Celebrating Native American Heritage Month in 2023
Happy Native American Heritage Month! For our third year of honoring the history and traditions of America’s Indigenous peoples we share some new favorite reads by and about Native Americans. For even more recommendations take a look at our 2021 and 2022 posts as well!
By Thomas King
In The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King offers a deeply knowing, darkly funny, unabashedly opinionated, and utterly unconventional account of Indian–White relations in North America since initial contact. Ranging freely across the centuries and the Canada–U.S. border, King debunks fabricated stories of Indian savagery and White heroism, takes an oblique look at Indians (and cowboys) in film and popular culture, wrestles with the history of Native American resistance and his own experiences as a Native rights activist, and articulates a profound, revolutionary understanding of the cumulative effects of ever-shifting laws and treaties on Native peoples and lands.
Suffused with wit, anger, perception, and wisdom, The Inconvenient Indian is at once an engaging chronicle and a devastating subversion of history, insightfully distilling what it means to be “Indian” in North America. It is a critical and personal meditation that sees Native American history not as a straight line but rather as a circle in which the same absurd, tragic dynamics are played out over and over again. At the heart of the dysfunctional relationship between Indians and Whites, King writes, is land: “The issue has always been land.” With that insight, the history inflicted on the indigenous peoples of North America—broken treaties, forced removals, genocidal violence, and racist stereotypes—sharpens into focus. Both timeless and timely, The Inconvenient Indian ultimately rejects the pessimism and cynicism with which Natives and Whites regard one another to chart a new and just way forward for Indians and non-Indians alike.
By David Treuer
The received idea of Native American history—as promulgated by books like Dee Brown’s mega-bestselling 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—has been that American Indian history essentially ended with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. Not only did one hundred fifty Sioux die at the hands of the U. S. Cavalry, the sense was, but Native civilization did as well.
Growing up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, training as an anthropologist, and researching Native life past and present for his nonfiction and novels, David Treuer has uncovered a different narrative. Because they did not disappear—and not despite but rather because of their intense struggles to preserve their language, their traditions, their families, and their very existence—the story of American Indians since the end of the nineteenth century to the present is one of unprecedented resourcefulness and reinvention.
In The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, Treuer melds history with reportage and memoir. Tracing the tribes’ distinctive cultures from first contact, he explores how the depredations of each era spawned new modes of survival. The devastating seizures of land gave rise to increasingly sophisticated legal and political maneuvering that put the lie to the myth that Indians don’t know or care about property. The forced assimilation of their children at government-run boarding schools incubated a unifying Native identity. Conscription in the US military and the pull of urban life brought Indians into the mainstream and modern times, even as it steered the emerging shape of self-rule and spawned a new generation of resistance. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is the essential, intimate story of a resilient people in a transformative era.
By Claudio Saunt
In May 1830, the United States formally launched a policy to expel Native Americans from the East to territories west of the Mississippi River. Justified as a humanitarian enterprise, the undertaking was to be systematic and rational, overseen by Washington’s small but growing bureaucracy. But as the policy unfolded over the next decade, thousands of Native Americans died under the federal government’s auspices, and thousands of others lost their possessions and homelands in an orgy of fraud, intimidation, and violence. Unworthy Republic reveals how expulsion became national policy and describes the chaotic and deadly results of the operation to deport 80,000 men, women, and children.
Drawing on firsthand accounts and the voluminous records produced by the federal government, Saunt’s deeply researched book argues that Indian Removal, as advocates of the policy called it, was not an inevitable chapter in U.S. expansion across the continent. Rather, it was a fiercely contested political act designed to secure new lands for the expansion of slavery and to consolidate the power of the southern states. Indigenous peoples fought relentlessly against the policy, while many U.S. citizens insisted that it was a betrayal of the nation’s values. When Congress passed the act by a razor-thin margin, it authorized one of the first state-sponsored mass deportations in the modern era, marking a turning point for native peoples and for the United States.
In telling this gripping story, Saunt shows how the politics and economics of white supremacy lay at the heart of the expulsion of Native Americans; how corruption, greed, and administrative indifference and incompetence contributed to the debacle of its implementation; and how the consequences still resonate today.
By Gregory D. Smithers
The arrival of European settlers in the Americas disrupted indigenous lifeways, and the effects of colonialism shattered Native communities. Forced migration and human trafficking created a diaspora of cultures, languages, and people. Gregory D. Smithers and Brooke N. Newman have gathered the work of leading scholars, including Bill Anthes, Duane Champagne, Daniel Cobb, Donald Fixico, and Joy Porter, among others, in examining an expansive range of Native peoples and the extent of their influences through reaggregation. These diverse and wide-ranging essays uncover indigenous understandings of self-identification, community, and culture through the speeches, cultural products, intimate relations, and political and legal practices of Native peoples.
Native Diasporas explores how indigenous peoples forged a sense of identity and community amid the changes wrought by European colonialism in the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, and the mainland Americas from the seventeenth through the twentieth century. Broad in scope and groundbreaking in the topics it explores, this volume presents fresh insights from scholars devoted to understanding Native American identity in meaningful and methodologically innovative ways.
By Leslie Marmon Silko
A sweeping, multifaceted tale of a young Native American pulled between the cherished traditions of a heritage on the brink of extinction and an encroaching white culture, Gardens in the Dunes is the powerful story of one woman’s quest to reconcile two worlds that are diametrically opposed. At the center of this struggle is Indigo, who is ripped from her tribe, the Sand Lizard people, by white soldiers who destroy her home and family. Placed in a government school to learn the ways of a white child, Indigo is rescued by the kind-hearted Hattie and her worldly husband, Edward, who undertake to transform this complex, spirited girl into a “proper” young lady. Bit by bit, and through a wondrous journey that spans the European continent, traipses through the jungles of Brazil, and returns to the rich desert of Southwest America, Indigo bridges the gap between the two forces in her life and teaches her adoptive parents as much as, if not more than, she learns from them.
By James Welch
During his life, James Welch came to be regarded as a master of American prose, and his first novel, Winter in the Blood , is one of his most enduring works. The narrator of this beautiful, often disquieting novel is a young Native American man living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. Sensitive and self-destructive, he searches for something that will bind him to the lands of his ancestors but is haunted by personal tragedy, the dissolution of his once proud heritage, and Montana’s vast emptiness. Winter in the Blood is an evocative and unforgettable work of literature that will continue to move and inspire anyone who encounters it.
Edited by Grace L. Dillon
In this first-ever anthology of Indigenous science fiction Grace Dillon collects some of the finest examples of the craft with contributions by Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal Australian, and New Zealand Maori authors. The collection includes seminal authors such as Gerald Vizenor, historically important contributions often categorized as “magical realism” by authors like Leslie Marmon Silko and Sherman Alexie, and authors more recognizable to science fiction fans like William Sanders and Stephen Graham Jones. Dillon’s engaging introduction situates the pieces in the larger context of science fiction and its conventions.
Organized by sub-genre, the book starts with Native slipstream, stories infused with time travel, alternate realities and alternative history like Vizenor’s “Custer on the Slipstream.” Next up are stories about contact with other beings featuring, among others, an excerpt from Gerry William’s The Black Ship. Dillon includes stories that highlight Indigenous science like a piece from Archie Weller’s Land of the Golden Clouds, asserting that one of the roles of Native science fiction is to disentangle that science from notions of “primitive” knowledge and myth. The fourth section calls out stories of apocalypse like William Sanders’ “When This World Is All on Fire” and a piece from Zainab Amadahy’s The Moons of Palmares. The anthology closes with examples of biskaabiiyang, or “returning to ourselves,” bringing together stories like Eden Robinson’s “Terminal Avenue” and a piece from Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka.
An essential book for readers and students of both Native literature and science fiction, Walking the Clouds is an invaluable collection. It brings together not only great examples of Native science fiction from an internationally-known cast of authors, but Dillon’s insightful scholarship sheds new light on the traditions of imagining an Indigenous future.
By Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie offers nine poignant and emotionally resonant stories about Native Americans who find themselves at personal and cultural crossroads. In ‘The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above’, an intellectual feminist Spokane Indian woman saves the lives of dozens of white women all around her, to the bewilderment of her only child. In ‘Do You Know Where I Am?’ two college sweethearts rescue a lost cat – a simple act that has profound moral consequences for the rest of their lives together. In ‘What You Pawn I Will Redeem’, a homeless Indian man must raise $1,000 in twenty-four hours to buy back the fancy dance outfit stolen from his grandmother fifty years earlier.
Even as they often make us laugh, Sherman Alexie’s stories are driven by a haunting lyricism and naked candour that cut to the heart of the human experience.
Children’s and Young Adult Literature
By Marcie R. Rendon and Cheryl Walsh Bellville
Every weekend, all summer long, there is a powwow being celebrated someplace, somewhere. Like many other Anishinabe families, Sharyl and Windy Downwind and their children, including a number of foster children, love to go on the powwow trail every summer. In Powwow Summer, author Marcie R. Rendon (who is Anishinabe herself) and award-winning photographer Cheryl Walsh Bellville join the Downwind family as they travel to three powwows. Readers will learn how the Downwinds celebrate the circle of life and the tradition of their people through the ceremonies and dances of the powwow.
Note: This is an ebook.
By Joseph Bruchac
Hidden Roots tells the story of 11-year-old Sonny, a shy boy whose father’s sudden rages are becoming more and more frequent. The love of his fragile mother, the support and protection of his Uncle Louis, and an unexpected friendship with a librarian help Sonny gain the confidence to confront hidden family secrets and discover the truth about his Native American roots, and the people in his family’s past who tried to destroy their heritage.
Set in upstate New York in the 1950s, Hidden Roots is a novel that illuminates a startling truth about our history as only Joe Bruchac can tell it.
Edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith
A collection of intersecting stories set at a powwow that bursts with hope, joy, resilience, the strength of community, and Native pride.
In a high school gym full of color and song, Native families from Nations within the borders of the U.S. and Canada dance, sell beadwork and books, and celebrate friendship and heritage. They are the heroes of their own stories.
By N. Scott Momaday
A young Native American, Abel has come home from war to find himself caught between two worlds. The first is the world of his father’s, 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, trying to claim his soul, and goading him into a destructive, compulsive cycle of depravity and disgust.
An American classic, House Made of Dawn is at once a tragic tale about the disabling effects of war and cultural separation, and a hopeful story of a stranger in his native land, finding his way back to all that is familiar and sacred.