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Native American Literature: 10 Must-Read Books

Native American Literature: 10 Must-Read Books

It’s quite a challenge to try to distill a category as broad as Native American literature into a 10-title “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 and collections of the rich and abundant tales, myths and legends that underpin Native American religion and philosophy.

This list, therefore, can only be considered a sampler—and a subjective one at that.

1. House Made of Dawn by 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.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven earned a PEN-Hemingway nomination for best first book of fiction.

3. The Round House by Louise Erdrich

One of the most revered novelists of our time—a brilliant chronicler of Native-American life—Erdrich returns to the territory of her bestselling Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Plague of Doves, with The Round House.  The book transports readers to an unnamed Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, and is an exquisitely told story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a terrible crime that upends and forever transforms his family.

In the spring of 1988, 13-year-old Joe Coutts learns that his mother, Geraldine, has been brutally raped. At the hospital, his father, a tribal judge on the reservation, quickly enlists county, federal, and tribal police to take action. Geraldine was raped near the round house, a spiritual place on reservation land that is surrounded by land under multiple jurisdictions.

Riveting and suspenseful, arguably the most accessible novel to date from the creator of Love MedicineThe Beet Queen and The Bingo Palace, The Round House is a masterpiece of literary fiction—at once a powerful coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a tender, moving novel of family, history, and culture and reservation life.

It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2012.

4. The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 by James Fennimore Cooper

The second book of the five Leatherstocking Tales, and best known to contemporary audiences, The  Last of the Mohicans is set in 1757 during the French and Indian War during which France and Great Britain battled for control of North America. During this war, both the French and the British used Native American allies, but the French were particularly dependent, because they were outnumbered by the more numerous British colonists.

The novel is set the upper New York wilderness and details the transport of the two daughters of Colonel Munro, Alice and Cora, to Fort William Henry. Among the caravan guarding the women are the frontiersman Natty Bumppo, Major Duncan Heyward, Chingachgook, the main character and last Mohican.  His son, Uncas, also accompanying them, is killed during the venture.

At the time of Cooper’s writing, many people believed that the Native Americans were disappearing, and would ultimately be assimilated or fail to survive.

The novel has been one of the most popular English-language novels since its publication and been adapted numerous times and in many languages for films and other media.  The most recent was the highly rated film (1993) starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Russell Means.

5. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Time Magazine reviewed Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on its publication in l970 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 U.S. 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 Manitous: Supernatural World of the Oibway by Basil H. Johnston

These are the stories of the manitous—the spirits who inhabit the supernatural world of the Ojibway—the Native American tribe of the Great Lakes and central Canada region. Harvested by an eminent expert from an ancient oral tradition, these sacred stories introduce wily tricksters, fearsome giants, timorous tree spirits, seductive maidens and wise grandmothers. Here, a coward masquerading as a hero becomes one; a powerful warrior is riled and routed by a younger sibling with a gift for dancing and disguises; and the ever-hungry evil weendigos—evil manitous—haunt the land.

In spellbinding and hypnotic fashion, the creation and flood legends are told, and the origin stories of corn, spruce and tobacco are revealed. Comic, erotic, dramatic and tragic, these engrossing tales are a window into the heart of an ancient culture, an important contribution to Native American literature.

Johnston wrote extensively in both English and Ojibwa. Though he went on to publish numerous books, articles and poems, publishing companies were initially reluctant to release his work. While publishers recognized the authenticity of his writing, they questioned whether there was a market for it.

9. The 13 (Ashi-niswi) by Lorin R. Robinson

One of the more unusual books in this widely varied list 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.

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 delightful because there are surprisingly few native stories in print that take place before the white man’s arrival and eventual dominance.

As the Anishinaabe (later renamed Ojibwe by the French) migrated into the Lake Superior region centuries ago, they encountered the native Dakota (later renamed Sioux) and a long and bloody conflict results, the heart of this tale.

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.

10. I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War by Merrill D. Beal

It’s the last line of Chief Joseph’s surrender that one reads or hears.  But what comes before is even more poignant.

“I am tired of fighting. Our Chiefs are killed…. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead…. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”

Unpublished letters and diaries by eyewitnesses, interviews with descendants, an intimate knowledge of the country enrich the author’s narrative of the heroic Nez Perce Indian War waged in 1877 against relocation.

The result is a well-documented chronicle offering new perspectives on prewar Indian-white relations, United States government pressures and nontreaty rebellions, the five battles, subjection and surrender, and on the character of the leaders on both sides.

As Professor Herman J. Deutsch wrote in the foreword: “Joseph and his band remain an example and inspiration to those who today are seeking recognition as human beings, equal in the sight of God and therefore entitled to like status among men. Those who recognize that such aspirations must not for long remain unfulfilled can derive from Nez Perce history examples of the consequences of policies conceived in ignorance and colored with disdain of the culture and way of life of minority peoples…. A world surfeited with deceptive success stories can ill afford to forget a people and their leader who attained their true moral stature as they were facing their doom.”

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THE 13 (ASHI-NISWI) by Lorin R. Robinson