Today is Indigenous People’s Day, and we wanted to celebrate by highlighting some of our favorite books by Native American and Indigenous authors.
If you’d like to purchase any of these books, we’d highly recommend seeking out your local independent bookstore. Your business helps ensure the survival of these vital cultural institutions during this difficult time.
1. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take us on “a journey that is every bit as mythic as it is scientific, as sacred as it is historical, as clever as it is wise” (Elizabeth Gilbert).
Drawing on her life as an indigenous scientist, and as a woman, Kimmerer shows how other living beings—asters and goldenrod, strawberries and squash, salamanders, algae, and sweetgrass—offer us gifts and lessons, even if we’ve forgotten how to hear their voices. In reflections that range from the creation of Turtle Island to the forces that threaten its flourishing today, she circles toward a central argument: that the awakening of ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learn to give our own gifts in return.
2. Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
Guileless and refreshingly honest, Terese Mailhot’s debut memoir chronicles her struggle to balance the beauty of her Native heritage with the often desperate and chaotic reality of life on the reservation.
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. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father―an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist―who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.
3. When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
“I write hungry sentences,” Natalie Diaz once explained in an interview, “because they want more and more lyricism and imagery to satisfy them.” This debut poetry collection is a fast-paced tour of Mojave life and family narrative: A sister fights for or against a brother on meth, and everyone from Antigone, Houdini, Huitzilopochtli, and Jesus is invoked and invited to hash it out. These darkly humorous poems illuminate far corners of the heart, revealing teeth, tails, and more than a few dreams. A fast-paced debut that draws upon reservation folklore, pop culture, fractured gospels, and her brother’s addiction to methamphetamine.
4. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie’s celebrated first collection of interconnected short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, established its author as one of America’s most important and provocative voices. The basis for the award-winning movie Smoke Signals, it remains one of his best-loved and widely praised books twenty years after its initial publication.
Vividly weaving memory, fantasy, and stark reality to paint a portrait of life in and around the Spokane Indian reservation, this book introduces some of Alexie’s most beloved characters, including Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the storyteller who no one seems to listen to, and his compatriot, Victor, the sports hero who turned into a recovering alcoholic. Now with an updated introduction from Alexie, these twenty-four tales are narrated by characters raised on humiliation and government-issue cheese, and yet they are filled with passion and affection, myth, and charm. Against a backdrop of addiction, car accidents, laughter, and basketball, Alexie depicts the distances between men and women, Indians and whites, reservation Indians and urban Indians, and, most poetically, modern Indians and the traditions of the past.
5. Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead
A tour-de-force debut novel about a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer young man and proud NDN glitter princess who must reckon with his past when he returns home to his reservation.
Off the reserve and trying to find ways to live and love in the big city, Jonny becomes a cybersex worker who fetishizes himself in order to make a living. Self-ordained as an NDN glitter princess, Jonny has one week before he must return to the “rez,” and his former life, to attend the funeral of his stepfather. The next seven days are like a fevered dream: stories of love, trauma, sex, kinship, ambition, and the heartbreaking recollection of his beloved kokum (grandmother). Jonny’s world is a series of breakages, appendages, and linkages—and as he goes through the motions of preparing to return home, he learns how to put together the pieces of his life.
6. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
Saul Indian Horse is a child when his family retreats into the woods. Among the lakes and the cedars, they attempt to reconnect with half-forgotten traditions and hide from the authorities who have been kidnapping Ojibway youth. But when winter approaches, Saul loses everything: his brother, his parents, his beloved grandmother—and then his home itself.
Alone in the world and placed in a horrific boarding school, Saul is surrounded by violence and cruelty. At the urging of a priest, he finds a tentative salvation in hockey. Rising at dawn to practice alone, Saul proves determined and undeniably gifted. His intuition and vision are unmatched. His speed is remarkable. Together they open doors for him: away from the school, into an all-Ojibway amateur circuit, and finally within grasp of a professional career. Yet as Saul’s victories mount, so do the indignities and the taunts, the racism and the hatred—the harshness of a world that will never welcome him, tied inexorably to the sport he loves.
Spare and compact yet undeniably rich, Indian Horse is at once a heartbreaking account of a dark chapter in our history and a moving coming-of-age story.
7. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee by Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior
It’s the mid-1960s, and everyone is fighting back. Black Americans are fighting for civil rights, the counterculture is trying to subvert the Vietnam War, and women are fighting for their liberation. Indians were fighting, too, though it’s a fight too few have documented, and even fewer remember. At the time, newspapers and television broadcasts were filled with images of Indian activists staging dramatic events such as the seizure of Alcatraz in 1969, the storming of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building on the eve of Nixon’s re-election in 1972, and the American Indian Movement (AIM)-supported seizure of Wounded Knee by the Oglala Sioux in 1973. Like a Hurricane puts these events into historical context and provides one of the first narrative accounts of that momentous period.
8. Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford
It’s 1974 in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and fifteen-year-old Justine grows up in a family of tough, complicated, and loyal women presided over by her mother, Lula, and Granny. After Justine’s father abandoned the family, Lula became a devout member of the Holiness Church – a community that Justine at times finds stifling and terrifying. But Justine does her best as a devoted daughter until an act of violence sends her on a different path forever.
Crooked Hallelujah tells the stories of Justine—a mixed-blood Cherokee woman— and her daughter, Reney, as they move from Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country in the hopes of starting a new, more stable life in Texas amid the oil bust of the 1980s. However, life in Texas isn’t easy, and Reney feels unmoored from her family in Indian Country. Against the vivid backdrop of the Red River, we see their struggle to survive in a world—of unreliable men and near-Biblical natural forces, like wildfires and tornados—intent on stripping away their connections to one another and their very ideas of home.
9. The Wolf’s Trail by Thomas D. Peacock
Zhi-shay, elder wolf and human, shares universal life lessons with a litter of wolf pups, in this engaging story rooted in Ojibwe history and culture.
The Wolf’s Trail tells of Zhi-shay’, an elder wolf, and a litter of young wolves living somewhere on the side of a hill overlooking the river that flows through Nagahchiwanong in northern Minnesota. Zhi-shay’, who knows the whole story of the parallel relationship between wolves and the Ojibwe going all the way back to the Beginning, sharing it with his nieces and nephews, and us. Replete with universal lessons, The Wolf’s Trail is the story of the Ojibwe, told by wolves, of what they were and have become, and the promise of their becoming.
10. Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers by Jake Skeets
Drunktown, New Mexico, is a place where men “only touch when they fuck in a backseat.” Its landscape is scarred by violence: done to it, done on it, done for it. Under the cover of deepest night, sleeping men are run over by trucks. Navajo bodies are deserted in fields. Resources are extracted. Lines are crossed. Men communicate through beatings, and football, and sex. In this place, “the closest men become is when they are covered in blood / or nothing at all.”
But if Jake Skeets’s poetry collection is an unflinching portrait of the actual west, it is also a fierce reclamation of a living place—full of beauty as well as brutality, whose shadows are equally capable of protecting encounters between boys learning to become, and to love, men. Its landscapes are ravaged, but they are also startlingly lush with cacti, yarrow, larkspur, sagebrush. And even their scars are made newly tender when mapped onto the lover’s body: A spine becomes a railroad. “Veins burst oil, elk black.” And “becoming a man / means knowing how to become charcoal.” Rooted in Navajo history and thought, these poems show what has been brewing in an often forgotten part of the American literary landscape, an important language, beautiful and bone dense.
11. The Break by Katherena Vermette
A stunning debut novel by multi-award-winning poet Katherena Vermette about a multigenerational indigenous family dealing with the fallout of a shocking crime.
When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break — a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house — she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime.
In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim — police, family, and friends — tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention center. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives, a larger, more comprehensive story about the lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed.
12. The Beadworkers: Stories by Beth Piatote
Beth Piatote’s luminous debut collection opens with a feast, grounding its stories in the landscapes and lifeworlds of the Native Northwest, exploring the inventive and unforgettable pattern of Native American life in the contemporary world
Told with humor, subtlety, and spareness, the mixed-genre works of Beth Piatote’s first collection find unifying themes in the strength of kinship, the pulse of longing, and the language of return.
A woman teaches her niece to make a pair of beaded earrings while ruminating on a fractured relationship. An eleven-year-old girl narrates the unfolding of the Fish Wars in the 1960s as her family is propelled to its front lines. In 1890, as tensions escalate at Wounded Knee, two young men at college—one French and the other Lakota—each contemplate a death in the family. In the final, haunting piece, a Nez Perce–Cayuse family is torn apart as they debate the fate of ancestral remains in a moving revision of the Greek tragedy Antigone.
13. Girl Gone Missing by Marcie R. Rendon
Marcie Rendon is a citizen of the White Earth Nation. Her novel, Girl Gone Missing, Cinco Puntos Press, is the second in the Cash Blackbear series. The first, Murder on the Red River (2017 Cinco Puntos Press) won the Pinckley Women’s Debut Crime Novel Award, 2018. It was a Western Writers of America Spur Award Finalist 2018 in the Contemporary Novel category.
Her name is Renee Blackbear, but what most people call the 19-year-old Ojibwe woman is Cash. She lived all her life in Fargo, sister city to Minnesota’s Moorhead, just downriver from the Cities. She has one friend, the sheriff Wheaton. He pulled her from her mother’s wrecked car when she was three. Since then, Cash navigated through foster homes, and at 13 was working farms, driving truck. Wheaton wants her to take hold of her life, signs her up for college. She gets an education there at Moorhead State all right: sees that people talk a lot but mostly about nothing, not like the men in the fields she’s known all her life who hold the rich topsoil in their hands, talk fertilizer and weather and prices on the Grain Exchange. In between classes and hauling beets, drinking beer and shooting pool, a man who claims he’s her brother shows up, and she begins to dream the Cities and blonde Scandinavian girls calling for help.
14. A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt
For readers of Ocean Vuong and Maggie Nelson and fans of Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, A History of My Brief Body is a brave, raw, and fiercely intelligent collection of essays and vignettes on grief, colonial violence, joy, love, and queerness.
Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut memoir opens with a tender letter to his kokum and memories of his early life in the hamlet of Joussard, Alberta, and on the Driftpile First Nation. Piece by piece, Billy-Ray’s writings invite us to unpack and explore the big and broken world he inhabits every day, in all its complexity and contradiction: a legacy of colonial violence and the joy that flourishes in spite of it; first loves and first loves lost; sexual exploration and intimacy; the act of writing as a survival instinct and a way to grieve. What emerges is not only a profound meditation on memory, gender, anger, shame, and ecstasy, but also the outline of a way forward. With startling honesty, and in a voice distinctly and assuredly his own, Belcourt situates his life experiences within a constellation of seminal queer texts, among which this book is sure to earn its place. Eye-opening, intensely emotional, and excessively quotable, A History of My Brief Body demonstrates over and over again the power of words to both devastate and console us.
15. downstream: reimagining water by Dorothy Christian and Rita Wong (eds.)
downstream: reimagining water brings together artists, writers, scientists, scholars, environmentalists, and activists who understand that our shared human need for clean water is crucial to building peace and good relationships with one another and the planet. This book explores the key roles that culture, arts, and the humanities play in supporting healthy water-based ecology and provides local, global, and Indigenous perspectives on water that help to guide our societies in a time of global warming. The contributions range from practical to visionary, and each of the four sections closes with a poem to encourage personal freedom along with collective care.
This book contributes to the formation of an intergenerational, culturally inclusive, participatory water ethic. Such an ethic arises from intellectual courage, spiritual responsibilities, practical knowledge, and deep appreciation for human dependence on water for a meaningful quality of life. downstream illuminates how water teaches us interdependence with other humans and living creatures, both near and far.
16. Come Home, Indio by Jim Terry
A Native American cartoonist shares his journey from childhood, through struggles with alcoholism, to a spiritual awakening at Standing Rock.
A brutally honest but charming look at the pain of childhood and the alienation and anxiety of early adulthood. In his memoir, we are invited to walk through the life of the author, Jim Terry, as he struggles to find security and comfort in an often hostile environment. Between the Ho-Chunk community of his Native American family in Wisconsin and his schoolmates in the Chicago suburbs, he tries in vain to fit in and eventually turns to alcohol to provide an escape from increasing loneliness and alienation. Terry also shares with the reader in exquisite detail the process by which he finds hope and gets sober, as well as the powerful experience of finding something to believe in and to belong to at the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance at Standing Rock.
17. Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction by Joshua Whitehead (ed.)
This exciting and groundbreaking fiction anthology showcases a number of new and emerging 2SQ (Two-Spirit and queer Indigenous) writers from across Turtle Island. These visionary authors show how queer Indigenous communities can bloom and thrive through utopian narratives that detail the vivacity and strength of 2SQness throughout its plight in the maw of settler colonialism’s histories.
Here, readers will discover bio-engineered AI rats, transplanted trees in space, the rise of a 2SQ resistance camp, a primer on how to survive Indigiqueerly, virtual reality applications, motherships at sea, and the very bending of space-time continuums queered through NDN time. Love After the End demonstrates the imaginatively queer Two-Spirit futurisms we have all been dreaming of since 1492.
18. Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age Story by Darrel J. McLeod
As a small boy in remote Alberta, Darrel J. McLeod is immersed in his Cree family’s history, passed down in the stories of his mother, Bertha. There he is surrounded by her tales of joy and horror—of the strong men in their family, of her love for Darrel, and of the cruelty she and her sisters endured in residential school—as well as his many siblings and cousins, and the smells of moose stew and wild peppermint tea. And there young Darrel learns to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that will guide him throughout his life.
But after a series of tragic losses, Bertha turns wild and unstable, and their home life becomes chaotic. Sweet and eager to please, Darrel struggles to maintain his grades and pursue interests in music and science while changing homes, witnessing domestic violence, caring for his younger siblings, and suffering abuse at the hands of his brother-in-law. Meanwhile, he begins to question and grapple with his sexual identity—a reckoning complicated by the repercussions of his abuse and his sibling’s own gender transition.
19. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter by Daniel Heath Justice
Part survey of the field of Indigenous literary studies, part cultural history, and part literary polemic, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter asserts the vital significance of literary expression to the political, creative, and intellectual efforts of Indigenous peoples today.
In considering the connections between literature and lived experience, this book contemplates four key questions at the heart of Indigenous kinship traditions: How do we learn to be human? How do we become good relatives? How do we become good ancestors? How do we learn to live together? Blending personal narrative and broader historical and cultural analysis with close readings of key creative and critical texts, Justice argues that Indigenous writers engage with these questions in part to challenge settler-colonial policies and practices that have targeted Indigenous connections to land, history, family, and self. More importantly, Indigenous writers imaginatively engage the many ways that communities and individuals have sought to nurture these relationships and project them into the future.
20. Open the Dark by Marie Tozier
Marie Tozier’s Open the Dark is an exquisite collection of poems depicting a generational tapestry woven with the shared ebb and flow of land and sea and time. Loving hands, dyed sweet with raspberries and lingonberries, pass ancestral knowledge—of the hunt for seal and crab to pressing ironless, ruler-straight seams—from grandmother to mother, mother to daughter. This is a collection that beckons, like a mother’s warm embrace, into the vibrant scent and taste of Inupiaq Alaska.