03 November 2023

Three Indigenous Mysteries for Kids

From Rez Detectives

This past summer, my wife and I visited nearby Cherokee, North Carolina, for that city’s annual 4th of July powwow, billed as one of this continent’s largest gatherings for Native American singing, dancing, and drumming competitions. We’ve gone before, because the event is spectacular on its own, and because the history of the region—best experienced in the museum, craft co-op, living village, and long-running stage show—is fascinating.

It is also excruciatingly sad. The U.S. federal government forcibly removed 11,000 Cherokee from the American Southeast in the 1830s, consigning them to the notorious Trail of Tears and the so-called Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Many Cherokee resisted that government order, hiding in the nearby mountains. Their descendants, and others who returned, comprise what is known today as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (ECBI).

The times we’ve visited the Qualla Boundary, the Cherokee land trust, we always stop in at Talking Leaves Bookstore, which exclusively features books and other media devoted to many indigenous cultures. The mystery section prominently displays, for example, the works of Tony and Anne Hillerman. The store also carries some DVDs of TV series such as Dark Winds, based on Hillerman’s series in Navajo country, and Reservation Dogs, about Muscogee Nation teens mourning the loss of a friend and grappling with life in rural Oklahoma.

The latter got me thinking: are there mysteries for kids that feature indigenous characters? There are quite a few, yes. I picked up three, which I thought I’d share with you today as we start Native American Heritage Month here in the United States. Let’s see what we’ve got.

The Rez Detectives: Justice Served Cold, text by Steven Paul Rudd, Tvli Jacob, illustrations by M.K. Perker. (Literati Press Comic & Novels, $12.99).

In the gentlest of the three books—a hardcover comic book—fifth grader Tasembo wakes on a hot summer day craving a delicious ice cream cone. When the ice cream truck doesn’t show up, all the kids in this Choctaw neighborhood are naturally concerned. Turns out, all the vendor’s stock has been stolen! Determined to crack the case, Tasembo teams with the smartest girl in his class, the sweetly nerdy Nuseka, who sports a lab coat and totes forensics equipment in a suitcase. 

Nuseka collects footprints with plaster molds, dusts for prints, and sets traps to collect both from suspects. Along the way, we learn interesting tidbits about reservation life, tribal councils, and the kids’ attitudes about them. When Tasembo comments that the ice cream man has a stellar record for punctuality, Nuseka quips, “Maybe he overslept. Indian time finally caught up with him.” When Nuseka lapses into pig latin to avoid sharing a secret with others, Tasembo replies: “Are you speaking Kiowa or something?” 

The characters directly address the fact that many Native Americans are lactose intolerant. (Eighty percent of African Americans and Natives are.) They speculate that the theft is the work of the Kowi Anuk Asha, little people who dwell in the forest. Alas, the culprit proves to be all too human. 

A very fun story with charming illustrations. Author Judd (Kiowa/Choctaw) is a clothing designer, writer, and visual artist; his collaborator Jacob (Choctaw) is a producer, director, and clinical professor of psychiatry. Intended for readers aged 10-13, grades 4-6, though I think it could skew younger.

The Case of Windy Lake, by Michael Hutchinson (The Mighty Muskrats Mystery Series, Second Story Press, $10.95). 

When an elderly white archeologist goes missing while doing some routine work for a local mining company on the lands of the Windy Lake First Nation in Canada, four young cousins known as the Mighty Muskrats team up to find the poor fellow before he expires in the harsh wilderness. 

This series is five books strong at this point, and Hutchinson (Misipawistik Cree, Treaty 5 territory) says he was inspired by the old Three Investigators series attributed to Alfred Hitchcock but written by Robert Arthur Jr. and a team of ghostwriters. 

That said, The Mighty Muskrats plots are strongly influenced by Hutchinson’s work as an investigative journalist. In this volume, we witness a community struggling with a classic dilemma: do they preserve the old ways and their land, or allow a despoiling mining company to bring much-needed jobs to the region? The cousins—Atim, Sam, Chickadee, and Otter—display a warm, loving relationship with each other and with others in their nation. Their uncle is a tribal cop. Their Grandpa is a wise respected Elder. Their older cousin is an angry activist. A larger cast of uncles, aunties, council Elders, and older cousins and sibs chime with offhand comments that turn out to be vital clues. Everyone is skeptical of the motives of Anglo archeologists, rapacious corporations, and the Canadian government. 

In this case, the kids’ deductions hinge upon an understanding of the behavior of local birds of prey, the rise and fall of lake water levels due to the nearby hydro dam, and modern meteorology. Readers will come away with a powerful understanding of many concepts dear to this community, among them the value of vision quests: “Once you see the world beyond your needs, it becomes easier to see your dreams and how you can contribute.” A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Ages 9-12, grades 4-7.

Firekeeper’s Daughter, by Angeline Boulley (Firekeeper’s Daughter series, Macmillan, $14.99). 

Eighteen-year-old Daunis is a young woman living near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, who dreams of going off to college to become a doctor. She’s forced to put her dreams on hold when her grandma suffers a stroke. Born out of wedlock to a white mom from a wealthy family, and an Ojibwe hockey player dad, she has always felt like she doesn’t quite fit in. When Daunis witnesses a murder, the FBI compels her to go undercover to smash a drug ring that is devastating the community. Now she’s really caught between two worlds. 

Author Boulley (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa) labored 10 years on the book, while raising her kids, enduring a divorce, and serving as the director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education in DC. She told one interviewer that she often wrote scenes while sitting in the stands at her kids’ hockey games.

Unusual for a debut novel, the book hit No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list upon release, and racked up a slew of starred reviews and awards. Reese Witherspoon picked it for her book club, the Obamas are producing a Netflix series based on the title. The second book is set in the same region, and features some of the same characters. (I have not read that one.)

Tell me: when was the last time you’ve seen a book garner more than 12,000 Amazon or 135,000 Goodreads ratings, largely glowing? That said, this is a doorstopper—nearly 500 pages—and filled with all the things that frighten witless adults about YA books: sex, drugs, crime, language, you name it. Ages 14-18, grades 10-12.

I’m sorry to say that these only scratch the surface of what’s available out there in the genre. If you know of other titles, please share them. 

From Rez Detectives

See you in three weeks!



  1. Wow! I've never heard of any of these. Thanks for letting us know about them.

    1. Thanks, Eve. They are all quite good, and open a window into different cultures that kids might enjoy.

  2. Joseph, another fabulous one - Yellow Line - by Sylvia Olsen, came out from Orca Books, a Canadian publisher. It knocked me over, for it's depiction of a town divided by a yellow line - kids divided too. It gave me some insight to how some of my own relatives must have felt, growing up.

    1. Melodie, is that a reference to towns where one side of the road is US and the other Canadian?

    2. Melodie: Thanks for sharing that. I added it to my list. - Joe

  3. Whoops - that was Melodie above.

  4. That's brilliant, Joe. I wish we had those when we were kids.


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