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20 Essential Books by Indigenous Authors

By Sarah Neilson
Mental Floss
Mental Floss / Mental Floss
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Though the United States only recognizes Native American Heritage Month in November, Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island/North America are here, writing and resisting, all year round. To celebrate this fact and spotlight some of the many Indigenous writers creating crucial work, here is a list of 20-plus essential Indigenous-authored books of contemporary and modern classic literature.

1. Split Tooth // Tanya Tagaq

Amazon

Tanya Tagaq (Inuit) is an internationally renowned throat singer. This book is billed as a novel, but it traverses genre and style, not unlike Tagaq’s music. It tells the story of a young Inuk girl coming of age and becoming a mother in Nunavut in the 1970s as she navigates relationships with family, animals, self, place, and culture. This book was longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants // Robin Wall Kimmerer

Amazon

Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) is a north star for many readers who want to protect and live harmoniously with land and Earth. She is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Braiding Sweetgrass is a revered work of literature for its beautiful embodiment of the interwoven nature of all living things. Her previous book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, approaches its subject with the same broad framework of reciprocal relationships between people and Earth, and with the same engaging prose.

Buy it: Amazon

3. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present // David Treuer

Amazon

This intricate and nuanced book of Native American history combines reporting, extensive interviews, and memoir as it works against the erasure narrative that posits the destruction of Indigenous peoples after the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. David Treuer (Ojibwe) deftly dismantles myths and lays out the rich history of social and political activism around self-determination, cultural preservation, resistance, and resilience in modern Native history. It was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance // Nick Estes

Amazon

Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) is a professor at the University of New Mexico and co-founder of The Red Nation, a coalition dedicated to Native liberation from capitalism and colonialism, which also produces a podcast of the same name. In this book, Estes puts the massive movement at Standing Rock and #NoDAPL into context of a long history of Indigenous struggle and resistance. It offers excellent liberation-focused perspective on the Water Protectors and how they became so successful.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing // Suzanne Methot

Amazon

This is a wonderful book about healing from trauma, especially intergenerational trauma. Using history, past and contemporary story, and psychology and human development, Methot (Asiniwachi Nehiyaw [Rocky Mountain Cree]), who is an experienced educator across age and other demographics, writes clearly about the ways in which intergenerational trauma affects bodies and psyches and offers concrete frameworks for healing at every scale. This book won the 2019–20 Huguenot Society of Canada Award.

Buy it: Amazon

6. There There // Tommy Orange

Amazon

This debut novel from 2018 marked Tommy Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma) as a major literary voice. The book is narrated by a chorus of characters across age and background but who are all Indigenous people in Oakland, California, and uniting at a community pow wow. The book was lauded for its portrayal of complex characters living within the realities of urban Indigenous life. Orange’s writing is electric and engrossing.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Islands of Decolonial Love // Leanne Betasamosake Simpson

Amazon

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg/Alderville First Nation)’s writing is nothing short of stunning, and it defies categorization. Centering Indigenous ways of storytelling, which are often cyclical, Simpson’s writing and music evoke love above all, while also embodying the full spectrum of emotion and human experience—especially Indigenous experience on land that has been harmed and exploited by settler colonialism and capitalism.

Buy it: Amazon

8. The Break // Katherena Vermette

Amazon

Katherena Vermette (Red River Métis [Michif]) is a prolific author of fiction, poetry, children’s and YA, and graphic novels. The Break is an immersive and fast-paced intergenerational novel that starts when a young mother, Stella, sees a possible crime taking place on The Break, a barren field by her house, through her window. When she calls the police, a sprawling saga unfolds that spans time and community. Vermette is a gifted storyteller and this book won, among other honors, the 2016 McNally Robinson Book of the Year.

Buy it: Amazon

9. White Magic // Elissa Washuta

Amazon

Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz) is one of the best contemporary essayists out there, and her work is always layered so intricately and with such deep thought that reading her feels like growing your brain, in the best way possible. She’s also quick with her humor, and this, combined with her intellectual genius, makes her essays about place, self, pop culture, addiction, the body, and yes, magic, a great joy to read.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Crazy Brave // Joy Harjo

Amazon

Joy Harjo (Muscogee (Creek) Nation) is the current (23rd) Poet Laureate of the United States and the author of nine collections of poetry, as well as plays and children’s books. Crazy Brave is one of her two memoirs (the other is Poet Warrior), and like all of her work, it is honest and brilliant. It details her coming of age into a spiritual and complex life, and her journey to becoming a poet.

Buy it: Amazon

11. I Am Woman: A Native Perspective on Sociology and Feminism // Lee Maracle

Amazon

Sadly, Maracle (Sto:lo Nation) passed away in 2021, but her rich and abundant work lives on in the world, which is better for it. Maracle wrote nonfiction, fiction, criticism, and poetry, and published over 14 books. I Am Woman is one of Maracle’s crowning works, a book that openly explores sexualization and sexual victimization of Indigenous women through a lens of feminist theory. But all of her work is well worth the read.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers // Jake Skeets

Amazon

Jake Skeets (Diné/Navajo) is a teacher and poet. Eyes Bottle Dark is his debut collection and made all kinds of 2019 best-of lists, winning multiple awards including a Lambda Literary award and a Whiting Award. Taking as its starting point a photograph Skeets found of a family member taken by a white photographer, which is on the cover of the book, this collection dives into themes of queerness, land and place, growing up, and the dark and bright sides of love.

Buy it: Amazon

13. Black Indian // Shonda Buchanan

Amazon

Shonda Buchanan writes deeply and beautifully into the space, idea, and experience of being “mixed blood.” Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Buchanan says she has always written “towards the thought of how I can use my craft to explore, explain, testify, investigate, celebrate the things happening around me.” She has accomplished this as a widely published journalist and educator. This memoir delves into her upbringing and development of her sense of self and identity, and the broader context of the culture of capitalism and colonial governments.

Buy it: Amazon

14. As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, From Colonization to Standing Rock // Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Amazon

This book is an excellent and approachable history of Indigenous environmental activism and movements. Crucially, it also offers frameworks and pathways toward future environmental justice and protection from an Indigenous lens. Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a consultant and educator in the field of environmental justice policy planning, in addition to a journalist, scholar, and lecturer.

Buy it: Amazon

15. A History of My Brief Body // Billy-Ray Belcourt

Amazon

If you’ve ever wanted to feel your brain light up and bloom with every line or sentence you read in a book, Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree) is a great place to start. A History of My Brief Body is the only one of this three books to be classified as an essay collection—the other two, NDN Coping Mechanisms and This Wound is a World, are poetry—but like many of the writers on this list, his work defies categorization. In this book, Belcourt actively resists colonization even as he uses the colonizer’s language, and dives into this tension. At the same time, he writes beautifully about love, hope, family, grief, violence, and art.

Buy it: Amazon

16. Jonny Appleseed // Joshua Whitehead

Amazon

Jonny Appleseed is a tender-hearted, funny, and enrapturing novel about a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer young man navigating life as a sex worker in the city in the weeks leading up to his stepfather’s funeral on the rez, and his memories of his grandmother and coming of age. Whitehead (Peguis First Nation) is a writer, poet, and intellectual; his other published work includes the anthology Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction and the poetry collection full-metal indigiqueer. Jonny Appleseed was the 2021 Canada Reads winner, among other accolades.

Buy it: Amazon

17. Love Medicine // Louise Erdrich

Amazon

Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians) is a prolific and widely known writer whose novels are often interconnected and span time, families, and communities. Love Medicine is her debut novel, originally published in 1984. It follows five families from the 1930s through the 1980s living on fictional reservations in Minnesota and North Dakota. Like many of her works, it is immersive and full of rich, complex characters, and though all of her novels stand alone, this first one is a great place to start. Erdrich is also the author of poetry and children’s books, and owns Birch Bark Books in Minneapolis.

Buy it: Amazon

18. The Marrow Thieves // Cherie Dimaline

Amazon

TIME called The Marrow Thieves one of the best YA books of all time, and with good reason. This dystopian novel is set in a world nearly destroyed by human-induced climate change, in which settlers have lost the ability to dream. In this world, the bone marrow of Indigenous people can restore the ability to dream. The book follows the character of Frenchie, and the people around him, as they try to stay hidden from hunters. It’s a brilliant work of fast-paced storytelling, and won many awards including the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award, but Dimaline (Metis Nation of Ontario)'s other works are also well worth seeking out, including the Marrow Thieves sequel, Hunting by Stars, and the wonderful adult novel Empire of Wild.

Buy it: Amazon

19. Indian Horse // Richard Wagamese

Amazon

Richard Wagamese (Ojibwe/Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in Northwestern Ontario) remains one of the most widely known writers of contemporary literature, publishing 16 books, two of them posthumously after his death in 2017. Indian Horse is one of his famous works, a novel that follows a boy named Saul Indian Horse as he survives the brutal residential school system and becomes a hockey player. This book depicts the devastating realities of the residential schools, which systematically harmed individuals, families, and communities. Wagamese was a writer of incredible talent and emotional range, and all of his work should be sought out.

Buy it: Amazon

20. Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir // Deborah Miranda

Amazon

This multi-genre memoir uses archives in all senses of the word, as well as imaginative writing, to render a prismatic and complex story about her own family and the history of colonization in California from the Spanish missions of the 1700s to present. Miranda (Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation) also maintains a blog called Bad NDNS, on which she continues this ongoing work of documenting and synthesizing stories and histories that remain relevant as ever in the present day.

Buy it: Amazon

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