Great Books for Studying Native American History: Elementary

We couldn’t fit all of our favorite Native American history books in the fall issue of the magazine, so we’re running our favorite middle and elementary school books on the HSL blog. Today, we’re highlighting some of the elementary books we think do a great job illuminating Native American history. Add them to your U.S. History studies for a more inclusive study of the past, or use them as a jumping-off point for a study of Native Americans.


If you’d like a spine to structure your Native American studies around, I recommend The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz. With language subtly echoing the cadences of the Native American oral tradition, this short picture book traces the history of North America’s original inhabitants from the world’s creation to the present day. Though it’s a small book, it contains many jumping-off points for additional reading and discussion, and it manages to balance hope for and celebration of the People with a respectful treatments of the suffering and hardship that has been their history for most of the life of the United States.


I think everyone should follow up Little House in the Big Woods with Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House. Like Little House, The Birchbark House chronicles the work and celebrations of life through the seasons as seen by a young girl named Omakayas. Omakayas is a child of the Ojibwa people who live in an island in Lake Superior in the 1840s, and like young Laura, she both observes and participates in the rituals and routines of her family and community. 


Joseph Bruhac’s Children of the Longhouse tells the story of life among the Mohawk  Bear Clan from the perspective of two 11-year-old twins: brother Ohkwa’ri and sister Otsi:stia. Like The Birchbark House, it follows a seasonal cycle, the highlight of which is the big Tekwaarathon game — it’s a version of lacrosse with a sprawling field of play. There are a lot of lovely details here about how clan decisions are made, the different roles people play in the clan, and the traditional festivals and celebrations of the Mohawk people. I especially like that it highlights the importance of women in Mohawk society.

(And when you’ve read that, you’ll probably want to read more about Tekwaarathon and other Native American games, so pick up Bruhac’s Native American Games & Stories.)


Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship and Freedom is a lovely story that touches on two dark slices of U.S. history. Martha Tom and her Choctaw community live on one side of Mississippi’s Bok Chitto River, which offers the promise of freedom to the slaves who live on the other side — if they can just get to the other side of the river, they’ll be free. Martha Tom befriends an enslaved boy named Mo, whose dream of freedom becomes urgent when his mother is sold to another plantation. 


The Choctaw similarly come to the rescue in The Long March. The Choctaw have only recently been resettled by the Long March west, which led to much death and hardship for their people, but when they hear about the potato famine in Ireland, the Ahitabo Apat Okla — the potato-eating people — want to help. Young Choona can’t understand why his people would ever want to help the European people who have injured them so deeply, but his great-grandmother reminds him that it’s precisely because the Choctaw have suffered that they should help others: “We have walked our trail of tears. The Irish people walk it now. We can help them as we could not help ourselves.”


Eve Bunting’s Cheyenne Again focuses on another often-forgotten chapter of Native American-United States relations: the forced removal of Native American children to “Indian boarding schools” during the late 1800s. Young Bull is sent away to school where he learns to act, talk, look, and think like a “white man,” but his heart remains firmly connected to his heritage. 


It’s hard to read about some topics with younger children because you’re constantly walking that fine line between informing and horrifying. I think Only the Names Remain: The Cherokees and the Trail of Tears does this really well — it doesn’t sugarcoat or soften the forced removal of thousands of people from their homes or the journey that would kill one out of four people who undertook it, but it maintains a matter-of-fact, informative tone that doesn’t add melodrama to the tragedy. Bealer quietly shows the ways in which the young United States made tragic choices that failed to live up to their new ideas of freedom and democracy.