When we sat down to select a list of reading suggestions for National Native American Heritage Month, we realized what an incredible year 2019 has been for literature, history, and poetry by Native writers. Rather than offer a mix of evergreen titles and exciting debuts, we’ve decided to celebrate the new with 14 not-to-be-missed, recently released books. From humorous essays about death to reflections on Standing Rock, the titles below — while nowhere near a comprehensive survey — offer a taste of the diversity, talent, passion, and importance of contemporary Native writers.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee is a sweeping account of Native Americans from pre-"who shall not be named" to present day, and a rich counter-narrative to the myth that Natives are a relic of the past. Instead of the vanishing Indian narrative, Treuer delivers testimonies of resilient people over time, truths about termination policies that continue to this day, and portraits of contemporary Natives continuing to both resist colonial values and reclaim identity in an ever-changing society. If you're looking to decolonize your history lessons on Native Americans, you need this book in your life.
— Kate L.
Award-winning poet and humorist Tiffany Midge’s debut essay collection is by turns sharply funny, grief-struck, and righteous, often in the same sentence. From the sardonic introduction taking down the cult of pumpkin spice as the white girl’s preferred form of cultural appropriation to the wrenching, eponymous essay on laughing with her mother as they contemplate the latter’s terminal diagnosis, Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s is a consistently surprising, sophisticated, and often funny exploration of life as a Native woman in contemporary America.
This spare, poetic memoir has stuck with me more than any other book I read this year. Mailhot unflinchingly bares her history of loss, betrayal, and survival in beautifully written essays that compel you to keep reading, and to read again.
— Piers R.
Evolution is moving backwards. Pregnant women’s rights are being revoked. Everything is chaos. Louise Erdrich imagines a dystopian world just similar enough to our own that it will make you shiver. It’s a gripping story that examines some of the most pressing issues of our time, and some of the biggest questions humans have ever asked.
— Leah B.
In As Long as Grass Grows, Dina Gilio-Whitaker explores the purposeful introduction and continuing devastation of environmental injustice on Indigenous peoples. According to Gilio-Whitaker’s persuasive argument, a straight line can be drawn from colonial practices such as the eradication of the bison and the disruption of agricultural and dietary traditions to current health and community crises faced by Indigenous peoples. Gilio-Whitaker makes no bones about ongoing government complicity in the destruction of Indigenous land and livelihoods, and is especially skewering in her analysis of environmental groups’ suppression and then appropriation of Indigenous voices and tropes for marketing purposes. A bracing, important book that makes a powerful case for the necessity of including Indigenous perspectives in any future attempts to heal our environment.
I thought that I knew what to expect from Trail of Lightning, but it surprised me at every turn: with it's world building, its lightning quick plot, and especially its characters. I expect this series to fundamentally change how we think of urban fantasy. There's no time like now to pick it up!
— Ashleigh B.
The final book in Pico’s poetry tetralogy Teebs Cycle, Feed continues the forward momentum and pop culture playfulness of the poet’s previous work, while exploring themes of desire, Native identity, nature and the cityscape, solitude, and nourishment in its spiritual and junk food forms. The poems in Feed are vulnerable, funny, and move at laser speed — let your mind wander for a moment while reading and you risk missing Pico’s unerring gift for wordplay that pulls each poem’s disparate themes into a central argument. Read Feed, and then if you haven’t yet, read IRL, Nature Poem, and Junk — not that you’ll have a choice in the matter. Pico’s inventive, slightly manic poetry is as addictive as the Swedish Fish and Cheetos he covets.
In this sobering but hopeful book, Marshall proposes drawing on Lakota traditions and values to create positive change for the Lakota reservations of South Dakota. Crazy Horse Weeps offers a survey of how the U.S. government’s history of anti-Indigenous discrimination and purposeful dissolution of Lakota culture has led to the community’s current problems with tribal leadership and health, educational, and economic disparities. Crazy Horse Weeps offers a brilliant example of how to draw on both U.S. history and tribe-specific oral traditions to build an authentic path forward for an Indigenous community.
Joy Harjo is our new U.S. Poet Laureate and I'm so excited! Her poems never fail to make me gasp, they are always so perfectly truthful and beautiful, painful and real. This collection weaves between the past and present of both her tribe and her personal experiences and is once again gasp-worthy.
— Leah C.
Beth Piatote’s collection is a stunning debut. The variety of forms that her writing takes is audacious, and the skill with which she pulls it all off is enviable. Each story is filled with insight and empathy and the book as a whole is both moving and invigorating. This is a writer to watch. The Beadworkers is the best short story collection I’ve read this year.
— Keith M.
In this compelling exploration of the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota pipeline, Nick Estes provides both a fascinating analysis of the importance of the movement and the protest’s place within the history of modern Indigenous activism and resistance. A lyrical storyteller, Estes weaves analysis and oral histories into a captivating narrative about the origins and possible future outcomes of continued resistance to U.S. colonial actions.
When you hear truth as potent as Orange’s, speaking through generations of suffering and slaughter and consequent addiction and poverty, it surpasses anything as temporary as anger or righteousness or even respect, it takes you to the place of acknowledgement, a recognition of power and knowing. This book changes the story being told about Native Americans — it changes us all — reminding us that no matter how ravaged an identity, place, or a people becomes, it can never be completely annihilated. It will continue finding its way back to joy and recovery.
— Aubrey W.
In this luminous and wise book, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer makes a lyrical and convincing case for reimagining our relationship to nature as mutually beneficial. Taking the reader from her classroom to her lab to her (enviably abundant) garden to a rainforest in Oregon, Kimmerer demonstrates time and again how working with the land, as opposed to shaping it to one’s purpose, is a method rooted in Indigenous tradition and borne out by science. Brimming with knowledge and a deep love for the natural world, Braiding Sweetgrass is a hopeful guide to a better future for all life on our planet and an absolute joy to read.
— Lucinda G.
A finalist for the 2018 National Book Award, Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking is the coming-of-age story of Sequoyah, a Cherokee teenager who’s placed in foster care after his mom is incarcerated. Placing Sequoyah’s history of childhood neglect and abuse at the hands of his mom, who is an addict, within the larger context of inherited trauma, Where the Dead Sit Talking is an emotionally difficult but essential exploration of how many of the problems Native communities face — substance abuse, domestic violence, intergenerational poverty — are the result of ongoing, discriminatory U.S. policies. A former social worker, Hobson does a brilliant job of showing how Sequoyah and his foster sister, Rosemary, are impacted by the conjoined histories of their families, tribes, and country. If you’re looking for books that evoke the contemporary Native experience, but are antsy about picking up a memoir or history, this beautifully written, devastating novel is a good place to start.