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In Honor of Native American Heritage Month

15 Powerful Books By and About Indigenous People

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • November 11, 2020

An Artful Tradition of Storytelling

Storytelling is a critical aspect of Indigenous cultures, which have been ravaged by the destructive history of colonization. Passing down the sacred stories helps to preserve the spirituality, traditions, and history for tribal communities that have had so much taken from them. In honor of this nation's first people, we are proud to celebrate National Native American Heritage Month with books by Indigenous authors carrying on the beloved tradition of storytelling in a variety of forms.

As we began to consider titles for this post, we were struck by the current proliferation of excellent books by Native authors. So rather than curating a list of all-time best, we decided to focus on poetry, nonfiction, and fiction from just the past few years. To get recommendations for younger readers, check out this post from last November.

Poetry

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through
US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo may be the first Native American to hold the position, but she is just one of the many poets featured in this comprehensive anthology of poetry representing almost 100 Indigenous nations. Edited by Harjo, Leanne Howe, and Jennifer Foerster.

Feed
The fourth book in Tommy Pico's Teebs tetralogy captures what it means to be young, Indigenous, and newly single walking through a New York park in early spring. This ode to a frustrating season of back-and-forth, of thaw and blizzard, preserves faith that, even amidst the mess, it knows where it's going.

Postcolonial Love Poem
Natalie Diaz takes on big themes in her dazzling second collection: erotic love, environmentalism, drug addiction and mental illness, racism, and even basketball. (She's a former pro player!) In direct but layered language, Diaz validates the inherent value of bodies, both human and environmental.

An American Sunrise
"The heart is a fist. It pockets prayer or holds rage." Joy Harjo's 2019 collection weaves between the past and present of both her tribe and her personal experiences. Her poems sing of beauty and survival, illuminating a spirituality that connects her to her ancestors.

Nonfiction

Braiding Sweetgrass
As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask scientific questions about nature. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. Brimming with a deep love for the natural world, this knowledgeable guide holds hope for a better future.

Our History is the Future
In this compelling exploration of the Standing Rock protest, Nick Estes traces traditions of resistance that led to the largest Indigenous protest movement in the twenty-first century. His captivating narrative weaves together analysis with oral histories revealing the origins and possible outcomes of ongoing resistance.

Seven Fallen Feathers
Over the span of ten years, seven high school students died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. They were all hundreds of miles away from their families, forced to leave their reserves to attend high school. Award-winning journalist Tanya Talaga delves into this tragic history.

Crazy Horse Weeps
For Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people, historical trauma, underfunded programs, and broken promises have led to gaping health, educational, and economic disparities. Focusing on issues of identity and authenticity, Joseph M. Marshall III draws on his deep knowledge of these issues to draft a plan for a hopeful future.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
Melding history with reportage and memoir, Ojibwe anthropologist David Treuer offers a sweeping account of Native American life—from the Wounded Knee massacre to the present—and a rich counter narrative to the myth that Native people are a relic of the past. Decolonize your history lessons with this book!

Fiction

Moon of the Crusted Snow
In this daring post-apocalyptic novel from Waubgeshig Rice, a small northern Anishinaabe community goes dark as winter looms. Cut off, people become passive and confused. Panic builds as the food supply dwindles. While community leaders struggle to maintain order, an unexpected visitor arrives.

The Night Watchman
The inimitable Louise Erdrich weaves US history, realism, and Native storytelling in this powerful novel based on the life of her grandfather, who fought for the Turtle Mountain Band's tribal rights. The result is a deeply felt portrait of a community of passionate people struggling against racist politics and injustice.

Winter Counts
In this addictive thriller, the justice-minded local enforcer on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota finds himself enmeshed in a complex, multinational drug ring. This groundbreaking debut by David Heska Wanbli Weiden offers a tour-de-force in crime fiction and a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life.

The Beadworkers: Stories
In her luminous debut collection, Beth Piatote grounds her stories in the landscapes and lifeworlds of the Native Northwest. Told with humor, subtlety, and beautiful spareness, these mixed-genre works find unifying themes in the strength of kinship, the pulse of longing, and the language of return.

The Only Good Indians
In this deliciously creepy horror novel, four Native men are being stalked by an ancient entity bent on punishing them for childhood infractions against hunting customs. Stephen Graham Jones builds on the slasher prototype with a story exploring the age-old tensions between tradition and assimilation.

There, There
Deemed an instant classic, Tommy Orange's shattering novel follows twelve disparate characters from Native communities: all connected to each other in ways they don't yet realize. Together, this chorus of voices balances a devastating history with a complex inheritance of spirituality, communion, and heroism.

The voices of Native artists and authors in America offer all of us an opportunity to better understand this nation's history and culture.

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