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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.

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