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Discovering Native American Cultures through Illustrated Stories

Stories from Native American authors are wonderful ways to learn about Indigenous cultures. They help explain how people see the world around them. They also convey important lessons that can be passed down from generation to generation. I’m continually amazed by the variety of stories out there, whether traditional or inspired by what is happening today. These authors demonstrate a wealth of imagination assisted by a copyright system that promotes the creativity behind these stories.

With so much material out there, where to begin? Growing up, I routinely searched my local library for illustrated tales. I’m still drawn to these stories today, especially those written by Indigenous storytellers. I find these are great entry points to begin a cultural journey. In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, below are a few books that a colleague listed for me after her trip to Maine. While these examples are written with children in mind, their text and pictures will engage enthusiasts of all ages.Torso in a white sweater holding a stack of books. On the left third of the picture is the text "Native American Heritage Month". Two geometric representations of feathers are hanging down from the circle in the color orange, turquoise, dark purple, and white.

As a copyright aside, an illustrated children’s book, where one or more people write the text of a story and another provides the illustrations, may be an example of a joint work, depending on many factors. In copyright lingo, the definition of a joint work is a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole. You can read more about this in our circular on Copyright Basics. Now, on to our list!

The First Blade of Sweetgrass tells the tale of a Wabanaki girl trying to learn the difference between sweetgrass and other salt marsh grasses. The writers, Suzanne Greenlaw and Gabriel Frey, citizens of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians and of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, respectively, were inspired to write the story based on the interaction between their daughters and their grandmother. They also took part in this year’s National Book Festival.

Another example is The First Strawberries, a Cherokee story retold by Joseph Bruchac, a Nulhegan Abenaki citizen. Bruchac is a prolific and award-winning author who has written over 120 books. His books feature stories of Native American people from tribes and nations like the Mohegan, Iroquois, Muskogee, and Navajo, just to name a few.

Finally for this list, there is The Canoe Maker: David Moses Bridges, Passamaquoddy Birch Bark Artisan. The story features the late artist, political activist, and birch bark canoe builder David Moses Bridges telling the tale of the partridge while also imparting knowledge of canoe making. One of the authors of the book is Donald Soctomah, tribal historic preservation officer for the Passamaquoddy Tribe.

So, what books would you add to the list of Native American illustrated stories? Mention them in the comments below so we all can discover more during Native American Heritage Month and beyond.

2 Comments

  1. Mary Steenbergen
    November 23, 2021 at 3:20 pm

    Our lives are complicated for some and not so complicated for others. Indigenous people’s, have more history to tell than most people of our society today. For every advancement, accomplishment, barrier, that we can accomplish together, we raise hope for all to gain equality, and inclusion. Historical fact whether good or bad there is a lesson that can be taken from it and applied for another outcome that maybe the path to achieving all that we strive for everyday, through the past knowledge of yesterday’s rights or wrongs, giving everyone acknowledgement to their contributions of a better tomorrow, as well as keeping documentations, and records of written tales,or facts our nations diverse choice to be better than we were, striving for a piece of our American dream.

  2. Connie Williams, author
    November 24, 2021 at 11:40 am

    Mama’s father is from the Blackfoot Tribe
    It is amazing that in discovering my “daddy” -father, I have inadvertently also discovered the beauty of my mother. She always presented herself as a beautiful woman, but in discovering my mother’s heritage and her legacy, although she wasn’t brought up among her people of the Blackfoot Tribe, I can amazingly understand her disposition on many aspects of life—like her family values, children, creativity, and manner of dress etc. Obviously, though, some mannerisms are natural instincts through the vein and the blood that trickles though those veins. It caused me to want to learn more.

    Blackfoot chief Father and son Is the name of the tribe “Blackfoot” or “Blackfeet”?
    “Blackfoot” is the English translation of the word siksika, which means “black foot.” It refers to the dark colored moccasins the people wear. Some Blackfoot people are annoyed by the plural “Blackfeet,” which is obviously an anglicization. But most Blackfoot people accept both terms. “Blackfoot” is more commonly used in Canada, and “Blackfeet” is more commonly used in the United States.

    The Blackfeet Indians are original residents of the northern Plains, particularly Montana, Idaho, and Alberta, Canada. Most Blackfoot people still live in this region today. Here is a map showing traditional Blackfoot lands and the location of their reservations today. There are four Blackfoot bands: three in Canada (the Piegan, Kainai, and Siksika First Nations,) and one in the United States (the Blackfeet tribe.) Each Blackfoot tribe or First Nation lives on its own reservation or reserve, which means land that belongs to the tribe and is legally under their control. The four Blackfoot bands are politically independent. Each one has its own government, laws, police, and services, just like a small country.

    In the past, the Blackfeet nation was led by a council of chiefs, one from each clan. The Blackfeet people really valued harmony, so every chief had to agree on a decision before action could be taken (this is called consensus). Today, Blackfeet council members are elected like governors or mayors are… but their government still works by consensus.

    Today there are about 25,000 citizens of the four Blackfoot Indian bands. About 10,000 of them live in the United States, and the rest live in Canada. There are also many other people who are Blackfoot descendants but are not tribal members.

    Most Blackfoot Indians speak English today, but about half of them also speak their native Blackfoot language. Blackfoot is a musical language that has complicated verbs with many parts. Most Blackfoot words are very long and difficult for English speakers to pronounce, but one easy word that you might like to learn is “Oki” (pronounced “oh-kee,”) which means “Hello!”

    Blackfeet flag
    There is a lot of information about Blackfeet history and culture on their site. You can also visit the home page of Blackfoot elder Long Standing Bear Chief. You can find information there about Blackfoot traditions in the past and today.
    Black- foot Indian children live, and what did they do for recreation?

    Women dragging
    tipi poles
    Blackfoot women were in charge of the home. Besides cooking and cleaning, a Blackfoot woman built her family’s house and dragged the heavy posts with her whenever the tribe moved. Houses belonged to the women in the Blackfoot tribe. Blackfoot men were hunters and sometimes went to war to defend their families. Most Blackfoot chiefs and warriors were men. Both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine.

    The Blackfoot lived in buffalo-hide houses called tipis (or teepees). Here are more tipi pictures. Since the Blackfeet moved frequently to follow the buffalo herds, a tipi was carefully designed to set up and break down quickly, like a modern tent. An entire Blackfoot village could be packed up and ready to move within an hour. Today, Native Americans only put up a tepee for fun or to connect with their heritage, not as shelter. Most Blackfoot people live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

    Mama always was a stylish dresser. And I can certainly see from where some of her ideas derived in looking at the decorative clothings of her ancestry.

    Blackfoot women wore long deerskin dresses. Men wore buckskin tunics and breechcloths with leggings. Blackfoot dresses and war shirts were fringed and often decorated with porcupine quills, beads, and elk teeth. Both Blackfeet women and men wore moccasins on their feet and buffalo-hide robes in cold weather. Later, Blackfoot people adopted some European costume such as calico dresses and felt hats. Here are more pictures of Blackfoot clothing, and some photos and links about Indian clothing in general.

    Blackfeet chiefs wore tall feather headdresses, different from the long warbonnets of the Sioux. Here are some pictures of these different styles of Native American headdresses. Men wore their hair in three braids with a topknot or high pompadour, and women wore their hair loose or in two thicker braids. Blackfeet people painted their faces for special occasions. They used different patterns for war paint, religious ceremonies, and festive decoration.

    Today, some Blackfoot people still wear moccasins or a buckskin shirt, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths… and they only wear feathers in their hair on special occasions like a dance.

    Dog travois
    The Blackfoot Indians weren’t coastal people, and when they traveled by river, they usually built rafts. There were no horses in North America until colonists brought them over from Europe, so the Blackfeet used to use dogs pulling travois (a kind of drag sled) to help them carry their belongings over land. Once horses were introduced the Blackfoot culture quickly adopted to them and the people became much more migratory.

    Bison hunt
    The Blackfoot staple food was buffalo. Blackfoot men usually hunted the buffalo by driving them off cliffs or stalking them with bow and arrow. As they acquired horses, the Blackfoot tribe began to pursue the buffalo herds for communal hunts, moving their villages often as the buffalo migrated. In addition to buffalo meat, the Blackfoot Indians also ate small game like ground squirrels, nuts and berries, and steamed camas roots as part of their diet.

    Blackfoot archer

    Blackfoot hunters and warriors fired arrows from powerful long bows or fought with clubs and hide shields. Traditionally most warriors were men, but some Plains Indian women, especially widows, would ride to war with the men. The Blackfoot woman demonstrating a war bow in this picture is a World War II veteran.

    Blackfoot artists are known for their fine quill embroidery and native beading. Here are some photo galleries of Blackfeet art and artifacts for you to look at.

    The Blackfeet were far-ranging people, especially once they acquired horses, and so they interacted frequently with all the other tribes of Montana and the Northern Plains, particularly the Gros Ventre, Shoshone, Crow, and Cree. The Blackfeet usually communicated with these tribes using the Plains Indian Sign Language. Sometimes the Blackfeet tribe was friendly with these other tribes, trading goods and intermarrying. Other times they fought wars against each other.

    Plains Indian tribes treated war differently than European countries did. They didn’t fight over territory but instead to prove their courage, and so Plains Indian war parties rarely fought to the death and almost never destroyed each other’s villages. Instead, they preferred to count coup (touch an opponent in battle without harming him), steal an enemy’s weapon or horse, or force the other tribe’s warriors to retreat. The Europeans who first met them were surprised by how often the Blackfoot tribe fought with their neighbors–even the different Blackfoot bands often fought one another–yet how easily they made peace with each other when they were done fighting.

    There are lots of traditional Blackfoot legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Blackfoot Indian culture. Here is a story about a man who tried to steal the Sun’s pants.

    Famous Blackfeet Indians.

    Chief Crowfoot
    One famous Blackfoot Indian chief was Crowfoot, who led the Blackfoot people in Canada during the second half of the 19th century. Crowfoot was an accomplished warrior and a gifted diplomat. He was most famous for negotiating peace between the Blackfoot Nation and the Canadian government, and for fighting alcoholism among the Blackfoot people. Crowfoot was also the adopted father of the Cree chief Poundmaker, and became close friends with the Sioux leader Sitting Bull.

    Religions are too complicated and culturally sensitive to describe appropriately in only a few simple sentences, and we strongly want to avoid misleading anybody.

    You may enjoy Blackfeet Indian Stories , which is a collection of legends retold by a lifelong friend of the Blackfoot people. Native American Blackfeet Crafts teaches about Blackfoot art forms and even gives some craft ideas you can try yourself. Two good kids’ books about Blackfeet culture and history are Blackfoot Children and Elders Talk Together and Story of the Blackfoot People .

    Sun and the Moon

    A Siksika Blackfeet Medicine Man, painted by George Catlin.
    One of the most famous traditions held by the Blackfoot is their story of sun and the moon. It starts with a family of a man, wife, and two sons, who live off berries and other food they can gather, as they have no bows and arrows, or other tools. The man had a dream: he was told by the Creator Napi, Napiu, or Napioa (depending on the band) to get a large spider web and put it on the trail where the animals roamed, and they would get caught up and could be easily killed with the stone axe he had. The man had done so and saw that it was true. One day, he came home from bringing in some fresh meat from the trail and discovered his wife to be applying perfume on herself. He thought that she must have another lover since she never did this before. He then told his wife that he was going to move a web and asked if she could bring in the meat and wood he had left outside from a previous hunt. She had reluctantly gone out and passed over a hill. The wife looked back three times and saw her husband in the same place she had left him, so she continued on to retrieve the meat. The father then asked his children if they went with their mother to find wood, but they never had. However, they knew the location in which she retrieved it from. The man set out and found the timber along with a den of rattlesnakes, one of which was his wife’s lover. He set the timber on fire and killed the snakes. He knew by doing this that his wife would become enraged, so the man returned home. He told the children to flee and gave them a stick, stone, and moss to use if their mother chased after them. He remained at the house and put a web over his front door. The wife tried to get in but became stuck and had her leg cut off. She then put her head through and he cut that off also. While the body followed the husband to the creek, the head followed the children. The oldest boy saw the head behind them and threw the stick. The stick turned into a great forest. The head made it through, so the younger brother instructed the elder to throw the stone. He did so, and where the stone landed a huge mountain popped up. It spanned from big water (ocean) to big water and the head was forced to go through it, not around. The head met a group of rams and said to them she would marry their chief if they butted their way through the mountain. The chief agreed and they butted until their horns were worn down, but this still was not through. She then asked the ants if they could burrow through the mountain with the same stipulations, it was agreed and they get her the rest of the way through. The children were far ahead, but eventually saw the head rolling behind them. The boys wet the moss and wrung it out behind themselves. They were then in a different land. The country they had just left was now surrounded by water. The head rolled into the water and drowned. They decided to build a raft and head back. Once they returned to their land, they discovered that it was occupied by the crows and the snakes so they decided to split up.
    One brother was simple and went north to discover what he could and make people. The other was smart and went south to make white people and taught them valuable skills. The simple brother created the Blackfeet. He became known as Left Hand, and later by the Blackfeet as Old Man. The woman still chases the man: she is the moon and he is the sun, and if she ever catches him, it will always be night.

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