Storied Lands: A History of Indigenous Children’s Literature in the United States

by Mandi Harris (Cherokee Nation)


These are storied lands.

Since time immemorial, the Indigenous Peoples of what is now known as the United States and Canada have conveyed scientific knowledge, cultural values, and histories through storytelling. The oral tradition follows rules in order to share knowledge and information across generations over thousands of years.

As a children’s librarian, I often say that my job is information. There are many forms of informational tools. Storytelling is one. Books are another. As a Cherokee Nation citizen, I watch with delight as more and more Indigenous children’s books are published each year. It thrills me that the children of today have access to the books I longed for as a child in the 1990s.

I also watch with trepidation at the pushback against diverse, authentic, and accurate books. With alarming frequency books, including those by Indigenous authors, are challenged and banned by those who seek to unstory these storied lands. A future with no stories frightens me.

I found comfort in writing this essay. The literary ancestors of today’s children’s books guided me. Looking back over the history of Native children’s books, I see links between us all. I am renewed in my love of stories, and their power to connect.

This article is a history of Indigenous children’s literature in the United States and Canada, only instead of a timeline, this is a kinship line—one focused on connections rather than time. Connections and kinship echo through the years between Indigenous children’s authors of the past and those of the present. As Brightest, the Cooper’s Hawk in Lipan Apache author Darcie Little Badger’s A Snake Falls to Earth, says, “The connection is part of the fun, pal.”


Connections can appear in words written 150 years apart. From the work of a 19th century Indigenous children’s author to an Instagram post from an Indigenous children’s author in 2023. Both show how the obstacles faced by someone working as a writer and activist at the end of the 19th century mirror the challenges faced by those of us working with children’s literature at the beginning of the 21st.

In 1881, Omaha writer and activist Susette La Flesche published her short story “Nedawi” in St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks.10 La Flesche is the earliest Native American children’s author listed in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature.16 In addition to being a writer, La Flesche was an advocate for Native American civil rights. La Flesche was the daughter of the last traditionally selected recognized chief of the Omaha Tribe, Joseph La Flesche.17 When the Ponca people were forcibly removed to Oklahoma in 1877, La Flesche joined her father, who was Ponca through his mother, to investigate their treatment.17 Through this investigation, La Flesche became the interpreter for Ponca chief Standing Bear during his federal civil rights trial in 1879, a trial that would determine if Native Americans were legally considered people and citizens in the United States.8 The judge in this landmark trial ruled, “An Indian is a person within the meaning of the law of the United States.”8

La Flesche continued to serve as an interpreter and witness in cases Native Americans brought against the United States government.10 Before her death in 1903, La Flesche took part in many speaking tours throughout the United States, during which she advocated for Native American civil rights.10

Over 140 years after La Flesche published her short story for children, the challenges facing Native American writers and advocates have not lessened. In early July 2023, I logged onto Instagram to see a post from Upper Skagit author Christine Day. Her novel We Still Belong was one of 87 books under review in Pinellas County School District, Florida.7 A children’s novel by an Indigenous author was challenged one month before it was even published.18

Almost a century and a half after Susette La Flesche wrote and spoke, Indigenous authors still face challenges. Yet La Flesche’s words reach us through time: “Peaceful revolutions are slow but sure. It takes time to leaven a great unwieldy mass like this nation with the leavening ideas of justice and liberty, but the evolution is all the more certain in its results because it is so slow.”9

American Indians in Children’s Literature

In April 2023 Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo) began documenting challenges and bans of Native children’s books on her site, American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL).14 As of mid-September 2023, there were two dozen books by Indigenous authors on her list, many of which have received multiple challenges and bans.14 The number grows every day, and I fear that by the time you are reading this article, the number will have climbed even higher.

Dr. Reese’s documentation of censorship continues her decades of advocacy for Indigenous children’s literature. Dr. Reese first launched AICL in 2006.13 As a scholar, Dr. Reese found that the pressure to only publish her research in academic journals and books (which are often hidden behind paywalls and written in an academic style that keeps the reader at arm’s length) conflicted with her Pueblo values.13 She wanted to make her research accessible to those who use it in their everyday work with children, so she used the then-new form of blog.13

Dr. Reese has traced the history of Native kid lit on her post, Milestones: Indigenous Peoples in Children’s Literature, as well as in the Native American Children’s Literature entry for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature.15,16

Dr. Reese’s work exposes the harms that have been done by inauthentic representations of Native Peoples, and she provides researched critiques of many books’ portrayals of Indigenous Peoples. As with any groundbreaking, weeding creates room for new seeds to flourish. Dr. Reese engages with the ever-growing number of Indigenous children’s authors, whose books she reviews on her blog. This includes the recent winner of the Caldecott medal, Michaela Goade.


In 2021, Michaela Goade (Tlingit and Haida) won the Caldecott Medal for her illustrations in We Are Water Protectors.2 The Caldecott medal is “awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.”3 Goade was the first Native illustrator and the first BIPOC woman to win the Medal. In her acceptance speech, Goade said, “Everything has spirit. We are all connected.”9

Goade’s winning of the Caldecott Medal connects her to another Native author who came nearly a century before. In 1942, 79 years prior to Goade’s receipt of the Caldecott Medal, Velino Herrera (Zia Pueblo) received a Caldecott Honor for her illustrations in the book In My Mother’s House in 1942.13 (At the time, the award was referred to as a Caldecott runner-up. “Caldecott runners-up” was changed to “Caldecott honor books” in 1971.20)

In My Mother’s House was originally published in 1936 under the title Third Grade Home Geography as part of a series of books used in U.S. Government Boarding and Day Schools.15,16 These books were called Indian Life Readers and were published by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Seven copies of Third Grade Home Geography were printed by five children at Tesuque Pueblo’s day school; these children were the Tesuque Printers.16 A non-Native teacher at Tesuque named Ann Nolan Clark wrote the text of the book based on writings by the children about their home lives.15,16 Third Grade Home Geography became In My Mother’s House when it was later published by a mainstream publisher.15,16 It is this edition for which Velino Herrera received a Caldecott honor in 1942.16

Other Native children’s authors won awards during the long gap between Velino Herrera receiving a Caldecott Honor and Michaela Goade winning the Caldecott Medal. For example, in 1966 Durango Mendoza (Muscogee), became the first writer to win the Mahan Short Fiction Award at the University of Missouri, Columbia for the book Summer Water and Shirley.15 It is the first work by a Native writer to win this award.15 In 1999, Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa) was a finalist for the National Book Award for The Birchbark House, the first in a series of middle grade chapter books.15

In 2006, the American Indian Library Association (AILA) created its own awards to honor Native authored and illustrated books that “present Indigenous North American peoples in the fullness of their humanity.”1 These awards are the American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Awards (AILA YLA). The first AILA YLA were presented in 2006 at the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color.1

Award recognition for Indigenous authors continues to grow at a faster rate than before. In 2022, just one year after Michaela Goade received the Caldecott medal, Darcie Little Badger (Lipan Apache) received a Newbery Honor at the American Library Association Youth Media Awards for her novel, A Snake Falls to Earth.3 In 2023, Michaela Goade received a Caldecott Honor for her picture book, Berry Song, while Native Hawaiian author Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu received a Stonewall Children’s Honor for the bilingual Indigenous Hawaiian book Kapaemahu, and Métis author Jen Ferguson received a Stonewall YA Honor for the novel The Summer of Bitter and Sweet.3,19 The Stonewall Awards recognize “works of exceptional merit for children or teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience.”4


Just as the American Indian Library Association helped bridge the long acknowledgement gap of Indigenous youth literature through the Youth Literature Awards, other organizations were formed to recognize and promote Indigenous youth literature in the 20th century. The Wee Wish Tree was a children’s magazine published by the American Indian Historical Society in the 1970s.15 The Wee Wish Tree featured works written by Native Americans, including essays, poems, and short stories.15 Some of the authors of these works were children, a link between Native children of the 1970s and those who were young in the early part of the 20th century.15 Many children’s books written for Native children in the early 20th century were written or illustrated by children at residential schools, or the books were adapted from the words of Native children by non-Native writers.15

In 1965, the Council on Interracial Books for Children was formed; four years later, the Council sponsored its first writing contest.15 One of the winners of this contest was Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve (Rosebud Sioux) who wrote, among many other books, Jimmy Yellow Hawk, illustrated by Oren Lyons (Seneca).15 The book, which was later published by Holiday House in 1972, was the first children’s book written by and about Natives to be set in a contemporary time, rather than the historical portrayals Native Peoples were often confined to (and still can be).15

Residential Schools

Many contemporary works of children’s literature—such as Fatty Legs by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton (Inuvialuk) and Christy Jordan-Fenton and When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson (Swampy Cree) and Julie Flett (Cree-Métis)—discuss the forced assimilation and violence of residential schools.

The Department of the Interior published the first part of an investigation into residential schools in May 2022, and found:

“The Federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies to attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to the following: (1) renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; (2) cutting hair of Indian children; (3) discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions, and cultural practices; and (4) organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills.”11

As we saw in the section on Caldecott winners and honorees, residential schools also make up a key part of the history of Indigenous children’s books. In the 1940s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs published Indian Life Readers, which were bilingual books geared toward Native youth in residential schools.15

Even prior to the establishment of Indian Life Readers, Indigenous children at residential schools were writing and illustrating books about their lives, families, and cultures.15 In 1902, Indian Boyhood by author Charles Alexander Eastman (Dakota) was published. It was used at Day School at Santa Clara Pueblo.15,16

One of the earliest children’s books that was both written and illustrated by Native authors has ties to residential schools. In 1939, 13-year-old E-Yeh-Shure (Isleta Pueblo) wrote I Am a Pueblo Indian Girl in 1939.15,16 While E-Yeh-Shure attended a day school, the book’s three illustrators, Allan Houser (Chiricahua Apache), Gerald Nailor Sr. (Diné), and Quincy Tahoma (Diné) attended Santa Fe Indian Boarding School.12 According to the Indian Pueblo Cultural center, “This book is considered to be the first to document Pueblo life and art for non-Native readers.”12

Three years prior to I Am a Pueblo Indian Girl, the Office of Indian Affairs published Feast Day in Nambe in 1936.15 The illustrators were Emilio Sanchez, Ben Quintana, Paul Lucardio, and Seferino Pino, all students at the Santa Fe Indian School.15 This book was the first in what would be a series of primers written for Native children published at the Haskell Institute. The fourth book in the series was titled School Days in San Juan.15 Its illustrations were by Dolores Pecos, Tom Jay, Lorenzo Garcia, Margaret Naranjo, Clarence Gutierrez, Joe Aguilar, Marie Trujillo, Tomacita Vigil, and Ben Quintana, who like the illustrators of Feast Day in Nambe, were all students at Santa Fe Indian School.15,16

While the books published at the Haskell Institute and the Indian Life Readers focused on Native cultures, their ultimate goal was English language assimilation through these texts.

Language Resurgence

When one of my nieces expressed an interest in learning Cherokee, I began by giving her dual language English/Cherokee picture books. I gave her Traci Sorell’s (Cherokee Nation) Otsaliheliga: We Are Grateful, which features words written in our language and syllabary. Otsaliheliga won a Sibert honor in 2018, the first Native-authored book to receive this honor, an award given for “the most distinguished informational” books.15 As an auntie, it was a powerful moment to give the next generation of my family a book written by a citizen of our tribe, featuring our language and our culture. As a librarian, this family moment is my favorite reader’s advisory memory. Books like these were not available when I was her age. We find healing in giving to the next generation.

There are more and more examples of dual and triple language books that support Indigenous language learning and resurgence. The first board book written and illustrated by Native creators was a bilingual title: Our Journey written by Lyz Jaakola (Ojibwe) and illustrated by Karen Savage-Blue (Ojibwe) in 2001.15 While Indian Life Readers and the books published at the Haskell Institute had ultimate goals of English language assimilation, many books published in the early-to-mid 20th century used Indigenous languages.15 For example, Ann Nolan Clark, the non-Native author of Third Grade Home Geography, wrote several other books for Native children in residential schools.15 Her 1945 book Singing Sioux Cowboy/Lak’ota pte’ole hoksila lowansa was translated by Emil Afraid-of-Hawk and illustrated by Andrew Standing Soldier.15


A copy of The People Shall Continue, first published in 1972, is on the shelves of my local library, over 50 years after it was first published. It was written by Simon Ortiz (Acoma) and Sharol Graves (Absentee Shawnee) and was the first time the word “Nation” was used in a book for children with reference to Native Nations.16

Sitting on those same shelves are dozens of books for children by Indigenous authors, including those published by Heartdrum, the imprint founded by author Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Nation) in 2019 for HarperCollins.16 Heartdrum focuses on children’s books by Native authors.16 I am lucky to have met many Indigenous children’s authors. The love, community, connection, and support they show for one another and the generations to come fills me with belief in a story-filled future.

The history of Indigenous children’s books on these lands is one of joy, resistance, and resurgence. Indigenous children’s books, much like the oral tradition, use stories to link readers of today with those who have come before. The very existence of Indigenous children’s books is a belief in an Indigenous future, one in which Indigenous children live, thrive, and maintain their languages, cultures, and connections. Indigenous children’s books are Indigenous future.

The stories shall continue. The books shall continue. The people shall continue on these storied lands.

Note: For more information on the history of Indigenous children’s literature in the US and Canada, please visit Milestones: Indigenous Peoples in Children’s Literature on AICL, as well as the entry for Native American Children’s Literature in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature.

Mandi Harris (Cherokee Nation) is a children’s librarian and PhD student at the University of Washington Information School, where she uses Indigenous Systems of Knowledge to examine children’s literature, education, and the futures of libraries. She is an American Library Association Spectrum Doctoral Fellow. Mandi has a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Washington. Mandi has nearly a decade of experience working in youth services at public libraries. Story time is her favorite place to be, and she loves seeing children and families learn and grow. She believes in the power of libraries to connect communities.


American Indian Library Association. (2022). American Indian Youth Literature Award. American Indian Library Association. Retrieved July 1, 2023, from

American Library Association. (2023). Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Caldecott Medal & Honor Books, 1938 to present. American Library Association. Retrieved July 1, 2023, from

American Library Association. (2022). Donna Barba Higuera, Jason Chin win Newbery, Caldecott Medals. American Library Association. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from

American Library Association. (2023). ‘Love, Violet’ and ‘When the Angels Left the Old Country’ win 2023 Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award. American Library Association. Retrieved September 10, 2023, from

American Library Association. (n.d.). Randolph Caldecott Medal | Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). American Library Association. Retrieved September 1, 2023, from

Christopher, D. (2023). Dual or Triple Language – Indigenous & First Nations Books. Strong Nations. Retrieved July 2, 2023, from

Day, C. [@bychristineday]. (2023, July 1). WE STILL BELONG is one of 87 titles under review in the Pinellas County Schools district. This little book of [VIDEO]. Instagram.

Davis, J., Graber, K., & Dillon, J. (2019, November 21). Chief Standing Bear and His Landmark Civil Rights Case | In Custodia Legis. Library of Congress Blogs. Retrieved June 25, 2023, from

Goade, M. (2021, June 28). 2021 Caldecott Medal Acceptance by Michaela Goade. The Horn Book. Retrieved July 1, 2023, from

Nebraska Studies. (n.d.). Susette La Flesche Tibbles. University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Retrieved June 9, 2023, from

Newland, B. (2022, May). Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report. Indian Affairs. Retrieved June 26, 2023, from

Paden, J. C. (2023, February 4). Pueblo Children’s Authors and Illustrators. Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Retrieved September 20, 2023, from

Reese, D. (2019, September 30). About AICL. American Indians in Children’s Literature. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from

Reese, D. (2023, May 17). Banning of Native Voices/Books. American Indians in Children’s Literature. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from

Reese, D., & Mendoza, J. (2021, July 21). Milestones: Indigenous Peoples in Children’s Literature. American Indians in Children’s Literature. Retrieved July 1, 2023, from

Reese, Debbie. (2006). Native American Children’s Literature. In Zipes, J (Ed.). The Oxford encyclopedia of children’s literature. Oxford University Press.

Rothberg, E. (n.d.). Biography: Susette La Flesche Tibbles (“Bright Eyes”). National Women’s History Museum. Retrieved June 25, 2023, from

Solochek, J. S. (2023, June 26). Pinellas schools under fire for book review list. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved July 3, 2023, from

A Tribe Called Geek. (2023, February 26). Michaela Goade wins second Caldecott award. A Tribe Called Geek. Retrieved September 10, 2023, from

Wang, A., & Chin, J. (2023, March 28). About – Caldecott Award & Honor Winners – LibGuides at Dean B. Ellis Library – Arkansas State University. LibGuides. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from

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