November is National Native American Heritage Month in the U.S., so to commemorate this, I’ve compiled a list of novels written by Native people about the Native experience (however that may look in each given story, as such a thing varies, of course, and isn’t necessarily consistent from person to person). It’s crucial to read books that feature Native characters, but more critical is ensuring that the stories are told by Native people themselves, so that they come from an authentic and honest perspective.
Each book on this list is, in its own way, a testament to the richness and beauty of Native American culture, as well as to the great devastation colonizers have inflicted upon Native people for centuries and continue even still. Reading books like this is a place to start learning the truth about Native people’s experiences and fostering empathy for people who have been intentionally misrepresented and harmed for so long.
Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.Malorie blackman
1. The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012)
Content Warning: Sexual Assault/Rape
The Round House sheds light on one way that Native women have suffered as a result of reservation land status and law enforcement. The novel takes place in North Dakota in the late 1980s, and at that time, federal law stated that only tribal members could be tried for crimes committed on reservation land. Even today, though laws have since changed to allow prosecution of non-member Natives, tribal courts have practically no authority to try non-Native people. Therefore, if a non-Native person commits a crime on reservation land, there is practically nothing the tribal courts can do. There are certain ways around this, but the legal systems make it nearly impossible to successfully seek justice. So in the novel, when a Native woman is raped on reservation land by a white man, she is both traumatized and unable to pursue justice. Her teenage son, frustrated by the flawed system, gathers his friends to investigate the crime on their own.
2. There There by Tommy Orange (2018)
There There tells the separate but woven stories of Native American people from urban areas in the western United States, primarily Oakland, California. The novel illustrates a number of the many struggles urban Native people face, such as feeling disconnected from their history and culture and being treated like outsiders in their own hometowns. Each character in the novel is on a journey of their own throughout, each with desires and determinations unique to themselves, and at the climax of the piece, they all cross paths at the annual powwow in Oakland, from which point none of their lives will be the same again. In this often heart-wrenching account, Orange demonstrates the ways things are passed from generation to generation, both cultural traditions and unfortunate circumstances.
3. Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan (1990)
Mean Spirit illustrates one way colonizers and white people have attempted to steal what rightfully belongs to Native people and exploit it for their own financial gain. This novel takes place in Oklahoma in the early 1920s, on land under which a bounty of oil rivers run. The Osage people who live there purchased the land after they were displaced from their previous homes. But once it’s discovered what truly exists beneath the surface, in entitlement and greed, white men begin murdering anyone connected to the land, anyone who might stand in their way of obtaining it. Others in the community reach out to officials in Washington, D.C., hoping they might do something to help. Their letters go unanswered, until a Native official of the U.S. government finally comes out to visit the small town and witnesses firsthand the severity of the situation.
4. The Grass Dancer by Susan Power (1997)
The Grass Dancer dismantles the barrier that colonizers erected between Native magic and reality, merging the two indistinguishably, through a captivating and beautifully-written story. Power creatively demonstrates that Native stories are not “fairytales,” as colonizers have treated them, fascinating themselves with the “legends” and appropriating the culture without even attempting to understand it. In this piece, Power illustrates the true power of magic present in the world. The novel tells the stories of several generations of Native people from different families spanning from the late 1800s to the early 1980s, how they are all in some way connected to one another, as well as all suffering colonization’s consequences. Though they suffer in different ways, of course, from generation to generation, none is untouched by the lasting effects of colonization. This novel is a powerful testament to a culture that has been sorely misunderstood for so long, and it is an honest critique of the people who have attempted to both erase and appropriate that culture.
Bonus Books to Check Out
5. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (1984)
6. Fools Crow by James Welch (1986)
7. The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (2020)