Native Americans in children's literature

Native Americans in children's literature

Native Americans have been featured in numerous volumes of children's literature. Some have been authored by non-indigenous writers, while others have been written or contributed to by native authors.


Children’s literature about American Indians

There are a great many works of children's literature that feature American Indians. Some are considered classics, such as Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and some are award winners, such as The Matchlock Gun by Walter D. Edmonds. These classics, however, contain images of American Indians that are biased, stereotypical, and inaccurate (Reese, 2008).

Numerous studies report the predominance of positive and negative stereotypes and the pervasive tendency to present a monolithic image of American Indians that is largely inaccurate. The majority of the books were written and illustrated by authors who are not themselves Native American, and studies of the ways they portray American Indians indicate they mirror popular culture more than history or reality of any Native tribal nation or group (Caldwell-Wood & Mitten, 1991; Dorris, 1982; Flaste, 1982; Hirschfelder, 1993; MacCann, 1993; Reese 2001; Slapin and Seale, 1982).

Author and illustrator Paul Goble (and the adopted son of Chief Edgar Red Cloud) has written dozens of children's books that retell ancient stories. His book The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses won the Caldecott Medal in 1979. Lakota scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Cook-Lynn, 1998) and Lakota librarian Doris Seale find his retellings inaccurate. Displeasure in them led the American Indian Library Association to ask the American Library Association to withdraw "Native American Month" posters and bookmarks with his art on them in 2007. ALA complied with the request, signaling the respect accorded to scholars and practitioners who work with Native populations.

Children's literature written or illustrated by American Indians

Like any people, American Indians have a long history of using the oral tradition to tell stories that pass along their history and culture from one generation to the next. As noted in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, in the entry "Native American Children's Literature," as far back as 1881, Native authors published stories for children, many that countered stereotypical portrayals. These stories appeared in magazines and books.

  • In January 1881, Susette LaFlesche of the Omaha tribe wrote “Nedawi” for a children’s magazine called St. Nicholas. Her Omaha name was Inshata Theumba, which translated into English, is Bright Eyes. Her story, “Nedawi” is about life in an Omaha hunting camp, told from the perspective of a young girl.
  • Several stories by Charles Alexander Eastman appeared in St. Nicholas in 1893 and 1894. They were later published in a book called Indian Boyhood (1902, 1933, 1971), which was a favorite in Boy Scout programs. Eastman was a Dakota Indian, and his Dakota name was Ohiyesa.
  • In 1931, Luther Standing Bear’s autobiographical My Indian Boyhood (1931) was published. He was Lakota; his Lakota name was Ota K’te. He wrote two other books that describe traditional Lakota culture: My People the Sioux (1928) and Land of the Spotted Eagle (1939).
  • I am a Pueblo Indian Girl (1939) was written by thirteen-year-old Louise Abeita, an Isleta Pueblo girl known to her people as E-Yeh-Shure, which translates to Blue Corn. In it, she writes about daily aspects of Pueblo Indian life and culture. The illustrations in the book were watercolors painted by Native artists like Allan Houser whose work would eventually become renowned internationally.

American Indian illustrators, too, sought to counter these stereotypical images. During the 1940s, the United States. Bureau of Indian Affairs published a series of bilingual readers known as the “Indian Life Readers,” for use in the U.S. Government Boarding and Day Schools. Most of the books were written by non-Native author Ann Nolan Clark, but illustrated by Native artists from the tribe the reader was about. For example, Hoke Denetosisie said:

"The nature of the series, being concerned with Navajo life, called for illustration genuine in every sense of the word. I had to observe and incorporate in pictures those characteristics which serve to distinguish the Navajo from other tribes. Further, the setting . . . had to change to express local changes as the family moved from place to place. The domestic animals . . . had to be shown in a proper setting just as one sees them on the reservation. The sheep could not be shown grazing in a pasture, nor the horses in a stable, because such things are not Navajo." (Bader, 1976, p. 162)

One of the readers, initially called Third Grade Home Geography, was published by a mainstream press in 1941, retitled In My Mother’s House. It is about life in Tesuque Pueblo, and it is illustrated by Pueblo artist Velino Herrera.

In the 1950s, other Native people wrote books for children. D’Arcy McNickle’s historical novel, Runner in the Sun, was published in 1954. It is about a teenager being trained to lead his people. McNickle was Chippewa Cree. Pablita Velarde of Santa Clara Pueblo retold and illustrated stories told to her by her grandfather in Old Father, the Storyteller, published in 1960. She is also a world renowned artist.

During the 1970s, the American Indian Historical Society published a magazine for children titled The Wee Wish Tree. In it were short stories, poems, and essays written by American Indians, many of them children. Also during that time, the Council on Interracial Books for Children was instrumental in publishing the work of Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, a Rosebud Sioux. She wrote High Elks Treasure in 1972, When Thunders Spoke in 1974, and The Chichi Hoohoo Bogeyman in 1975. Sneve was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2000.

Simon Ortiz’s prose poem The People Shall Continue was published in 1977. It covers the history of American Indians from creation to the present day, but also includes content omitted or glossed over in other narratives about the settlement of the United States. Ortiz includes the forced removal of Native peoples from their homelands, the brutal periods of early government-controlled boarding schools, and the social movements of the 1960s. Ortiz is from Acoma Pueblo.

In the 1980s, the prolific Abenaki author, Joseph Bruchac, began writing his books for children. In 1985, The Wind Eagle and Other Abenaki Stories was published. It was followed by picture books, traditional retellings, historical and contemporary fiction, biography and autobiographical works. His young adult thriller, Skeleton Man, received the Sequoyah Book Award in 2004.

In the 1990s, many Native authored books for children were published, including the work of Michael Dorris (Modoc), Louise Erdrich (Ojibwa), Joy Harjo (Creek), Michael Lacapa (Apache/Hopi/Tewa), Gayle Ross (Cherokee), Cynthia Leitich Smith (Creek), Joseph McLellan (Nez Perce), N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Cheryl Savageau (Abenaki/Metis), Jan Waboose (Anishinaabe), and Bernelda Wheeler (Cree). Of significance are the books Native authors write that portray the lives of modern day Native people. One author of this genre is Cynthia Leitich Smith. Among her books are:

  • Jingle Dancer (2000)
  • Rain is Not My Indian Name (2001), and
  • Indian Shoes (2002).

In 2007, Sherman Alexie joined the growing list of Native authors writing for children with the release of his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Critically acclaimed, it won the National Book Award.

Literary criticism

Native authors are working to counter stereotypical portrayals of American Indians. Alongside them are Native and non-Native scholars who critique classic, award-winning, best-selling books by and about American Indians. Two examples are Slapin and Seale’s Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children and Seale and Slapin’s A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Also see the Oyate website. A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books or Children is a recipient of a 2006 American Book Award.

Another text is Paulette F. Molin's American Indian Themes in Young Adult Literature published in 2005 by Scarecrow Press.

Also see American Indians in Children's Literature, an Internet blog and resource maintained by Debbie Reese, a professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


  • Bader, B. (1976). American Picturebooks from Noah's Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
  • Cook-Lynn, E. (1998). "American Indian Intellectualism and the New Indian Story." In D. Mihesuah (Ed.), Natives and Academics, University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
  • Dorris, M. (1982). Foreword. In A. B. Hirschfelder (Ed.), American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography (pp. vii-ix). Metuchen, NY: Scarecrow Press, Inc.
  • Flaste, R. (1982). "American Indians: Still a stereotype to many children." In A. Hirschfelder (Ed.), American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography (pp. 3–6). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, Inc.
  • Hirschfelder, A., Molin, P. F., & Wakim, Y. (1999). American Indian Stereotypes in the World of Children: A Reader and Bibliography. (2nd ed.). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc.
  • MacCann, D. (1993). "Native Americans in books for the young." In V. J. Harris (Ed.), Teaching Multicultural Literature in Grades K-8 (pp. 139–169). Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon.
  • Reese, D. (2001). Native Americans in picture books recommended for early childhood classrooms, 1945-1999. Ph. D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2001.
  • Reese, D. (2006). "Native American children's literature" In J. Zipes (Ed.), The Oxford encyclopedia of children's literature (pp. 136–138). Oxford: University Press.
  • Slapin, B., & Seale, D. (1998). Through Indian Eyes: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center.

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