8 Native American writers to read during Native American Heritage Month
By: Jill Grunenwald, Marketing and Communications Specialist
As a child, I believed two things: pumpkin pie is the best kind of pie and can, and should, be eaten year-round, and that the annual American tradition of Thanksgiving is an accurate representation of the historical meal shared between Native Americans and the newly arrived Pilgrims way back in 1621.
As an adult, I still believe pumpkin pie is the best kind of pie and will happily eat in the middle of June if given the opportunity. But I also know that the story I grew up with about the happy and peaceful relationship between Native Americans and Pilgrims was, well, fake news.
Along with being the month Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, November is also Native American Heritage Month. Soon, families and friends across the United States will be gathering together for their own communal meals, and while I don’t want to detract from that, it’s also important that we acknowledge that the Pilgrims were only one half of the story. The other half has suffered tremendously over the centuries, often turning to literature to explore and honor their rich history.
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, here are 8 Native American writers to read this November:
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Erdrich is, arguably, the most recognizable contemporary Native American writer. Her books have won the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and she has also been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A champion of Native voices, Erdrich also owns Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minneapolis dedicated to Native American writers and artists.
The Round House, winner of the 2012 National Book Award, starts where the rest of the world leaves Native Americans off: at the brink of death. Ephanie Atencio is in the midst of a breakdown from which she can barely move. She has been left by her husband and is unable to take care of her children. To heal, Ephanie must seek her own future. She leaves New Mexico for San Francisco, where she begins again the process of remembering and finding a way to herself, relying no longer on men, but on her primary connections to the spirit women of her people and to the women of her own world.
There There by Tommy Orange
I remember attending the ALA show before this book came out and it was all anyone at the Penguin Random House booth could talk about, for good reason. Along with making it onto nearly every Best Books of the Year list in 2018, There There was shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal and also won the 2018 National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award, the 2019 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction.
Orange’s debut novel tells the story of twelve Native Americans living in California who all attend a pow wow in Oakland. As we learn the reasons each person is attending, the story builds towards a shocking conclusion.
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
Selected by Emma Watson as part of her Our Shared Shelf Book Club, Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder; Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma.
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
In 1981, Silko was awarded one of the first MacArthur Foundation Grants and in 1994 was recognized with the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award. Her book Ceremony is frequently studied and taught in Native American literature courses.
Tayo, a World War II veteran of mixed ancestry, returns to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. He is deeply scarred by his experience as a prisoner of the Japanese and further wounded by the rejection he encounters from his people. Only by immersing himself in the Native American past can he begin to regain the peace that was taken from him. Masterfully written, filled with the somber majesty of Pueblo myth, Ceremony is a work of enduring power.
Winter in the Blood by James Welch
Like Silko, Welch was a recipient of the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award. Winter in the Blood was his debut novel. 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.
House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
Winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, House Made of Dawn is also often credited as the breakout novel that helped Native American literature reach mainstream status.
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, claiming his soul and goading him into a destructive, compulsive cycle of depravity and disgust.
Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson
A National Book Award finalist, Hobson’s novel follows Sequoyah, a fifteen-year-old Cherokee boy, who has been placed in foster care with the Troutt family. Literally and figuratively scarred by his unstable upbringing, Sequoyah has spent years mostly keeping to himself, living with his emotions pressed deep below the surface-that is, until he meets the seventeen-year-old Rosemary, another youth staying with the Troutts. Sequoyah and Rosemary bond over their shared Native American backgrounds and tumultuous paths through the foster care system, but as Sequoyah’s feelings toward Rosemary deepen, the precariousness of their lives and the scars of their pasts threaten to undo them both.
Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe
Howe’s accolades include the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award, Oklahoma Book Award, United States Artist Fellows award and the first MLA Prize for Studies in Native American Literatures, Cultures and Languages. Shell Shaker is her debut book.
Why was Red Shoes, the most formidable Choctaw warrior of the 18th century, assassinated by his own people? Why does his death haunt Auda Billy, an Oklahoma Choctaw woman, accused in 1991 of murdering Choctaw Chief Redford McAlester? Moving between the known details of Red Shoes’ life and the riddle of McAlester’s death, this novel traces the history of the Billy women whose destiny it is to solve both murders—with the help of a powerful spirit known as the Shell Shaker.
Bonus title: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Author Grann is not a member of any Native American nation, but his book Killers of the Flower Moon is important enough to be included in this list. Especially when it comes to the atrocities Native Americans have suffered.
In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they 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. The family of an Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, became a prime target. Her relatives were shot and poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more and more members of the tribe began to die under mysterious circumstances. As the death toll climbed to more than twenty-four, the FBI took up the case. It was one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations and the bureau badly bungled the case. In desperation, the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only American Indian agents in the bureau. The agents infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.