Just like every cultural perspective, the Native American experience isn’t a monolith and neither is literature written by Native authors. Even the appropriate terminology can differ depending on the individual experience. While many refer to Native people as Native American, the National Museum of the American Indian notes that it’s best to use the individual tribal name, when possible. In the United States, Native American is the most common term (and as such, is the one we use here), but many Native people prefer the terms American Indian or Indigenous American. When in doubt, always ask people what they prefer to called.
Right now, many of us might be looking to support people from Native, American Indian and Indigenous backgrounds during Native American Heritage Month, which we recognize in November. Also known as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, this is a chance to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions and histories, as well as the important contributions of Native people. It’s also an opportunity to help raise awareness about the unique challenges they have faced both throughout history and today, as well as the ways in which tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.
And while it’s easy to get caught up in finding the right reading list, the seminal text, the perfect material, we may forget that diversifying our bookshelf should be fun. So these aren’t educational Native American books, or books that attempt to encapsulate the entirety of a culture that’s complex and complicated, because even the best read can’t do that. They’re just good books, full-stop, that happen to be written by Native and Indigenous writers. When you’re done here, give our feel-good book club a try, because we can always use another addition to our TBR pile.
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Heart Berries: A Memoir
Memoir fans, look no further than this heartwrenchingly beautiful elegy for her lost parents that explores trauma, family and a fresh perspective on memory and how much of it we can really trust. It’s not a light read, but an important one.
Salvage the Bones
While every book Jesmyn Ward writes is a triumph, this searing National Book Award is a great place to start. As Hurricane Katrina gathers over the gulf, so do the tensions in a family that’s already struggling in poverty. Try to remember to breathe as the story rushes towards its dramatic conclusion.
My Heart Is a Chainsaw
Slasher movie fans will love following Jade, a half-Native American loner who relies on her expert-level knowledge of slasher films to make sense of the world. When people start disappearing from the gentrifying town of Proofrock where she lives, her skills might help her keep her safe. Then again, maybe she already knows too much.
Through investigative reporting, academic exploration and intimate person accounts, this book explores what we’re all taught about what it means to be a girl and how we can break free of those expectations. It’s a rallying cry, a breaking open of stereotypes and a lyrical journey all in one.
There There: A novel
In this unforgettable novel, 12 characters converge at the Big Oakland Powwow as the story speeds toward its shocking conclusion. There’s newly sober Jacquie Red Feather, Dene Oxendene, who works at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who’s going to watch her nephew perform a traditional Indian dance for the very first time, and so many more.
The Removed: A Novel
Steeped in Cherokee myths and legends, this story of family members trying to live through the grief of losing one of their own to a police shooting will stick with you like a stubborn ghost. It’s a little creepy, very arresting and deeply grounded in the real dangers people face every day.
The Seed Keeper: A Novel
Lose yourself in the generational story of Rosalie Iron Wing, who grew up immersed in the stories of her Dakhóta people until her father dies and she’s sent to live with a foster family. Decades later, Rosalie is a widow and mother who returns to her childhood home to grieve what she’s lost and rediscover the strengths of her ancestors.
The Road Back to Sweetgrass: A Novel
Follow the braided stories of Dale Ann, Theresa and Margie from the 1970s to today as they navigate love, loss and family in a changing world. Sweetgrass is both a land allotment and a plant used in the Ojibwe ceremonial odissimaa bag that contains a newborn’s umbilical cord in this book that shuffles between past and present and all of the history and legend therein.
What do you do when the ghost of your most annoying customer gets stuck in the bookstore where you work? That’s what the formerly incarcerated Tookie has to figure out, all while trying to survive the COVID-19 pandemic and the reckoning that occurs in Minneapolis in the wake of police violence. It’s a compelling, slightly creepy and even funny read.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present
History buffs, don’t miss this one. It’s a balance of memoir and reportage that spans the history of Native American people’s rich and varied cultures from first contact with white settlers, and how degradations like land seizures, massacres, forced assimilation and more gave rise to uniquely powerful means of survival.
In a series of linked stories, we grow up with Jordan Coolwater as he moves through his life, struggling with his family’s alcoholism, racism and challenges both internal and cultural in the Cherokee and Muscogee communities in Oklahoma. It’s a sharp, sometimes hard, look at what people go through and have to do to survive.
This intense, sometimes funny and occasionally shocking book delves into what it means to grow up as a Native American gang member in Chicago. While it may not be appropriate reading for the kids, it’s an important look at an under-recognized subset of the Native population in our country.
Crazy Brave: A Memoir
This transcendent memoir by poet laureate Joy Harjo details her coming-of-age as the daughter of an abusive father, an imaginative girl who takes solace in poetry, the natural world and the arts. As she grows older and becomes a single mother, she eventually finds her voice and her place in the world.
Almanac of the Dead
Most histories of our country are told from the white colonizers’ perspectives, just like almost all history comes from the point of view of the winners. In this beautiful book, we learn about the lives, fates, hopes and dreams of the Native people instead.
Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two
Even though it’s technically for young adults, this World War II novel will resonate with older readers too. It’s all about Code Talkers, the Navajo people who carried messages for U.S. troops in their native language. It’s an important historical period, captured in gripping prose.
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