[BOOKLIST] Indigenous Americans Still Exist!: What I Read for Native American Heritage Month

Indigenous man looking at camera in 3/4 profile with berries and branches over his head.

All year I’ve been reading around themes. In February I read books by Black American authors for Black History Month. In May I read books by Asian and Asian-American authors for Asian-Pacific-Islander Heritage Month. Pride Month had me exploring the words of authors in the LGBTQIA+ community and a little over a month ago, I read books by Latinx authors for Hispanic Heritage month from September 15th – October 15th. Now, the year is almost over. It’s November and I’ve spent the month reading books by Indigenous American authors in honor of Native American Heritage month. It’s made for an interesting, illuminating year in reading, and through it all, I’ve come to one conclusion…

I’m not doing this again next year.

Look, I’m the Equal Opportunity Reader, not the Performative Ethnic Consumerism Reader. I like mixing things up and drawing comparisons between art in different communities side by side, not isolating myself in pools of one culture at a time. It was a good idea at first but ultimately, all I did was give myself continual cases of the literary DT’s. While I was reading solely Black writers in February, I found myself longing for books by Arab writers. While I was reading Latinx writers, I was wondering about books by Asians. While reading Indigenous writers, I started missing Black voices. Meanwhile my favorite writer babies, my multiethnic, multicultural, category defying literati were being sorely neglected. I managed to assuage a lot of this by choosing books that intersected multiple communities as often as I could, but to be honest by the time I got to my Latinx Heritage Month recap I felt like a tacky hacktivist cheeseball. I read books from multicultural communities anyway naturally, without needing to announce them in theme park chunks. So while there were definitely good things about curating my reading patterns so intentionally this year–which I’ll get to in a moment–next year I’m going to do things a little differently, a little more intuitively, and a little more naturally. Watch this space.

That said, it hasn’t been all bad. Reading books from specific communities for a month at a time all year has been illuminating in some ways. For Native American Heritage Month, I learned quite a few new things. One is that Indigenous writers are killin’ the game, in every possible genre of literature. Once I scratched at the surface of the Native literary canon I was pleased and excited by how many good books I discovered, then annoyed by how little I’d heard about them all. I read four or five books this month, but I’m heading into 2021 with a list of 25 or so that I cannot wait to read. (If you’re curious, I made a quiz of the ones I read and the ones I still want to here. Go see how many you’ve read and report back in the comments.) Poetry, literary, speculative, horror, romance, historical, non-fiction–you name it and there are spectacular Indigenous writers cranking out incredible books in every genre. I know it sounds a bit facile to point that out–after all, the whole point of this blog is that there are writers of every background writing incredible books and we should pay attention to as many of them as we can, not just the white famous ones–but the thing that shocked me is that I had never heard of any of these writers. Me, who used to teach Tomson Highway in my freshman lit classes, who thinks N Scott Momaday is the best writer of landscapes alive, and who has helped several friends evict The Education of Little Tree from their bookshelves? Me, with my nerdy obsessions with the publishing industry, non-performative diversity, American communities “of color” and my own minimal-but-intriguing indigenous heritage–I had still never heard of most of these fabulous Indigenous writers. Where have I been? I know where they’ve been–killin’ the game!

Aside from exposing my own ignorance and a terrible imbalance of marketing dollars in the publishing industry, I was also saddened by the evidence of ongoing genocidal thought and action when it comes to the individual nations that Indigenous Americans belong to. One of the strongest markers of this seems small but isn’t, really. Try searching for the common colonial name of any Indigenous nation in Google. Just try it. Look up Iroquois, Mojave, Mohawk, Chippewa, Seminole, Sioux, Osage, Ojibwe. Then note how long you have to scroll down through the search results before you get to actual information about and pictures of the people who are called by that name. You’ll get consumer products, fashion trends, corporate entities, science experiments and in one shocking instance, even dogs before you get to the people those names belong to. This is unacceptable.

I know that the names I listed above are not actually the proper names of those ethnic groups, but if you know that, you already know the problems that exist when it comes to Indigenous Americans and their treatment by the government and other communities. I also know that for those who do not know much about Indigenous people, those are the names that have stuck, and they no longer belong to people in the common parlance. To put it into the perspective that struck me–I am Black and very aware of how low on the American caste system my community is seen. If you search for Black people or bring up Black people in discussion, it won’t be long until you find racism, anti-Blackness, smug cultural appropriation and a level of aggression towards us that makes my eyes water to even think about. But we exist. In the eyes of mainstream, assimilationist America, Indigenous people barely even exist. Again, this is unacceptable and we all must educate ourselves out of this mental habit of erasing our Indigenous brothers and sisters due to sheer ignorance.

Which brings me to the third thing I learned this month. I learned that Indigenous Americans exist. Their cultures are diverse, varied, and resilient. Indigenous Americans have survived in the face of deliberate attempts at erasure, despite suffering genocide in all forms and enduring systematic discrimination. I learned that just like in every community, words are the key to preserving all the things that make a culture, recognizing all the things that keep a culture growing and moving forward into the future, and exposing all the things that work against a culture and a people to try and destroy them. I learned that I should be reading more Indigenous authors and paying more attention to Indigenous issues. I learned that indigeneity is woven indelibly into the fabric of America, into every person and community–not in a cheesy “my grandmother was a Cherokee princess” kind of way, but in a “we have all survived this country’s attempts to murder and subjugate us, and we’re connected, by our food and our music and our art, and our families, even though we don’t always know it–and I should honor that more” kind of way. I also learned that good Indigenous writers, like all good writers, tell damn good stories and if there’s one thing my life could always use more of, it’s good stories by good writers.

That said–let’s get to the books.

As always, you can see the whole list including some titles I don’t talk about in detail in the blog HERE. Also, for the new arrivals and the people in the cheap seats–I’m not an expert or a literary scholar. I just like reading and talking about books. This list is not exhaustive and it isn’t meant to be. Don’t come at me with anything weird unless it’s also smart. So…

The Books I Finished…

Postcolonial Love Poem, by Natalie Diaz

Natalie Diaz(Mojave/’Aha Makhav) writes the way sweaty old jazz musicians in dark smoky clubs play, which is to say with unparalleled, painful virtuosity. This collection was a banging start to the month–the theme is desire vs. erasure, and indeed most of the poems are love songs to the women Diaz desires. Whether they are real or symbolic really is up to the poet and the reader, I suppose, but my favorite poems in the collection are those dedicated to Mojave water rights and basketball. While this didn’t hit as hard as her previous collection, When My Brother Was An Aztec, the writing is still amazing and elicited a few out-loud oh-my-Gods on the train. Find it here.


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Elatsoe, by Darcie Little Badger

This is easily one of my favorite books of 2020. It’s a ghost story, a whodunit, a YA fantasy novel, a teen summer caper story, a fairy tale and a mythology primer all at once. Elatsoe(E-lat-soh-ay) and her ghostly adventures unrolled in front of my eyes like a film and I’m not sure I’ve been so immersed in a book since Girl, Woman, Other back in January. The story draws a lot foundationally from both the “standard” fairy-tale fantasy canon–faerie, vampires and the like–but also from Little Badger’s Lipan Apache heritage. It’s a beautiful mix that both loves and chastises America for the tales we tell as a country. It’s also an amazing story and I really want Little Badger to write more and get this to be made into a film if only so I can see the part where someone defeats a vampire by revoking his invitation to Native land in a theater and laugh out loud unselfconsciously. This one is worth buying, reading, loving, and sharing with the kids. Find it here.


The Brave, by James Bird

This is one of the most unique books I’ve read, especially for middle grade fiction. It deals with some very tricky issues–13 year old Collin leaves his white dad in California to live with his Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) mother in Minnesota, knowing nothing but the broadest of stereotypes and minimizing racist language about that half of his heritage. Lucky for him, his mom lives in a community full of joy, patience and good humor that quickly brings him up to speed, with a little help from the pretty girl next door–who believes she’s turning into a butterfly. This books sounds strange, but it isn’t, even though the more details I add, the odder it seems–Collin also has a form of OCD that requires counting compulsions, and there are subplots that somehow manage to bring in representation for all sorts of unexpected groups of people. Despite all this it’s a pretty typical coming of age middle grade story, with a lot of heart and a good message overall. If I had a kid, I’d let them read it, but there are a few moments in the book that we’d have to Talk About. Find it here.


The Books In Progress…

Black Indian, by Shonda Buchanan

I’m having a hard time finishing this simply because I don’t like it very much. (whew) There, I said it. It’s mostly trauma porn so far, which is a shame because the premise is very interesting. The author is Afro-Indigenous, from a family with the same ethnically checkered, erasure-riddled history that many Americans have, and dives into an exploration of what that means both historically for Afro-Indigenous communities and personally for her. I want to love this memoir, but there’s just too much real pain here, raw and bloody on the page. The pain is examined but not interrogated, and it’s like watching someone helpless be beaten, over and over again. This just isn’t an enjoyable book, despite its significance. When I finish I’ll review it in more detail, but so far this one is a disappointment for me.


Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse

This book, on the other hand, I’m really enjoying. One of the best surprises this month has been how incredible(and largely unsung) Indigenous speculative and fantasy fiction writers are. This book, for example, is based in the history and mythologies of pre-Hispanic South and Central America and whoa. In some ways, it’s a standard fantasy story but the worldbuilding is a creative joy, and resonates very deeply with my fantasy-loving yet dismissive of European-centering heart desires. If the characters build up to the heights the worldbuilding has already reached, this might be another new favorite. Interesting side note: both unfinished books in progress for this month are by Afro-Indigenous writers, as Roanhorse is of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and Black American descent.


The Books I Want To Read…

Y’all know how it is. The number of books I want to read exceeds the number of hours I have to read them in, so the following titles have been relegated to the “to be read” pile for now…

The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones – The first two lines of this horror novel are “The headline for Richard Boss Ribs would be INDIAN MAN KILLED IN DISPUTE OUTSIDE BAR. That’s one way to say it.” Just from that, I’m intrigued as to what this story of four friends from the Blackfeet Nation pursued by the past–and its entities–holds. However, it’s horror, and can I be frank with you all? It’s 2020, we’re all dealing with this weird year in weird ways, and one of the ways that I am caring for my readerly self this year is by not being here for horror fiction. Nope. Can’t do it. I live alone in a foreign country during a pandemic. I can’t be introducing otherworldly beasties to my thoughts in those conditions, I’m already constantly fighting off the freak outs. So, this book is going to have to wait for less fraught days to be introduced to my locker of literary horrors. It looks like a great book, but I just couldn’t do it this month.

Islands of Decolonial Love, by Leanne Simpson – It’s been a while since I’ve read a good short story collection, and the reviews of Simpson’s work made it sound a bit like literary fiction counterparts to Tomson Highway plays(which I love). Still, I try not to read multiple books from the same communities within a demograpic in the same month, and Simpson is Ojibwe like James Bird, albeit a different nation. Also, I needed a little more magic and a little less trauma and musing in my life, so Simpson got the boot. Jokes on me, because The Brave was still pretty traumatic.

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich – Erdrich is the queen bee of Indigenous writers–she’s at the top of every recommendations list, she owns a famous bookstore, she’s won awards and for some strange reason, none of her books really appeal to me yet. I’m sure when it’s time I’ll pick up one of her works and be enthralled, but that day hasn’t come yet. Also, Erdrich is yet another Anishinaabe writer, and I wanted to diversify my reading a bit.

NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes From The Field, by Billy Ray Belcourt – I read maybe two-thirds of a Belcourt poem once and it hit me in the side of the neck, spun me around and made me sit down and seriously consider my life choices, self-concept and whether or not I really understood how to use the English language like a truly competent adult for a minute. Bro is wicked with a pen, and I love it. (He’s also Driftpile Cree, not Anishinaabe, so–diversity! But he’s also Canadian, so I disqualified him again based on that. This is why I need to get away from this tiny category system next year. Borders are fake and often unhelpful in this post-colonial world.) I was in the mood for some ferocious poetry, overdue to read a whole work from the award-winning young poet, and really was hoping to get into this, but just didn’t have time. Perhaps it’s just as well–I’m not sure my life has space for a poetry-induced existential crisis at the moment. If yours does, let me know how this is.

There’s other writers I really wanted to get into–particularly Waubgeshig Rice, who writes haunting dystopian fiction but is Canadian and also another Anishinaabe writer(I swear y’all are the Dominicans of the Indigenous community–just everywhere!) and didn’t fit into this month’s theme. To see works by him and all the other excellent writers I left off this list, check the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. (Don’t forget, any purchases made will result in a commission being earned by this blog. Thanks!)

Peace, fellow readers, and keep reading diverse books!

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