With an oral tradition dating back to before colonization, indigenous writers have a rich history of weaving narrative, song, and poetry into stories in a way that often defies categorization. As a non-indigenous American, what strikes me most about the indigenous literature I’ve read is the blurring of boundaries between history and lived experience, and between political and personal moments.
I have learned more than I can put into words from the books on this list, which makes it hard to write any kind of introduction that does them justice. Each and every one of these books will stick with you and change your perspective. Whether fiction or nonfiction, these books exist at a captivating intersection between a haunting reality and a reassuring dream.
Nonfiction by Indigenous Authors
These nonfiction works by indigenous authors draw from real knowledge and experience and will change the way you look at the world around you.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer weaves her expertise in ecology with her warm, lyrical prose to create a scientifically grounded text that never once gets dull or dry. Kimmerer draws on both the scientific knowledge she gained through her academic career and the traditional knowledge she gained from her elders and families of the Potawatomi Nation to understand humanity’s relationship to the planet.
Rather than a simple criticism of excess and waste—though there is that, too—it’s a reimagining of our place in the natural world, as a steward or caretaker of the land rather than an exploiter. To do this, she reveals the scientific merit behind many indigenous farming and hunting practices and proves unequivocally that there is a sustainable and healthy way for humans to inhabit the planet if we take the time to listen to what the plants can teach us.
Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World
In this first work of nonfiction from poet Linda Hogan, readers are invited to unpack the meaning of home and how that fits in with the natural world. A series of meditations on bats, bees, caves, and other animals and features of the natural landscape are threaded together by a sense of responsibility as caretaker of this world so that we leave something of this natural splendor and bounty for future generations.
Although it’s nonfiction, Dwellings is ripe with poetic turns of phrase as well as a poet’s sensibility about the world around her. It’s a short book, but it leaves a lasting impression on how you relate to the world around you.
For a different kind of history than the previous two, turn to Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog (also known as Mary Brave Bird). The memoir begins with Mary giving birth amid a hail of bullets during the siege of Wounded Knee in 1973—when approximately 200 Lakota and American Indian Movement followers occupied the small South Dakotan town for 71 days to protest the countless broken treaties between the U.S government and indigenous nations.
The memoir sheds light on that occupation as well as on the hardships of reservation life, the cruelty of missionary schools, and the violence that indigenous women have endured. Mary Crow Dog is resilient, courageous, and determined to not only survive the poverty forced on so many Native Americans but to challenge the oppression they’ve been subjected to for centuries.
NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field
Billy-Ray Belcourt uses an anthropological lens to interrogate the “everyday” aspects of indigenous life, especially queer indigenous life, and uncover the violence that they conceal. These everyday things include mainstream media portrayals of indigenous life, the reality of life on reservations, and the treaties that indigenous communities must still fight to enforce.
NDN is a shorthand used by indigenous people which means “Not Dead Native.” NDN Coping Mechanisms begins with a poetic deconstruction of what that means before unpacking the other topics covered in this book. Lucid, scholarly analysis is blended seamlessly with mesmerizing poetics to create an ethnographic text that feels like it’s alive and breathing.
A Mind Spread on the Ground
The title comes from the Mohawk term for depression, which is roughly translated as A Mind Spread on the Ground. This framing of depression drives Alicia Elliot’s exploration of the psychological impact of the centuries of trauma endured by indigenous communities across North America.
Both personal and political, the book touches on themes of race, poverty, mental illness, and sexual assault from a vulnerable place of personal experience in a way that connects it to the lingering effects of colonialism on indigenous communities.
If I Go Missing
If I Go Missing is a heartbreaking graphic novel illustrated by Nahanni Shingoose and Neal Shannacappo and based on a letter written by then-14-year-old Brianna Jonnie to the Winnipeg Chief of Police. In the letter, she asked if the police would bother to look for her if she went missing.
The letter went viral and was then turned into this graphic novel which highlights a pervasive issue faced by indigenous communities across both Canada and the United States. Indigenous women are murdered or kidnapped and the police do almost nothing to find them or their attackers.
The rampant lack of accountability for hurting indigenous women has made them even more of a target. They are 10 times more likely to be murdered than any other ethnicity and the statistics on sexual assault and other kinds of violence are equally alarming.
This graphic novel, featuring excerpts from the letter, follows a fictionalized case of an indigenous woman who disappears to portray this very problem in a way that helps readers understand just how traumatic this issue is.
Fiction by Indigenous Authors
These fictional works by indigenous authors speak to the real experiences and hardships faced by indigenous peoples throughout North America.
This Place: 150 Years Retold
This Place is a graphic novel that tells the history of Canada from the perspective of the First Nations who were uprooted and displaced in order to form the country. It’s an anthology of comics written and illustrated by native creators across Canada.
The ten stories weave magical realism and fantasy into a history rife with serial killers, war, and dispossession. Each one is prefaced by a timeline of the historical events that the story addresses so that readers come away with both a greater understanding of the history and deeper empathy for the emotional impact and aftermath that has shaped indigenous lives for the last 150 years.
Moon of the Crusted Snow
In this post-apocalyptic tale set in a small Anishinaabe community, Waubgeshig Rice tells the story of a community that must survive after being cut off entirely. As winter approaches, they lose electricity, phone reception, fuel, and food supplies. Panic and paranoia take root as the death toll rises and the cause of the sudden isolation of the area remains unclear.
With all the tension and excitement of a thriller combined with rich allegory, Moon of the Crusted Snow is a fast-paced story about a community that collapses and the people who must find the strength and compassion needed to come together and rebuild.
Though I’ve placed it on the fiction list, Split Tooth is part memoir, part dark and pulsating dream. Tanya Tagaq straddles the boundary between fact and fiction in a way that really warrants the invention of a new category.
With elements of both magical realism and gritty realism, you might not be able to neatly fit this book into a genre, but the narrative will get under your skin and stick to you. This coming-of-age story of a girl growing up in Nunavut in the 1970s explores sexual assault, sexual awakening, alcoholism, and violence in one of the most chilling yet triumphant narratives I’ve ever encountered.
Split Tooth charts out Tanya’s struggle to survive trauma without letting it destroy her compassion or vulnerability—to survive intense emotional and physical pain without becoming too afraid to feel. “Fear is learning to run from me,” Tagaq writes, “not the other way around.”
The Night Watchman
In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich tells a fictionalized version of her own grandfather’s fight to protect indigenous land rights in rural North Dakota. In the novel set in the 1950s, Thomas Wazhashk is a Chippewa council member and a night watchman at a factory near Turtle Mountain Reservation.
During this time period, the United States Congress took repeated swings at treaties aimed to dismantle what little land rights remained to the Native Nations across the country. In what is now known as the Indian Termination Policy, the government denied tribal sovereignty, threw out existing treaties, ended trusteeship over reservations, and generally worked to crush any remaining independence. The assault on native rights was framed as an effort to “emancipate” them—a choice of phrase with too many layers of irony to unravel.
Wazhask along with the other characters in the novel fight tirelessly to protect their land and hold the government to the terms of the treaties. It’s gripping, witty, and so close to truth that readers come away with a burning sense of injustice.
Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony is ultimately a story of healing. Tayo, a World War II veteran returns to his home on the Laguna Pueblo reservation, still scarred by his time spent as a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp. While battling these scars, he also struggles to find acceptance from his fellow Laguna Pueblo people who resent his fighting in the United States’ war.
In an effort to save the Laguna Pueblo reservation from drought and make amends for his past, Tayo consults medicine men in search of a ceremony that can heal his suffering and the suffering of his people. This leads him on a quest to find a herd of cattle that had been stolen by a white rancher.
The narrative weaves traditional Laguna Pueblo beliefs and stories into a modern (20th century) journey of personal growth and healing.
There, There is the debut novel from Tommy Orange and it’s poised to become a classic. Each narrative follows a different character who all come together in the Big Oakland Powwow. The characters act as portraits of the many dimensions of experience within native communities.
Over the course of the novel, readers witness both the effects of a painful history and the celebration of a beautiful culture and tradition. Orange’s characters are in turns tragic, resilient, witty, fragmented, and forceful. They stick with you long after you’ve finished the book.