Whether it’s Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, the poetry of Joy Harjo, or Layli Long Soldier’s award-winning collection Whereas, indigenous writers continue to tell their stories despite America’s historical tradition of erasure and exclusion. By documenting personal experiences from their own lives and the stories of their communities and ancestors, they are dismantling the oppressive dominance of a white colonial narrative.
Through poetry, fiction, and memoir, they are cultivating a new canon – one outside of the margins and divorced from the suppression of the colonizers’ lens. In celebration of National American Indian Heritage Month, we’ve curated a list of new and old favorites every reader should cherish and revisit again and again.
When My Brother was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz is an arresting exploration of remembrance, family, and cultural heritage. Stanza after stanza, Diaz dismantles many of the tropes and misconceptions often associated with the indigenous experience. From the very beginning, Diaz disallows her audience to revel in romanticization, reminding them in her opening poem that “Angels don’t come to the reservation.” A visceral and unshakably meaningful collection, When My Brother was an Aztec deftly intertwines memories and myth with intention and heart. Diaz’s poetry will leave you breathless.
In his recent memoir, New York Times bestseller Sherman Alexie gives an intimate and relentlessly honest portrait of his relationship with his mother. Colored by addiction, intergenerational trauma, and an unwavering bond of familial love, Alexie’s memoir falls somewhere between a poetic praisesong and a dirge. Through his masterful prose and fervent empathy, readers are guided through the at times tumultuous and other times joyous events that made Alexie the man he is today. A relatable read, especially those whose family ties are fraught, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is undeniably memorable and cathartic.
In the follow up to her 2012 memoir Crazy Brave, Joy Harjo’s collection Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings not only maps out the topography of her poetics, but also delves deep into the written words’ capacity to heal, reclaim, and restore. Each poem feels like a command, a testament meant to shake its reader from passivity and complacency. With confidence she implores her audience, “Take a breath offered by friendly winds… Give it back with gratitude.” Teasing the line between poetry and prose, Harjo’s truth shines bright.
In Louise Erdrich’s dystopian page-turner, the world is quickly unraveling. As scientists scramble to discover the reason why evolution has reversed, women begin to give birth to children who look like their prehistoric predecessors. Future Home of the Living God centers around the journey of Cedar Hawk Songmaker and her search for her biological mother, an Ojibwe woman. As she uncovers the mystery of her own origins and gets closer to her due date, society continues to crumble around her. A timely examination of motherhood, identity, and reproductive rights, Erdrich’s novel gives readers a glimpse into a terrifyingly plausible future.
In Nature Poem, Tommy Pico wastes no time before challenging readers’ racist assumptions about what it means to be Native American. Like the Walt Whitman of his generation, he proclaims without hesitance, “I can’t write a nature poem / bc it’s fodder for the noble savage / narrative.” Instead, Pico builds a monument to the complexities and contradictions that coincide with living at the intersection of race, sexuality, and desire. A modern epic in its own rite, Pico’s Nature Poem is a dynamic and necessary addition to the contemporary literary canon.
Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women
Paula Gunn Allen
An enthralling anthology of tales curated by Paula G. Allen, Spider Woman’s Granddaughters connects the past with the present through a chorus of intergenerational voices. In her foreword to the collection, Allen writes, “We are here to testify that our traditions are valuable to us, and that we continue to resist obliteration…” Each story celebrates this resistance and embodies the many traditions of Native American women, honoring the diverse experiences and communities from which each story stems. Rooted in a shared history and vision of solidarity, Spider Woman’s Granddaughters is a quintessential primer for feminists and folklorists alike.
A Chief's Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History
Edmund Metatawabin with Alexandra Shimo
A survivor of forced assimilation, Edmund Metatawabin recounts his horrific experience at St. Anne’s, a residential school in Ontario, and the resulting aftermath. Up Ghost River unflinchingly exposes an often overlooked chapter in North American history, documenting the countless ways in which St. Anne’s failed to nurture and protect its students. Metatawabin’s account of his escape from his school’s extreme physical and psychological abuse and his journey towards healing is inarguably unforgettable. A story of survival and resilience, Up Ghost River forces readers to reckon with a collective past.
Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko’s celebrated classic Storyteller honors the power of tradition and oral narratives. Fusing poetry with autobiographical anecdotes, and fiction, each gripping story vividly depicts life in the Laguna pueblo community and explores the way family, ritual, and culture can shape a person. Immersive and heart-stirring from beginning to end, Storyteller is as vibrant as it is essential. SIlko’s stories remind us that it is necessary to remember not only who we are, but where we come from.