By Kasey Short
November is National Native American Heritage Month, and as the month approaches I am considering how literature has the power to broaden my students’ understanding and appreciation of Native cultures and traditions. Whether your students delve into fiction written by Indigenous authors or discover nonfictional accounts of Native history and figures, all students’ learning can be enriched by exposure to Native American cultures. The books below represent a range of Indigenous experiences and include short story anthologies, poetry, novels, picture books, and nonfiction. As an 8th grade teacher, I am always looking for middle grade and young adult books to recommend to my students, but I have included books across the K-12 range. My 8th grade students enjoy having picture books read aloud to them and those I have listed below are not only suitable for elementary classrooms but also offer opportunities for deeper conversations with older students. I also include at the article’s end some free online resources that provide further insight, information, and suggestions for effectively engaging students with National Native American Heritage Month.
We Are Water Protectors
By Carole Lindstrom; Illustrated by Michaela Goade
This award-winning picture book captivates its readers with poetic language and vibrant illustrations. The story pays tribute to Native culture as well as to the value and importance of water as a natural resource that is essential to all life. It also encourages readers to take a stand up for environmental justice. A teacher activity kit was created by the book’s publisher, MacMillan, and includes classroom activities as well as a pledge to reduce water use.
At the Mountain’s Base
By Traci Sorell; Illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre
This beautiful picture book combines fiction with nonfiction to honor the history of Native Americans who have served in the military, as well as showcasing female pilots who made history. It also celebrates Cherokee family relationships, traditions, and culture. This teacher guide created by #DisruptTexts and the book’s publisher, Kokila, includes discussion questions, lesson ideas, background information, journal prompts, and more.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith; Illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu
With colorful illustrations, Jingle Dancer tells the story of Jenna, a girl who loves the traditional jingle dancing of her Muscogee Creek culture. Jenna hopes to perform the dance at the upcoming powwow, but wonders how she will perform without jingles on her dress. Readers observe Jenna’s pride in her culture, as well as the contrast and connection between her modern lifestyle and Native traditions. This educator guide from the author provides discussion questions and additional resources.
Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend
By Dawn Quigley; Illustrated by Tara Audibert
This humorous early reader chapter book—the first installment in the Jo Jo series—is perfect for elementary school students. It tells the story of Jo Jo, a girl who lives on an Ojibwe reservation and is worried about making friends. The teaching guide from the publisher, Heartdrum, provides suggested discussion questions.
Written and illustrated by Julie Flett
This gorgeously illustrated book tells the thoughtful story of a young, lonely Cree girl who bonds with her elderly neighbor over a shared love of art, birds, and nature. It also navigates loss in an age-appropriate way for young readers. This book will introduce readers to Cree words, with definitions and pronunciation guidance. The teacher guide from the publisher, Greystone Kids, includes discussion questions, activities, and craft suggestions.
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids
Edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith
This anthology of short stories and poems from up-and-coming Indigenous authors cleverly weaves the fictional stories of Native American tweens from different tribal backgrounds attending the same powwow. Readers are introduced to the diversity of Native American cultures, as well as the strength, pride, and joy shared across Native communities. This teacher guide by NEA provides discussion questions and links to other resources for the book.
I Can Make This Promise
By Christine Day
This insightful debut novel was inspired by the author’s own family history. It tells the story of a young girl, Edie, who discovers a box hidden in her attic that leads her to questions—and answers—about her Native heritage. The book tackles middle grade issues of complex and shifting friendships and adoption, as well as the history of Native children being separated from their parents. The teacher guide created by Harper Collins includes discussion questions and a brief book talk.
The Sea in Winter
By Christine Day
The Sea in Winter tells the story of Maisie, a young Native girl who is struggling to find happiness after an injury that has prevented her from pursuing her love of ballet. In the midst of this struggle, her family takes a winter vacation to visit her stepfather’s native home. Through the help of her therapist and family, she works toward moving forward. Native history and culture are woven throughout the book. This guide created by the author, Christina Day, provides questions and activities connected to the novel. There is also a guide for teachers created by Harper Collins, which includes additional discussion questions.
Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two
By Joseph Bruchac
Through the story of a fictional Navajo teen who becomes a code talker during World War II, this novel explores how Navajo code talks were vital in the US military’s ability to communicate without Japanese interception. Code Talker honors the power of the Navajo language and people and their ability to save countless American lives during War World II. The Scholastic lesson plan provides extension activities for teachers.
The Healer of the Water Monster
By Brian Young
When Nathan visits his grandmother at the Navajo reservation, he expects his summer will be boring without cell service and other modern conveniences. But when he finds himself caught up in a great adventure to save the Water Monster, a holy monster from the Navajo creation story, he discovers that he is braver than he ever thought possible. The teacher guide includes discussion questions and suggested curriculum connections.
When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry
Edited by Joy Harjo, with Leanne Howe, Jennifer Elise Foerster, and contributing editors
This captivating anthology edited by Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate, would be perfect for upper middle grades and high school students. The book is organized into five geographical sections, and each section includes poems that span across time, from traditional oral poems to modern poets. The reader learns about Native culture, history, and traditions through the eyes of over 150 poets from diverse Indigenous Nations.
Learn more about When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through here.
Rain is Not My Indian Name
By Cynthia Leitich Smith; Illustrated by Lori Earley
This recently re-released novel tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who is coping with her best friend’s death while exploring her Native heritage. She enjoys photography and is hired to photograph an Indian Camp in her small town. This captivating story ultimately addresses finding one’s identity and embracing new beginnings. The author’s teacher guide provides discussion questions and an interview with the author.
By Angeline Boulley
This thrilling mystery tells the story of Native teen Daunis, who finds herself part of an undercover FBI investigation regarding drug trafficking in her community. Despite loss and heartbreak, she is a strong, relentless teen who is willing to sacrifice everything for her community and the ones she loves. The novel explores traditional Ojibwe medicine and culture while also confronting difficult topics such as sexual assault, drug use, and violence. The teacher guide created by Macmillan includes discussion questions, quotes, and extension activities that are connected to common core standards.
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
This heartfelt novel follows strong Native teen Lou as she navigates love, high school drama, prejudice, and discovering her own identity. Lou is a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation and the novel weaves in historical information about her heritage. The author tackles many universal high school experiences while bringing to light the unique prejudices and hate faced by Native teens across the country.
Apple: Skin to the Core
By Eric Gansworth
In this engaging memoir-in-verse, the author recounts his experiences of being raised and coming of age on a reservation. The book is formatted like a music album and is filled with captivating poetry. The author confronts the racial slur “apple,” as well as betrayal, racism, family, government boarding schools, and more.
Here you will find a mutitude of lesson plans and resources designed for teachers, including virtual field trips and opportunities for professional development.
The Burke Museum’s site offers resources for educators teaching National Native American Heritage Month, including links to additonal resources.
PBS Learning offers a page of resources called Amplifying Indigenous Experiences that includes an Indigenous Women Gallery Walk and other engaging activities for students.
This site is filled with valuable resources for students to explore, including exhibits, collections, videos, images, and more.
Kasey Short attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Bachelor of Arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She then went on to earn a Master’s of Education in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently an 8th grade English teacher as well as English Department chair at Charlotte Country Day School.