I did a lot more reading than usual while I was prepping for this blog post. Until now, I’ve covered cultures that I had already researched on my own time, but my preexisting knowledge of Indigenous folklore was next to nothing. With only a few vague memories from my folklore class and one graphic novel I had read four years ago as my starting point, I compiled a massive book list and dove right in. I ended up reading a number of books about Indigenous characters that didn’t prominently feature folklore, but every story taught me something new about the Native experience.
Before we get to the folklore, I must address something not-so-fun: the array of printed Indigenous stories is a minefield. Many tales, themes, and illustrative styles have been stolen, misinterpreted, and even invasively altered by non-native authors. Some books rely on harmful old tropes and stereotypes, while others lean into vague, wise-sounding platitudes. And two have won Caldecott Awards. Beautiful art does not justify butchering a tale and misrepresenting a culture. Thankfully, I stumbled across American Indians in Children’s Literature, which is an excellent resource.
When vetting books, I ask:
- Is the author writing about their own culture or someone else’s?
- Is the illustrator representing a specific group of people?
- Is there a source note describing where they heard the tale and how they went about adapting it into book form?
I believe that non-native authors and illustrators can adapt a tale into a respectful and well-researched book. Here I have done my best to feature books that are not harmful or misleading, but my unprofessional eye can only catch so much. Thus, when reading such tales, it is important not to draw hasty assumptions based on the way any culture is portrayed. Even flawed stories can inspire a reader to research more. The picture books in our collection offer a fun variety of art and storytelling styles, and are an easy first taste of North America’s Indigenous folklore.
Picking through the library catalog and poking around in the stacks, I began to realize just how massive and varied this category really is. North America is a huge amount of land, so of course it is home to many, many nations. Anthologies really drive this point home, putting creation stories, porquois tales, legendary creatures, and sacred places from different tribes side-by-side. Our Juvenile nonfiction section has some wonderful collections. The books featured here make sure that each tale is clearly labeled with its tribe of origin, and the illustrations are made by Indigenous creators. Certain parts of oral tradition are sacred and private, and thus will never be written down or broadly published. Considering the breadth of Native experience, some people may still not approve of the segments that have been made available to the public. While you read, it is important to maintain proper respect for the material.
I’m quick to imagine sweeping plains and herds of buffalo when I think of North America, but the icy regions at the top of the world must too be included. I found one tiny little book in adult nonfiction, an Athabaskan tale. In addition to the actual story, Two Old Women does a great job filling out the world and describing the practices of “The People of the arctic region of Alaska.” In her author’s note, Velma Wallace describes the day she heard this story from her mother. She writes,
“I was impressed with it because it not only taught me a lesson that I could use in my life, but also because it was a story about my people and my past—something about me that I could grasp and call mine. Stories are gifts given by an elder to a younger person.”Velma Wallis
I thought I’d be able to find some recurring theme or legendary figure (like the African Anansi or Asia’s Monkey King), but the more I read, the more individual creatures I found. The US Government website says that there are over 500 Native tribes, and each one has its own unique lore! While that is very cool, it makes writing a blog post harder. Animals like coyotes, bears, rabbits, and ravens do turn up frequently, but their roles change tale to tale. Sometimes credited with the creation of the Earth, sometimes mere troublemakers, they appear in many stories. Coyote in particular enjoys a certain prominence, and the trickster rabbit figure is also popular. Alongside the commonplace animals of the world, there are tales of the mishipeshu, rougarou, thunderbird, deer woman, and little people, just to name a few! (I have also pointedly not named a few. According to tradition, some fearsome creatures are not to be mentioned by name, lest you summon them.) In Rabbit Chase (available through SearchOhio), Elizabeth LaPensée reimagines Alice in Wonderland as an Anishinaabe adventure full of characters from Indigenous folklore.
As I read more, I noticed the natural elements of the world are venerated and often personified; the sun, the water, and the land are held in high regard and are characterized as ancient, powerful beings. Unfortunately, we all know that the Earth is in trouble. Authors can easily imagine current environmental issues affecting folkloric creatures so closely linked with natural resources. Healer of the Water Monster, for example, depicts an age-old water monster becoming ill as drought affects its dwindling lake.
Walking in Two Worlds takes a different approach. In a contemporary world of advanced technology, the protagonist Bugz has a unique connection with nature that allows her to create traditional flora and fauna in a popular full-dive virtual reality game. Over time, she rebuilds the culture that Indigenous people have had taken from them. The odds are stacked against her as she navigates trouble in the real world and fierce opposition in her virtual one, and she risks losing everything that she holds dear.
Loss is an ever-present theme in a lot of these books. Culture, language, land, and life was and still is being taken from Indigenous people all over America. Despite being fiction, these books do not shy away from telling the truth about Native experiences. Reading so many books at once, I began to get a sense of how harsh things can be. Alicia Elliott best sums it up in her foreword to This Place: 150 Years Retold:
“Indigenous writers have pointed out that, as Indigenous people, we all live in a post-apocalyptic world. The world as we knew it ended the moment colonialism started to creep across these lands. But we have continued to tell our stories; we have continued to adapt. Despite everything, we have survived.Alicia Elliott
Story is at the heart of survival. It is a means of sharing knowledge and remembering the past. Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac and Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger could not be more different in style, but they both portray the importance of oral tradition. (And they both feature noble canine friends!)
Rez Dogs is set in the real world during the pandemic, and protagonist Malian suddenly has to extend her weekend visit into a whole summer with her grandparents when travel shuts down. Malian hears new tales from her elders; the stories arise naturally in response to the events of the narrative. Some are folkloric, others are about the mistreatment of Malian’s parents and grandparents. They are gently told and thoughtfully received, and each one teaches Malian to view things in a new light.
Elatsoe, on the other hand, is a suspenseful murder mystery set in a slightly more magical America. Titular Elatsoe (Ellie for short) must uncover the circumstances of her cousin’s death while avoiding vampires and vengeful spirits. She has the ability to summon the dead, a skill that her family has passed down through storytelling. Throughout the book, Ellie and her mom share tales which act as lessons, reassurances, and warnings. Real Apache tradition is blended seamlessly with the fantasy elements, making for a truly unique story.
There have been some brilliant graphic stories created by, for, and about Indigenous people. Moonshot and Trickster are excellent compilations, as well as The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories and the previously mentioned This Place: 150 Years Retold (both available through SearchOhio). The stories range from fantastical retellings to futuristic adventures, all of them exploring different aspects of the Native experience. In one chapter, a traditional tale will be brought to life with engaging artwork, while the next chapter spins an age-old theme into a space adventure. Still yet another chapter might address the historical and ongoing oppression of Indigenous people. The graphic novel format literally gives you a new way to see things: every action and emotion is fully rendered as a visual experience.
I can’t help but feel that this blog post has been more scattered than usual. I suppose it’s only natural, considering the vast amount of land I’m covering. This is but the tip of the iceberg; there is so much more I’ve yet to learn. I hope these books will inspire you to discover more for yourself!