Over the years, one question I have been asked repeatedly is for a recommendation of a book that comprehensively tells the story of American Indians. In fact, there’s no book that does that because, just like other people who live in the USA, Indians aren’t monolithic. Hundreds of federally recognized tribes, hundreds more that are unrecognized, 29 language groups and 10 times that many languages, different traditions, different religions. It’s Native American cultures, not culture singular. Our ancestors didn’t all wear feathered headdresses or hunt bison on horseback. And they don’t all own casinos or wish they did.
There are, however, many good books that can help readers of whatever age learn about ancestral and modern Natives (and the First Nations peoples of Canada). I have two bookcases filled and a few boxes as well, several hundred in all. What follows are brief takes on an eclectic baker’s dozen of such books. At some levels, all these books are political, but that doesn’t make them heavy-handed or preachy.
Before beginning, I want to strongly recommend the work of Debbie Reese, a Nambé Pueblo Indian woman who for years has done prodigious evaluation of books for kids about American Indians. She does so at American Indians in Children’s Literature and speaks widely on the subject. I’ve learned a great deal from her critique of children’s books about or featuring Indians, much of which applies to books written about Indians for adults. Some readers may be surprised not to see certain books on this list—for instance, Dee Brown’s seminal Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Those and others have been left out not because they’re bad—both those are excellent—but because they are so well-known and not written by Natives.
Crossing Bok Chitto: A Choctaw Tale of Friendship & Freedom, by Tim Tingle (Choctaw) and illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges (Cherokee). It’s 1808 in this picture book for children ages 4-9, and Martha Tom, a young Choctaw, lives on the Indian side of the Bok Chitto River in Mississippi. On the other side are plantation owners and their slaves. Any slave who escapes the plantation to the other side of the river is free, and slave owners cannot by law cross to the other side. Martha goes picking blackberries one day and cannot stick to the rules her mother has laid down about never crossing the river. She does, meets a slave, and eventually leads seven slaves to the free side of the river. On the back cover, Tingle writes, “Crossing Bok Chitto is a tribute to the Indians of every nation who aided the runaway people of bondage. Crossing Bok Chitto is an Indian book and documented the Indian way, told and told again and then passed on by uncles and grandmothers. In this new format, this book way of telling, Crossing Bok Chitto is for both the Indian and the non-Indian. We Indians need to know and embrace our past. Non-Indians should know the sweet and secret fire, as secret as the stones, that drives the Indian heart and keeps us so determined that our way, a way of respect for others and the land we live on, will prevail.”
Rain is Not My Indian Name, by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee). This book for middle schoolers ages 10-14 explores the grief, conflicts, and epiphanies of a Muscogee/Cherokee/Scots-Irish girl, 14-year-old Cassidy Rain Berghoff, who lives in a mostly white Midwestern town. She’s just emerged from six months of seclusion after her best friend was killed in a car accident. Having already lost her mother, she has plenty of emotional pain to ponder. She decides to return to the world and go to her Aunt Georgia’s summer “Indian Camp.” Rather than immersing herself there, however, she keeps her distance by getting a job shooting photos of the camp for the local newspaper. When the town council considers cutting off funding for the camp, she becomes involved in ways she hadn’t intended, which contributes to her healing. With humor and zero preachiness, Smith’s poignant telling benefits from her technique of beginning chapters with short excerpts from Rain’s journal.
The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa). Erdrich is one of the leading lights of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance. Her poetry glows, and her prose is saturated with poetic imagery. Plague begins with the racist response after a white family is murdered in the early 20th century and four Indians, including a young boy, are hunted down and lynched while the real killer roams free. But Erdrich is not given to the simple and predictable. She brings to life a fictional town in western North Dakota far beyond those opening scenes. From the arrival of the first colonizers centuries ago, the interaction and interchange between them and Native peoples have been complex, contradictory, and filled with betrayal, tragedy, and abundant connection. Erdrich’s superb tale weaves all that together with characters of fullness, some of them strange, some dedicated to trouble, none of them uninteresting.
Navajo Long Walk, by author Joseph Bruchac (Nulhegan Abenaki) and illustrator Shonto Begay (Navajo). Ages 8-12. Most Americans have at least heard of the Trail of Tears, the forced removal across the Mississippi of the Cherokee and several other tribal peoples during the 1830s. This cost the lives of thousands of Indians. Few, however, have heard of the forced removal in the 1860s that the Navajo call the “Long Walk.” It’s another instance of how the dominant culture has done so much to make Native Americans and much of our history invisible. Bruchac and Begay bring this shameful episode to life. Bruchac, who has written more than 40 fiction and nonfiction books for both children and adults, discusses how the Navajo were treated by the Spanish invaders, and how two-and-a-half centuries later they were forced by the U.S. government from their land onto a provisional reservation in New Mexico Territory, a 500-mile trek with severe hardships that included many deaths. Unlike the cases of most other tribes who lost their land, however, the reservation at Bosque Redondo was closed after a few years, and a treaty signed to allow the Navajo to return to their homeland, where they still live today.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, by author Traci Sorell (Cherokee) and Australian illustrator Frané Lessac. Sorell is a fine storyteller who combines modern concerns with a traditional Cherokee presentation in this nonfiction book that follows the story of Cherokee life and ceremonies for an entire year, demonstrating the lasting strength of the Cherokee way of life. This seasonal arrangement is both entertaining and educational. The new year begins in autumn, a time of basket-weaving and remembrances of The Trail of Tears, and ends in summer. Traditions continue to play a major part in modern Cherokee life, which includes stickball and stomp dancing at the Great New Moon Ceremony, as well as planting strawberries and making cornhusk dolls. There is a conscious attempt by Sorell to trample on stereotypes of indigenous people, and, among other things, we see a father in a positive parenting role and Cherokees of a variety of skin colors, dark and light, which gives force to the book’s message of diversity. The book includes a complete syllabary invented by the Cherokee Sequoyah some two centuries ago and a glossary. One word there is otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah). Sorell writes: “Cherokee people say otsaliheliga to express gratitude. It is a reminder to celebrate our blessings and reflect on struggles—daily, throughout the year, and across the seasons.”
Like a Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights, and the History of Racism in America, by Robert A. Williams (Lumbee). This densely argued book by a noted professor of law and expert in Indian law, indigenous rights, and critical race theory at the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law is a bit of a tough read for nonlawyers. But it’s worth the effort for those willing to make it. Williams explores the bases of modern court decisions affecting Native Americans, both legally via stare decisis and via the racist perspective found in the language of three 190-year-old rulings of the John Marshall Supreme Court, specifically Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). For Williams, the 21st century consequences of continuing to lean on these long-ago rulings from a time when the U.S. government was engaged in wars of conquest are, as Kristin Ackley wrote in a 2006 law journal review, “that Indian rights will never be protected as long as the court continues to talk about Indians as if they are lawless savages.” Rulings with roots in the conquerors’ oh-so-convenient “Doctrine of Discovery”—essentially: We found it and that makes it ours—need to be reassessed, he writes. Challenging the impact of these rulings and the language therein is, according to Williams, a "postcolonial approach to Indian law [that] asserts that the justices need to be directly confronted with the fact that a Supreme Court decision on Indian peoples' most important human rights is an action that ought to involve a great deal of serious thought, instead of unconscious racial stereotyping."
There, There, by Tommy Orange (Cheyenne/Arapaho). Taking the title from Gertrude Stein’s famous statement about the loss of the rural Oakland, California, she once knew—“There is no there there”—Orange’s novel follows the lives of a dozen Indians of various tribes living in Oakland as they prepare for a local powwow and navigate urban life, battling the problems affecting so many Native peoples, from alcoholism and unemployment to domestic abuse, and fundamental issues of identity in a world that for most of them is far different from that of their parents. Nearly 70% of American Indians don’t live on reservations today, and those who don’t, whether tribally enrolled or not, are often unique blends of mixed heritage, torn by internalized stereotypes and frequently eager to recapture lost traditions, culture, and language, but without a clear path for how to do so. Teenager Orvil Red Feather takes the 21st century route to such knowledge by pulling up Google to answer, "What does it mean to be a real Indian?” In the mirror, as he puts on the tribal regalia that he has found in a closet, he sees only "a fake, a copy, a boy playing dress-up." Himself a straddler of two worlds, like so many Indians, Orange is the offspring of a Cheyenne father and white mother who clashed, then divorced, over Native spirituality and evangelical Christianity, Orange told a reviewer, "I wanted to have my characters struggle in the way that I struggled, and the way that I see other native people struggle, with identity and with authenticity."
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. A prize-winning historian and longtime activist with the American Indian Movement whose mother was Native but never wanted to admit it, Ortiz has reframed the history of American Indians, taking the original concept from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and challenging the still widespread view in school textbooks that Europeans arrived to find a mostly empty land populated by inferior beings living in a primeval wilderness. This overview of 400 years of indigenous history takes a bottom-up approach to the subject. At its heart, her book is about making visible what so many other books have sought to hide away or, all too often, flat-out deny—this being the genocidal nature of the policies imposed on the peoples who were already here when the colonists arrived. Using their own words, often to devastating effect, Ortiz quotes prominent politicians, generals, writers, religious ministers, and heroes among the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, the “father of our country,” who began his military career with a scorched-earth policy against Natives who refused to sell or surrender their land. In a letter to Major General John Sullivan, he wrote that he should “lay waste all [Indian] settlements around ... that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed ... [Y]ou will not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected. [...] When we have effectually chastised them we may then listen to peace and endeavour to draw further advantages from their fears. But even in this case great caution will be necessary to guard against the snares which their treachery may hold out—They must be explicit in their promises, give substantial pledges for their performance and execute their engagements with decision and dispatch. Hostages are the only kind of security to be depended on.”
Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, by Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche/Choctaw). Although he is best known for his exceptional book on Native activism—Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (written with Robert Allen Warrior, Osage)—Smith uses relentless humor as a mostly good-natured jab in Everything, and not just to needle non-Natives. “Many Indian folks” he writes, ”and our so-called friends in the Wannabe Tribe make a pretty good living dispensing jukebox spiritualism and environmental teachings” that they describe as Native heritage. Smith has, since 2001, been associate curator for the National Museum of the American Indian, and a fellow curator, Lowery Stokes Sims of the Museum of Arts and Design, writes of the book: “Through references to contemporary and popular touchstones he sweeps away generations of sentimentality, nostalgia and accommodation that mark the relationship of Indians to the mainstream. We may flinch at his analyses where there are no innocents, no villains, but we cannot hide. Smith pushes the ‘minority experience’ past victimhood and infantilization to self-agency and determination.”
Blue Horses Rush In, by Luci Tapahonso (Diné aka Navajo). Having grown up in a home where no English was spoken, Tapahonso ultimately became the first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, and her elegant storytelling in both poems and prose demonstrates why. Her work was inspired by the stories she heard when she was young, wrapped in blankets and looking at the stars on summer evenings that were “filled with quiet voices, dogs barking far away, the fire crackling, and often we could hear the faint drums and songs of a ceremony in the distance.” Paraphrasing can’t capturing her voice, so here’s a short excerpt:
The last time I returned from home, I checked as luggage an ice cooler full of mutton, frozen chile, and dry ice, and the airline agent had to inspect the contents because of recent terrorist activity. “What’s in here?” she asked. “Mutton and chile.” I replied. “Mutton?” she asked, puzzled. The chile she could understand since we were in Albuquerque. Her supervisor came over and said, “You have mutton in there?” “Yes,” I said. “It’s meat,” clarifying things. “Hmm-mm,” he mused. Then I picked up a square of frozen mutton and let him inspect it. “We can’t get this kind in Kansas,” I explained. “Okay,” he said. “Tape up the cooler and label it.” To the delight of many in Kansas, I returned with mutton that we ate sparingly and only on special occasions. Others heard about it, so it was divided into smaller portions so that there would be enough for all who wanted some.
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, by David Treuer (Ojibwe). For Frederick Jackson Turner (and the U.S. census), the American frontier ended in 1890, the year of the U.S. Army’s slaughter of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Likewise, that year was seen as the end of the Indian wars and, in so many ways, the end of American Indians. David Treuer sees it differently, and he takes up where Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ends. The story of Native America isn’t over, he writes; Indians have not vanished, and, despite all the well-known problems, there is a thriving vitality among indigenous Americans in the 21st century. He has brought it all to life in this ample, beautifully written book that braids the lives of many individuals and tribes, including his own. Treuer writes that his book “is adamantly, unashamedly, about Indian life rather than death. That we even have lives—that Indians have been living in, have been shaped by, and in turn have shaped the modern world—is news to most people. The usual story told about us—or rather about ‘the Indian’—is one of diminution and death, beginning in untrammeled freedom and communion with the earth and ending on reservations, which are seen as nothing more than basin of perpetual suffering. [...] This book is written out of the simple fierce conviction that our cultures are not dead and our civilizations have not been destroyed. It is written with the understanding that our present tense is evolving as rapidly and creatively as everyone else’s.” He does that brilliantly, poignantly, with the fierceness of a warrior and the comprehensiveness of a scholar.
Brave Are My People: Indian Heroes Not Forgotten, by Frank Waters (Cheyenne). Before he died in 1995, the author wrote more then 20 books, was nominated five times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and turned his early experiences among the Utes, Navajo, Hopi, and Taos Pueblo into stunning stories, including his best-known, The Man Who Killed the Deer, a novel about Taos Pueblo still in print 75 years after it was first published. Brave Are My People takes its title from a speech that the Shawnee warrior-statesman Tecumseh gave to the Osage in 1800. It gives us 5- to 10-page flashes of the life stories of a selection of American Indian spiritual leaders from Deganawidah, the Huron known as “Peacemaker,” born before Columbus stumbled ashore, to Irataba, the Mohave peacemaker who lived 400 years later.
Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, by Kim Tallbear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate). Native identity has long been complicated by government rules, non-Indian attitudes, tribal politics, and racial stereotyping based on appearance and skin tone. But for the past two decades or so, it’s been made more difficult by the rise of DNA testing. People who have no cultural or linguistic or other traditional Native ties but may have heard some family lore about an alleged ancestral aunt or grandfather with Indian lineage in some unknown tribe take DNA tests because they believe genetics makes the Indian. In a scholarly but imminently readable scrutiny, Tallbear’s densely interdisciplinary book dismantles that and the myth of race being the defining characteristic of who is and is not a Native. And she speculates on how past white definitions of who meets the criteria could now be reinforced by a focus on DNA that undermines both tribal identity and sovereignty.
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A half-dozen other books may also be of interest:
- Confounding the Color Line: The Indian-Black Experience in North America, edited by James F. Brooks.
- Dressing in Feathers: The Construction of the Indian in American Popular Culture, edited by S. Elizabeth Bird.
- The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story, by Elliott West.
- Custer’s Fall: The Native American Side of the Story, by David Humphreys Miller
- As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, by Leanne Betdasamosake Simpson
- The Rights of Indians and Tribes (Fourth Edition), by Stephen L. Pevar