distorted schoolbook history. Tying this history to geography rather than using a strictly chronological account elevates the importance of the land. Included is a helpful map and a lengthy glossary. A highly recommended, impactful book for ages 9 and up.

Adults and older teens

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, by David Treuer
published in 2019 by Riverhead Books
528 pages

I have listened this year to many ironic claims that protesters are “erasing history” when various statues are torn down. Even though these statues mainly represent a glossed-over, dignified, White-only version of U.S. history, some fear that with their disappearance we will forget that history. In truth, the vast majority of us have never learned a large portion of our nation’s history or have purposely erased it, a history that along with the good includes violence, genocide, enslavement, injustice, greed, betrayal, and ongoing White supremacy. My abiding conviction is that we need to stop cowering behind falsely naive, pure, sinless portraits of America. There is not a flawless human institution under the sun. Honesty, humility, accountability, and inclusion are the ways to build strength and unity among people, whether that’s in a family, church, business, or nation. David Treuer’s book is an outstanding contribution toward a more complete American story with its stunning unfolding of millennia of Native American history.

With his title standing in contrast to Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Treuer immediately announces his passion for a different vision, a counter-narrative, not one ending in a death knell for the Native American, but one with an ongoing heartbeat, a narrative of survival, perseverance, resourcefulness, and the continuing strength of an oppressed people.

As a boy, Treuer was raised among his Ojibwe community on the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota, not far from where I also grew up. Far from despising this as a place of “squalor and hopelessness,” claims Dee Brown makes in his book, Treuer loved his reservation life, loves returning there, and recognizes the profound strengths of his people. His desire is to help us see Native Americans from this positive point of view, rather than a despairing one.

He accomplishes this by diving deep into the pre-Columbian era, illuminating the fascinating histories, sophisticated cultures, and massive indigenous populations that existed then, contrary to the lone savage in the wilderness motif promulgated over the years by erroneous White historians. This preliminary historical revue extends through European contact and up to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. Succeeding chapters each cover about 50 years, taking us up to the present day. During each era, we learn about the varied U.S. governmental responses and legal moves impacting Native Americans, and witness the flexibility, resilience, and increasingly sophisticated legal actions taken by Indigenous peoples which have resulted in that ongoing heartbeat.

Treuer’s work is riveting from a historical standpoint. Equally compelling are his gorgeous writing, deeply personal memoir portions, and numerous illuminating conversations with ordinary Native American friends and family from a wide variety of contexts which are woven into the narrative. Thus ancient Native history and modern Native life merge in a complex, wholistic account. It’s a tome, yet I tore through it and it has been one of my favorite reads of 2020.

I highly recommend this book either as an entry point or a deeper dive into Native American history. If it is the first time you have read Native history, rest assured there is a deal of discomfort awaiting you as you reckon with painful, unjust actions perpetrated on Native peoples. This kind of discomfort is good for us as the walls surrounding our mindsets are pushed farther out, enabling our understanding to encompass greater volumes of truth. It’s not easy, but such an important part of growing into better neighbors and allies to marginalized communities, those whose history has indeed been erased over the years.  If it’s helpful you can read more about my own journey toward confronting the biased thinking I grew up with and leaning into a more authentic understanding of Native Americans which I mused about in an earlier blog post, here.