While Native American Heritage Month is a great time to read picture book biographies of Native Americans and Indigenous People, these books should be read all year round! Sadly, many children learn about Indigenous Peoples as if they are only part of history, or by drawing teepees and making paper feather crowns. Avoid this absurd and offensive tradition and instead read the stories of these Indigenous activists, artists, scientists and politicians.
I've limited the choices on this list of Native American biographies to picture books that are suitable for reading aloud, and you will certainly be able to find many more titles for independent reading at your library.
Most, but not all, are written and/or illustrated by Indigenous authors and artists. When you choose books featuring the lives of Indigenous people, First Nations or Native Americans, I encourage you to do so thoughtfully. The following sources offer further insight:
Note: this list contains Amazon and Bookshop affiliate links. Purchases made through these links may earn commission. Bookshop also supports independent book stores.
SHARICE'S BIG VOICE: A NATIVE KID BECOMES A CONGRESSWOMAN by Sharice Davids & Nancy K. Mays, illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley
Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation, became one of the first female Native American representatives in the U.S. Congress. In this memoir picture book, Davids describes her path growing up as a person who always looked for ways to serve others. After a time where she studied martial arts, worked in customer service and gave back to her community, she went to law school, eventually deciding to run for congress in the state of Kansas. Ages 5 and up.
MORE: Native American Picture Books by Native Authors
THE WATER WALKER by Joanne Robertson
Native American communities were the first to recognize what humans were doing to the planet and have always played a crucial role in raising awareness about the environment. Every morning an Ojibwe grandmother greets nibi (water) with gratitude. Knowing that unpolluted water will soon be a scarcity, she and a group of women start to walk around the Great Lakes in order to draw attention to the importance of clean water. It takes them seven years to walk around the lakes, but they do not give up. Both the text and the illustrations add sweet humor to this important story. Ages 3 and up.
CLASSIFIED: THE SECRET CAREER OF MARY GOLDA ROSS, CHEROKEE AEROSPACE ENGINEER by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Natasha Donovan
Guided by her Cherokee heritage and principles, Mary Golda Ross spent her life striving to excel. In school, she was the only female in her math class, which simply spurred her on even more. During WWII she worked on aircraft design and afterwards she was instrumental in developing secret projects at Lockeed. I hope this children's biography of Mary Golda Ross becomes part of every classroom's STEM curriculum! Ages 6 and up.
MORE: Historical and Contemporary Middle Grade Books by Native American Authors
SHARUKO: EL ARQUEÓLOGO PERUANO JULIO C. TELLO/PERUVIAN ARCHAEOLOGIST JULIO C. TELLO by Monica Brown, illustrated by Elisa Chavarri
Tello was a part of a Quechua-speaking Indigenous people community in Peru and the first first Indigenous archaeologist in the Americas. He started off in medical school and developed an intense curiosity of skulls. Using his skills to improve the lives of Peru's Indigenous people, he was tireless in working to preserve Indigenous history and culture. Ages 6 and up. Note: Publisher Lee and Low has a teacher's guide here.
MORE: Latin American Folktales for Kids
FINDING MY DANCE by Ria Thundercloud, illustrated by Kalila J. Fuller
Ria Thundercloud (Ho-Chunk Nation and Sandia Pueblo) narrates her autobiographical journey though the world of dance. As a young girl she enthusiastically joined in the jingle dance in the special dress her mother made. Thundercloud recalls the loneliness she felt as the only Indigenous girl in her class at school, as well as how others always mispronounced her name, Wakąja haja pįįwįga. Thundercloud goes on to learn multiple styles of dance, indigenous and western, forging a career path that also lifts up her culture. Vibrant illustrations make this a great Native American biography to read aloud. Ages 5 and up.
TALLCHIEF: AMERICAN'S PRIMA BALLERINA by Maria Tallchief and Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Gary Kelley
Maria Tallchief narrates her own story. She begins by describing her childhood on the Osage reservation. With the encouragement of her mother, Maria grew up with a fierce love of music and dance and the family moved to Los Angeles so she could continue her training. This biography focuses on Maria's formative years and the book ends when she joins the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo at the age of 17. Ages 6 and up.
MORE: Native (North) American Folktales for Kids
WILMA'S WAY HOME: THE LIFE OF WILMA MANKILLER by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Linda Kukuk
Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation grew up in rural Oklahoma, where her Cherokee heritage instilled in her the importance of helping one another and supporting Native communities. A misguided government policy relocates Mankiller's family to San Francisco. In California she fostered a connection with her Cherokee roots at the local Indian Center, eventually returning to Oklahoma. Ages 6 and up.
ROCK & ROLL HIGHWAY: THE ROBBIE ROBERTSON STORY by Sebastian Robertson, illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Robertson's son penned this upbeat picture book biography of his father, the son of a Mohawk mother and Jewish father. Robbie Robertson was a Canadian songwriter and guitarist in the musical group, the Band. The book traces Robertson's childhood and rise as a musician, as well as mentioning his work with other musical artists. Ages 6 and up.
RED BIRD SINGS: THE STORY OF ZITKALA-SA, NATIVE AMERICAN AUTHOR, MUSICIAN, AND ACTIVIST by Gina Capaldi and Q. L. Pearce, illustrated by Gina Capaldi. Zitkala-Sa
Zitkala-Sa left her home on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota to go to school in Indiana where she found solace in music. This biography tells her story from her struggles due to being separated from her traditional culture and discovering her love of music as a child, to her activism on behalf of Native Americans, as an adult. Ages 7 and up.
MORE: Picture Book Biographies of Women Musicians
MISSION TO SPACE by John Harrington
Astronaut John Harrington, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, narrates a journey to space. He introduces us to the basics of NASA astronaut training, what astronauts get up to in space and takes readers on a spacewalk. This is an exceptionally fun read aloud and includes some wonderful photographs of Harrington's experience. Ages 3 and up.
SHAPED BY HER HANDS: POTTER MARIA MARTINEZ by Anna Harber Freeman and Barbara Gonzales, illustrated by Aphelandra
Luminous illustrations bring to life the work of Tewa potter, Maria Martinez. Born Maria Povika, she grew up in San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, learning pottery as a child from her aunt. She became well-known for a particular firing technique that turned pots a shiny black, as well as her focus on drawing upon her cultural heritage to make her amazing pottery. Ages 4 and up.
JIM THORPE'S BRIGHT PATH by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by S.D. Nelson
Thorpe had a difficult childhood. His parents and brother died and he was sent to an Indian boarding school. These boarding schools were meant to strip Native Americans of their cultural identity and the students were expected to enter society as servants and manual laborers. Thorpe avoided this bleak prospect to become one of the greatest athletes of all time. Publisher Lee and Low has an excellent teacher's guide to go along with the book. Ages 7 and up.
CHESTER NEZ AND THE UNBREAKABLE CODE by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes
Chester Nez was a Navajo Code Talker during WWII, helping the US government defeat the Japanese by using the Navajo language to evade the enemy. As a child, Nez was taken from his family and placed in a missionary boarding school, where authorities aimed at assimilating children into the colonizing culture and separating them from their indigenous heritage and language. After the war, Nez's life wasn't rosy either, and Bruchac allows us to see Nez in all his humanity. Ages 6 and up. Note: Find a teacher's guide here.
LOUIS SOCKALEXIS: NATIVE AMERICAN BASEBALL PIONEER by Bill Wise, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth
Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot tribe, experienced discrimination in the late 19th century as he struggled to be accepted as a professional baseball player. This biography follows his childhood and his career. Get the teacher's guide for the book here. Ages 7 and up.
MORE: Baseball Picture Books
Thanks for your lists! I've been trying to check out more books by Native authors as well. There are some on your lists I haven't read yet and I'll be looking into getting them! Two other picture books by Native authors we really liked are Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story by Danielle Greendeer and Johnny’s Pheasant written by Cheryl Minnema and illustrated by Julie Flett. I have a full list of over 30 books by Native creators for kids, teens, and adults on a blog post https://maybeillbecomeafarmer.wordpress.com/2021/11/06/native-american-heritage-month/
Thanks for your comment. I loved Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story and will be adding it to my Thanksgiving list soon! I haven't read Johnny's Pheasant so thanks for the recommendation!
Rebekah Gienapp says
Traci Sorell also has a brand-new biography of Wilma Mankiller as part of the She Persisted chapter book series. Great for ages 6 - 9!