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Teaching Patience, Kindness, and Identity through Native American Children’s Books

By: Morgan Grant, CEI Intern

‘So I don’t worry anymore when the kids call me a Lake Rat. I know who I am, and I know about the lake, that we are part of it and it’s part of us’   – Jeanne of Muskrat Will Be Swimming

Incorporating Native American picture books such as Muskrat Will Be Swimming by Cheryl Savageau, can be one way of introducing multi-cultural literature to the classroom. (Kid World Citizen, 2018; Pragmatic Mom, 2017). Native American children tend to be portrayed less frequently in contemporary children’s stories than their Caucasian counterparts. However, multi-cultural literature can help to promote an inclusive environment, where more students are being represented and understood (Kid World Citizen, 2018; Pittman, 2017)

Valarie Budavr, the co-founder of Multicultural Children’s Book Day, tells the HuffPost ‘When we can see through the eyes of another, when we can share a loved book with a friend regardless of religion, culture, race … we create a sense of belonging not only in our classrooms and homes but more importantly in our communities’ (Pittman, 2017). Multi-cultural representation can help to create empathetic peer relations and encourage tolerance in the classroom as students learn about cultures that differ from their own (Chambers, 2017; Pittman, 2017).

Books that focus on Native American culture and values can also be an essential piece to imparting character building lessons and promoting diversity. We have analyzed six Native American picture books that can be used to help educators implement lessons about cultural identity, patience and kindness.

Grades: 3rd to 5th

Crossing the Starlight Bridge centers around Rayanne, a young girl from Maine who does not want to move from her Penobscot reservation on the island. Rayanne has a hard-time adjusting with her father’s abandonment and starting her life over in an unfamiliar place. Rayanne’s grandmother comforts her by telling her stories about the Penobscot Nation and life on the mainland (Mead, 2008).

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Grades: Kindergarten to 3rd

Jingle Dancer is about Jenna, a mixed Native American of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who lives in a modern suburban community. After seeing footage of her grandma performing a traditional jingle dance, Jenna is inspired to dance like her grandma once had. Despite the lack of bells on Jenna’s dress, Jenna’s community is determined to help her perform (Smith, 2000).

Grades: 3rd to 5th

After watching his father and grandfather make a traditional Penobscot basket, Kunu is motivated to make one himself. Kunu becomes frustrated when he is unable to make a basket like the rest of the men on Indian Island. Kunu soon learns from his grandfather that creating the baskets are a multi-generational effort and it takes patience to make them (Francis & Drucker, 2015).

Muskrat Will Be Swimming by Cheryl Savageau

Grades: Kindergarten to 4th

Muskrat Will Be Swimming focuses on a young girl, Jeannie, who lives in a neighborhood of trailers and old cottages by the lake. After being teased by her classmates and is called a ‘lake rat’ Jeannie no longer wants to talk about her nature experiences. Jeannie’s grandfather helps her to appreciate their native heritage as he tells her the legend of the muskrat. Jeannie learns to accept herself and embraces her love for the water (Savageau, 2006).

SkySisters by Jan Bourdeau Waboose

Grades: Kindergarten to 4th

SkySisters is about two sisters who travel on a winter night to view the Northern Lights, which the Ojibway people call the SkySpirits. Throughout their journey Nishiime and Nimise learn more about patience as well as the beauty of their family’s traditions and culture (Waboose, 2002).

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie

Grades: Kindergarten to 1st

Thunder Boy Jr is a Native American boy who no longer wants to be named after his dad. While he respects and looks up to his father, Big Thunder, Junior wants to have his own name based on his own accomplishments. Together they are both able to pick a name that is suitable for Junior (Alexie, 2016).

Selecting appropriate books. Before introducing books about Native Americans in the classroom, it is critical that the information is culturally sensitive and does not stereotype or oversimplify Native American culture. Sometimes books about Native Americans portray them as members of one group and not as distinct tribes with their own cultural practices. Analyzing sources for accuracy regarding the various tribes, cultural artifacts and historical events is key. Teaching the class about Native American culture before incorporating these stories, might help to foster a greater understanding about the ways of living, beliefs, and challenges of specific tribes. (Gutierrez-Gomez, 2017; Kid World Citizen, 2018; Pittman, 2017).

Educators are encouraged to consciously pick books that focus on Native American characters in both the present and the past. Many stories about Native Americans depict these people and their lifestyles as primarily past events and this can be a misrepresentation. Native Americans are everyday people and should therefore be represented with a diverse set of stories ranging from historical to modern day (Gutierrez-Gomez, 2017; Kid World Citizen, 2018).

Michael Roberts, the President and CEO of the First Nations Development Institute states ‘We feel it is important to provide an opportunity for people to learn more about Native experiences from a culturally and historically accurate perspective. We have a responsibility to educate others by sharing authentic resources about Native histories, cultures and peoples (Pittman, 2017).

Ideas for Lessons

Wall of Fame. Children can research the lives of some famous Native Americans and make posters about their lives and accomplishments.  Examples: Maria Tallchief, Jim Thorpe, Sitting Bull

  1. Oral Storytelling. Invite Native American storytellers to share a story from their tribe to the class. From this activity students can learn about the tradition behind storytelling.

  2. Native American Mythology. Students can compare stories about Native American mythology, legend and folktales with Greek and Roman stories. Students can also compare and contrast stories between various Native American tribes.

  3. Native American Poetry and Prose. As a classroom activity, students can study Native American poetry and prose as they write them on paper painted to look like birch bark. (Hurst, 2017; McCluskey, 2002)

References and Resources

Several websites provide additional information on Native American literature for children, including ideas for lesson plans.

Alexie, S. (2016). Thunder boy Jr. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Hurst, C. (2017). Native Americans. Books in the classroom.

Chambers, Y. S. (2017). Teaching children about tolerance and diversity. Kiddie Matters.

Francis, L. D., & Drucker, S. (2015). Kunu’s basket: A story from Indian Island. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House.

Kid World Citizen. (2018). 5 Native American books for kids. Kid World Citizen.

Mead, A. (2008). Crossing the Starlight Bridge. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Savageau, C., & Hynes, R. (2006). Muskrat will be swimming. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House.

Smith, L. C. (2000). Jingle dancer. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Waboose, B. J. SkySisters. (2002). Toronto, Canada: Kids Can Press.

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