By Bailey Keimig-Gehrke, Youth Services
Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day, everyone! While it is, of course, essential to read widely and deeply every day of the year, today is an especially great day to prioritize Indigenous voices. No matter the age of the reader, there are plenty of options out there. Browse through the list and see what stands out.
- “I Sang You Down From the Stars” by Tasha Spillett-Sumner (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021)
This sweet story is all about the ways in which an expectant mother promises to love and care for her little one. The customs guiding this mother’s preparations for her baby are based on Cree culture, but the universal themes of love and protection are tangible in the beautiful illustrations from Caldecott Medal Award-winning illustrator Michaela Goade. This story is perfect to share with children who need to feel a little extra loved.
- “At the Mountain’s Base” by Traci Sorell (Kokila, 2019)
Inspired by the real-life Native soldiers from WWII, this book tells the story of a Cherokee family anxiously awaiting the return of their beloved family member–their daughter/granddaughter/sister/niece. The spare, lyrical text of the story accompanies gorgeous illustrations that perfectly capture what it is like to miss loved ones and to hope for their safety in uncertain situations. This picture book would be especially meaningful to families who have loved ones serving in the military or who are missing someone far away.
- “We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga” by Traci Sorell (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2018)
This gorgeous picture book illustrated by Frané Lessac takes us through the modern life of the Cherokee Nation. We see citizens of the Cherokee Nation celebrating important holidays, such as the Great New Moon Ceremony and the Green Corn Ceremony. We also see how members of the Cherokee Nation express their gratitude throughout the year and in each season. The word “otsaliheliga” (pronounced oh-ja-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is a Cherokee word used to express gratitude. This story is perfect to share all year round to inspire us to appreciate the little things in life. For a fun opportunity to read this book, visit the StoryWalk® at the Bee Branch Creekway at E 22nd Street in Dubuque in November–the entire story will be on display all month long!
- “Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend” by Dawn Quigley (Heartdrum, 2021)
This beginner’s chapter book introduces us to Jo Jo Makoons Azure, a hilarious seven-year-old who has a lot of spirit and a unique way of looking at the world. Jo Jo takes her Ojibwe reservation by storm as she works on being a good friend, cleaner-upper, and rhymer. This series-starter is perfect for lovers of Ramona Quimby, Junie B. Jones, or any other spirited young person
- “Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids” by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Heartdrum, 2021)
This collection of short stories features tales from 17 Native authors, each one bringing a Native character to life as they gather at an intertribal powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Stories range from being laugh-out-loud funny to soberly thought-provoking, meaning there will be something for every middle grade reader in the collection. Native readers will feel seen as they read through the stories and non-Native readers will love getting to know more about a culture that too rarely receives the spotlight.
- “Indian No More” by Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, 2019)
Regina and her family are Umpqua and have always lived on the Grand Ronde Tribe’s reservation. When the government decides to make a law that would terminate their tribe, her family is thrown into chaos. Unless they can afford to buy the land the reservation is on, everyone in Regina’s family and her tribe will have to move. Since there is no way they would be able to afford that purchase, Regina’s father decides to move the family from Oregon all the way to Los Angeles. He is determined to work hard to fit in, but assimilating into American culture is a big, challenging shift. Regina deals with racism for the first time in her life and has to figure out what it means to be Indian and how she can stay true to herself in her new life.
- “Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley (Henry Holt & Co., 2021)
Daunis has always had a hard time fitting in. As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member, she stands out in her hometown just as much as the Ojibwe reservation nearby. Daunis wants nothing more than to leave her home behind and study medicine once she graduates, but her plans are derailed by personal tragedy as well as an unexpected romance. It isn’t long before tragedy strikes once more and Daunis finds herself enmeshed in a secret drug investigation on the reservation. Will she be able to balance wanting to save her community from the violence of drugs with her desire to keep her family safe? This novel is perfect for fans of thrillers, mysteries, and stories that could very well be unfolding right under our own noses.
- “This Place: 150 Years Retold” by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm (HighWater Press, 2019)
In this stunning illustrated collection, readers are given ten powerful stories that bring to life the ways Native people have had their lives altered through Canadian history. The stories are sometimes historical in context, but others are grounded in magical realism, time travel, and post-apocalyptic imaginings. The variety in genre, art style, and storytelling techniques make this graphic novel anthology a winner for teens and adults alike.
- “Apple: Skin to the Core” by Eric Gansworth (Levine Querido, 2020)
This memoir takes the form of poems and essays and describes the life of Eric Gansworth, an enrolled citizen of the Onondaga Nation who grew up in the Tuscarora Nation. This memoir goes into very specific detail about Gansworth’s life and experiences, but it also offers valuable insight into what Native life can be like in the United States. The title refers to a slur in the Native community, meaning somebody who is “red on the outside, white on the inside.” The Beatles made a huge impact on Gansworth, so some of the poems in this memoir take on a similar rhythm or pattern. This memoir is perfect for lovers of music and poetry as well as readers interested in getting immersed in an Indigenous life.
- “The Sentence” by Louise Erdrich (Harper, 2021)
In renowned Native author Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, we receive a contemporary ghost story that takes place between All Souls’ Day 2019 to All Souls’ Day 2020. Tookie, a recently released woman who survived her years of incarceration by reading voraciously, now works in a haunted bookstore. As she tries to get to the bottom of the haunting, she also has to grapple with her new marriage to a tribal cop and living in Minneapolis during the time of the novel coronavirus and the fallout surrounding George Floyd’s death. This is very much a “pandemic novel,” but Erdrich’s writing makes her characters come to life. You’ll never read anything like it.
- “There, There” by Tommy Orange (Knopf, 2018)
This book tells the story of 12 Native characters who are all on their way to the Big Oakland Powwow in California. This large cast of characters proves that there is no “one story” that unites Native peoples, but that they have a broad range of experiences and perspectives. The characters include people dealing with addiction, identity, grief, poverty, and more. Eventually, stories begin to intersect and readers are able to bear witness to what it means to be part of a community. This story has been lauded as a modern classic, and its conversational tone allows it to bear the title well.
- “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” by Alicia Elliott (Doubleday Canada, 2019)
The Mohawk word for depression can be roughly translated to “a mind spread out on the ground,” and this translation sets the stage for this nonfiction work that focuses on the treatment of Native people in North America. Alicia Elliott balances sharing information with sharing intimate details about her own life, trauma, and experiences as a Native person. With humor, grit, and unflinching honesty, Elliot shares uncomfortable truths about Native history–about our shared history–that are still impacting the lives of people to this day.