In 1990, President George H. W. Bush declared November Native American Heritage Month in a, frankly, much overdue effort to recognize the history and cultural importance of the first Americans and, not parenthetically, consider the injustices heaped thereon.
This landmark bill honoring America’s tribal people aimed to provide a platform for Native Americans to share their culture, traditions, music, crafts, dance and ways of life. And one way to help accomplish that could be a modest effort such as this to provide a short but diverse list of key books—fiction and non-fiction—that provide both historical and contemporary views of Native American life.
It’s quite a challenge to try to distill a category as broad as Native American literature into a short “listicle.” One must consider a wide array of works in the genres of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, historical fiction and non-fiction. The category includes gritty, heart-rending and often satirical fiction about the lives of contemporary Native Americans, scholarly documentation of the horrific treatment to which they have been subjected over the centuries, biographies of tribal leaders and collections of the rich and abundant tales, myths and legends that underpin Native American religion and philosophy. The tenth is a feast for the visually inclined. This list, therefore, can only be considered a sampler—and a subjective one at that.
1. House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
Critics believe Momaday’s novel, House Made of Dawn, led to the breakthrough of Native American literature into the American mainstream after the novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969.
House Made of Dawn was the first novel of the Native American Renaissance, a term coined by literary critic Kenneth Lincoln. The work remains a classic of Native American literature.
A young Native American, Abel has come home from a foreign war to find himself caught between two worlds. The first is the world of his father, wedding him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the land, and the ancient rites and traditions of his people. But the other world—modern, industrial America—pulls at Abel, demanding his loyalty, claiming his soul and goading him into a destructive, compulsive cycle of dissipation and disgust. Abel is eventually saved by his halting return to the ways of his people.
2. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
This was Sherman Alexie’s breakthrough book. Composed of twenty-two interconnected stories with recurring characters, the work is often described by critics as a short-story collection, though some argue that it has novel-like features.
The book’s central characters are two young Native-American men living on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The stories describe their relationships, desires, and histories with family members and others who live on the reservation. Alexie fuses surreal imagery, flashbacks, dream sequences, diary entries, and extended poetic passages with his storytelling to create tales that resemble prose poems more than conventional narratives. He deftly depicts the struggles of Native Americans to live in a world that remains hostile to their very survival, and he does so in an honest and artful manner.
The book’s title is derived from one of the collection’s stories. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are symbols for white and Native-American identity, respectively. Alexie studs his stories with other references to popular culture to underscore the ways in which representations of Native Americans have played a part in constructing the image they, and others, now have of them.
3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of Oklahoma’s Osage Nation. After oil was discovered, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. Not only were Osage dying under mysterious circumstances, but many of those who investigated the killings were themselves murdered.
As the death toll rose, the newly created FBI took up the case, and its young director, J. Edgar Hoover, tasked a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, and, together with the Osage, exposed one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.
This widely acclaimed book is a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist.
4. Chief Joseph & the Flight of the Nez Perce by Kent Nerburn
This book vividly recounts the 1,800-mile journey made in by Chief Joseph and eight hundred Nez Perce men, women, and children from their homeland in what is now eastern Oregon to the high, wintry plains of Montana. There, only 40 miles from the Canadian border and freedom, Joseph, convinced the wounded and elders could go no farther, walked across the snowy battlefield, handed his rifle to the U.S. military commander, and spoke these now famous words: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”
The story has often been told, but never in its entirety or with such narrative richness. Drawing on four years of research, interviews, and 20,000 miles of travel, Nerburn reveals the complex character of Joseph, showing how he was transformed into a myth by a public hungry for an image of the noble Indian and how he exploited the myth to achieve his single goal—returning his people to their homeland.
The book is far more than a biography. The narrative has broad sweep, recounting a pivotal time in America’s history—the “winning of the West.” Its pages are alive with the presence of Lewis and Clark, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Armstrong Custer and Sitting Bull, while incorporating events such as the California Gold Rush, the Civil War, the great western pioneer migration, and the building of the telegraph and the transcontinental railroad.
5. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
Time Magazine reviewed Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1970 saying: “In the last decade or so, after almost a century of saloon art and horse operas that romanticized Indian fighters and white settlers, Americans have been developing a reasonably acute sense of the injustices and humiliations suffered by the Indians. But the details of how the West was won are not really part of the American consciousness….
“Dee Brown, western historian and head librarian at the University of Illinois, now attempts to balance the account. With the zeal of an IRS investigator, he audits U.S. history’s forgotten set of books. Compiled from old but rarely exploited sources plus a fresh look at dusty government documents, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee tallies the broken promises and treaties, the provocations, massacres, discriminatory policies and condescending diplomacy.”
Pulitzer-Prize winning Native American author N. Scott Momaday complimented Brown’s writing saying “the book is a story, a whole narrative of singular integrity and precise continuity; that is what makes the book so hard to put aside….”
Critics could not believe the book was written by a white man because its native perspective feels so real. Remaining on bestseller lists for over a year, the book is still in print. Translated into at least 17 languages, it has sold nearly four million copies.
6. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz
A 2015 recipient of the American Book Award, the work is the first history of the United States told from the perspective of indigenous peoples.
There are more than 500 recognized Indigenous nations in the U.S. comprising nearly three million people, descendants of the fifteen million native people who once inhabited this land. The centuries-long genocidal program of the U.S. settler-colonial regimen has largely been omitted from history. Now, for the first time, historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz offers a history of the United States that reveals how Native Americans, for centuries, actively resisted expansion of the U.S. empire.
The author challenges the founding myth of the United States and shows how policy against the Indigenous peoples was colonialist and designed to seize the territories of the original inhabitants, displacing or eliminating them. And as Dunbar-Ortiz reveals, this policy was praised in popular culture, through writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Walt Whitman, and in the highest offices of government and the military. Shockingly, as the genocidal policy reached its zenith under President Andrew Jackson, its ruthlessness was best articulated by Army General Thomas S. Jesup, who, in 1836, wrote of the Seminoles: “The country can be rid of them only by exterminating them.”
Spanning more than four hundred years, this classic bottom-up peoples’ history radically reframes U.S. history by exploring the silences that have haunted our national narrative.
7. Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask by Anton Treuer
In this relatively small volume, Ojibwe Ph.D and academic Anton Treuer debunks 120 stereotypes or misconceptions about Native Americans with solid information, humor and compassion.
Treuer, an assistant professor at Minnesota’s Bemidji State University, tells his readers: “I had a profoundly well-educated Princetonian ask me, ‘Where is your tomahawk?’ I had a beautiful woman approach me in the college gymnasium and exclaim, ‘You have the most beautiful red skin.’ I took a friend to see Dances with Wolves and was told, ‘Your people have a beautiful culture.’ I made many lifelong friends at college, and they supported but also challenged me with questions like, ‘Why should Indians have reservations?’”
“This book marks Anton Treuer’s shift from an expert on Ojibwe history and language to one of the most powerful tribal voices on most things Indian. Informed, compassionate, funny, and provocative, Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask is a truly needed and compelling read,” said novelist Louise Erdrich.
According to Basil Johnston, award winning author of The Manitous and many other books on Ojibwe history and culture: “Anton Treuer is a consummate bridge builder. Patient and pointed in equal measure, the book inspires readers to embrace human commonality—and when confronted with issues of social and cultural difference—to engage our better natures.”
8. The 13: Ashi-niswi by Lorin R. Robinson
One of the more unusual books in this widely varied collection is The 13: Ashi-niswi. The book centers on 13 Native American Anishinaabe teens living in a “time before time,” a world yet to be influenced by white culture. Ignoring the mandate of their elders, they embark on a mission of revenge after Dakota raiders ravage their village.
As the Anishinaabe (later renamed Ojibwe by the French) migrated into the Lake Superior region centuries earlier, they encountered the native Dakota (later renamed Sioux) and a long and bloody conflict resulted, the heart of this story.
It’s a moving story of native interactions—pre-white man—that captures the thoughts, sentiments and determination of this band of young men to regain—at whatever cost—the honor of their band. This work of historical fiction proves particularly interesting because there are surprisingly few native stories in print that take place before the white man’s arrival and eventual dominance.
The 13 is, at once, a parable considering the ever-relevant question, “What is the price of honor?” and a poignant coming-of-age tale as the youngest of the would-be warriors struggles to come to grips with the aftermath of the venture.
“Told in the straightforward language of a young Native American boy, The 13 gives voice to the ceremonies of the tribe, the actions of the spirit guide, the imagery of the forest…and the prophesy of dreams. There is power as well as music in its simplicity that leaves readers to define the boundaries of honor, duty, respect, and love and to appreciate the burden of Aajim.” (Historical Novel Society)
“The book provides a close inspection of the cultural, psychological and physical landscapes of these original Americans as they struggle to fulfill their destinies and deal with philosophical questions that are as relevant today as they were then. Under the author’s hand, and strengthened by its foundations in historical fact, the story rings with authenticity.” (Midwest Book Review)
9. There There by Tommy Orange
“This is a novel about what it means to inhabit a land both yours and stolen from you, to simultaneously contend with the weight of belonging and unbelonging. There is an organic power to this book—a revelatory, controlled chaos. Tommy Orange writes the way a storm makes landfall.” (Omar El Akkad, author of American War)
Tommy Orange’s “groundbreaking, extraordinary” (The New York Times) There There is the “brilliant, propulsive” (People Magazine) story of twelve unforgettable characters, Urban Indians living in Oakland, CA, who converge and collide on one fateful day at the big Oakland Powwow. It’s “the year’s most galvanizing debut novel.” (Entertainment Weekly)
The New York Times bestseller is a wondrous and shattering portrait of an America few have ever seen. It’s “masterful . . . white-hot . . . devastating” (The Washington Post) at the same time it is fierce, funny, suspenseful, thoroughly modern and impossible to put down. Orange voice is strong, a voice full of poetry and rage. It’s a stunning novel grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide.
10. Edward S. Curtis: One Hundred Masterworks by Christopher Cardozo
Showcasing Curtis’s most compelling and important photographs, this beautiful publication highlights both his iconic and rarely seen images, demonstrating his artistry, mastery of photographic media and his commitment to documenting and preserving the Native American traditions and ways of life. Widely acknowledged as the world’s leading authority on Curtis, Christopher Cardozo has curated a groundbreaking monograph on the photographer’s magnum opus—The North American Indian—recognized as the most extensive photographic portrait of tribal peoples.
The book illuminates the photographer’s significant contribution to the history of America’s natives as well as his tireless efforts to document over 80 distinct tribal groups. In this book, Cardozo selected rare and unique Curtis original, vintage photographs. Never before have his finest photographs been presented with such fidelity and power. Information about style, subject matter, cultural and geographic area, and the print media in which Curtis worked in is included.
The power and relevance of his work is demonstrated by the fact that numerous tribes have gone to this visual record to recreate aspects of their cultures that had been lost.
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