My hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, has the largest population of Indigenous people in North America, something I am proud of. I grew up witnessing the lives of Indigenous Winnipeggers, but it wasn’t until I became good friends with two Native brothers in my high school youth group that my view of this people group, so prevalent in my city and province, changed. Indigenous people became more than an ethnic group to observe and live parallel lives with. Now and forevermore they were represented by Darren and Mike, my buddies, who made me smile and laugh and had my back.
That’s what relationships do – they break down barriers between people who are from very different cultures and ethnicities. Books can also open our eyes to the lived experiences of others, allowing us to walk in their shoes for a while. I’ve always thought reading can be an act of peacemaking because it expands our narrow worldviews and lends us understanding and empathy.
Here are a handful of books by Indigenous authors to celebrate Native American Heritage Month. May these books be conduits of truth that go beyond stereotypes, and channels of compassion for our fellow image bearers.
By Anna Rose Johnson
The Star That Always Stays enchants and delights as it gently teaches readers about Indigenous culture and people of Northern Michigan, circa 1914.
Set on Beaver Island and in Boyne City, Michigan, this is the wise and warmhearted coming-of-age tale of Norvia, who is based on the author's Ojibwe great-grandmother.
Author Anna Rose Johnson beautifully weaves Norvia’s life, from her early years on Beaver Island, when her grandfather told her stories about her ancestors and her grandmothers showed her how to make quilts and maple candy; to her early teen years when Norvia and her family move to Boyne City. Here she feels she must suppress her Ojibwe heritage and assimilate with her peers, but at what cost?
Written for a middle grade audience (but suitable for everyone), this book refers lovingly to the most cherished heroine classics, including Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Pollyanna. Johnson even thanks Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery in the acknowledgments! The novel also reminded me of the Betsy Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace in its wit and charm.
Note: Though the book is written for a general audience, Johnson is a Christian and her faith shimmers throughout. This gorgeously written novel should be in every church library and Christian and public school library.
Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL's First Treaty Indigenous Player
By Fred Sasakamoose
Last November, I was enthralled with Call Me Indian by Fred Sasakamoose, the first First Nations NHL player. This memoir taught me well about Native history, culture, joy and sorrow. Fred's book also reignited my love for hockey (not that I ever didn't love hockey). But more than that, it revealed the radiant and resilient soul of a man whose life and faith passed through the fiery furnace and emerged as silver.
I found the sections about Sasakamoose’s time in the residential schools harrowing, but I was deeply moved by his determination to rise above and give back to his home community. He overcame huge obstacles to win a spot as one of 120 players (then) in the NHL, the most elite hockey league in the world. After playing 12 games, Sasakamoose returned to Saskatchewan and found a way to stay connected to hockey and reclaim his pride in the heritage that had been stolen from him.
From Agnes Mastin’s Banner review: “Spending long hours on the ice, Sasakamoose became a hero promoting hockey to young Indigenous boys, urging them to choose a better way. He was twice made honorary chief and once the real chief of what was then Sandy Lake, and then again as a councilor for his home reserve. He did many great things, but the thing that spoke most to this fan is that he opened his cabin to people who needed a place to stay during the opioid crisis; he left his fishing gear and chainsaw accessible for whoever needed to catch a fish and start a fire.”
What an inspiring man, and what a thumping good read for the hockey fan in your life (which may be you). (Penguin Random House Canada)
By Diane Wilson
The Seed Keeper, a critically acclaimed novel published by Milkweed, a regional Indigenous publisher based in Minnesota, follows the life of Rosalie Iron Wing from a childhood in the woods to her adult life as a white farmer’s wife.
Growing up in the woods near Mankato, Minnesota, Rosalie learns about plants, stars and her native Dakhóta heritage from her father, Ray, a former science teacher. There is a hole left by the mysterious death of her mother, and Ray won’t talk about her. One day, Ray does not return from setting his traps, and an orphaned Rosalie is sent to the city to live with a white foster family. Alone and bereft of family and culture, the shy and bookish Rosalie forges a complicated friendship with the only other Native girl at her school and gets a job on a nearby farm.
(I was struck by how different the philosophies of land ownership and stewardship were between Indigenous culture and settler culture. Settler culture often strongly adheres to an idea of owning land and private property, while those indigenous to the land hold it much more loosely in terms of ownership yet view it as sacred, too. The American government during frontier days urged the natives to become farmers, which was a foreign concept to a people who moved from place to place according to the seasons, foraged for what they needed, thanked the land and moved on as a community.)
Many years later, Rosalie, now a widow and mother, returns to her home in the woods and tries to piece together a life fragmented by tremendous loss. Along the way, she becomes the “seed keeper,” a custodian of the precious seeds left by the strong women in her ancestry. With a theme of seeds and gardening and plants, this haunting, multigenerational novel shows readers the importance of one’s heritage and the crucial journey one must take to integrate the past and present and find wholeness.
Christian readers will be reminded that Indigenous people such as Rosalie are created beings who hold inherent value and worth. They will be sad at how Rosalie is treated, at times, as someone whose full humanity is not recognized. I found myself wishing Rosalie would turn to Creator, the God her father rejected because in his mind the entire church supported the residential schools. Yet she had the example of her “Auntie Vera,” her friend’s aunt, who told Rosalie to “think of the boarding schools as mistakes made by people who ran churches, not by the faith itself.”
Though overall the novel is very mild in terms of content, there is some strong language near the end. (Milkweed Press)
By Kaitlin B. Curtice
I am eager to plunge into Native, a bestselling book by Christian Potawatomi author Kaitlin B. Curtice.
From the publisher: “Native is about identity, soul-searching, and the never-ending journey of finding ourselves and finding God. As both a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation and a Christian, Kaitlin Curtice offers a unique perspective on these topics. In this book, she shows how reconnecting with her Potawatomi identity both informs and challenges her faith. (Brazos Press)