The depth and scope of Native American literature produced across lands and time is mind-blowing, spanning hundreds of indigenous cultures across North America throughout history.
Intricate folktales, myths and histories have been passed down through many generations via skilled storytellers. Depending on the region, oral storytelling might involve creation and religion, hunting, parables, the supernatural or nature. Talented storytellers might incorporate costume and dance, and while stories were passed down through oral tradition, the tellers imbued their stories with their own personal flair. Many of these oral traditions live on in, or have inspired, the literature of contemporary Native American writers.
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, try these reads by contemporary Native American authors:
New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian, opens a new window by Freddie Bitsoie
Bitsoie, a proud Navajo and the former executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian, and James Beard Award-winning author James O. Fraioli, along with artist Gabriella Trujillo, present a celebration of indigenous cuisine. With dishes like Spice-Rubbed Pork Tenderloin, Prickly Pear Sweet Pork Chops and Chocolate Bison Chili, Bitsoie presents modern interpretations of traditional Native American recipes, while honoring tradition and the indigenous heritage of American cuisine.
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, opens a new window by Alicia Elliott
The title phrase is the rough translation of the Mohawk phrase for depression, and an apt description for the ongoing effects of the multiple traumas Alicia Elliott and so many native people have experienced. Elliott weaves a tale of her life spent between indigenous and white communities and the divide within her own family, connecting the past and present to a span of topics including race, parenthood, mental illness, art, sexual assault, gentrification and poverty. A national bestseller in Canada, this deeply expressed work offers the reader a better understanding of legacy, oppression and racism throughout North America.
The Sentence, opens a new window by Louise Erdrich
Pulitzer winner Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, presents a riveting story of a group of Native American booksellers haunted not only by the spirit of a customer, but by their own personal and ancestral ghosts. At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bookstore is visited by the ghost of Flora, a white woman who, despite being a steadfast ally to native causes, fabricated her own indigenous heritage. Meanwhile, the living characters are confronted with their own issues, including neglect, time spent in prison, police violence and unwitting drug trafficking. As the pandemic takes hold, several characters are inspired to join the protests against police brutality, combining a ghost tale with insights into the effects of the global pandemic and the damage of systemic racism.
Poet Warrior, opens a new window by Joy Harjo
Three-term U.S. Poet Laureate Harjo combines narrative prose and poetry in her memoir of growing up in a Muscogee (Creek) Nation family. In exploring her journey, Harjo also examines how the earth has changed throughout time and entreats the reader to connect with the planet on a deeper level. Contentment, Harjo posits, can be found through friendship with animals and the healing power of plants, not through incessant technology use.
The Removed, opens a new window by Brandon Hobson
Fifteen years after a police officer unjustly kills their teenage son, Ray-Ray, the Echota family is mired in grief, each with their own private struggle. Retired social worker Maria battles depression as her husband, Ernest, develops Alzheimer’s. The oldest, Sonja, appears to be romantically obsessed with a younger white man. The youngest, Edgar, is addicted to meth. The family’s planned annual bonfire to celebrate Cherokee independence in their town of Quah, Okla., also the anniversary of Ray-Ray’s shooting, is upended when Edgar won’t answer the phone. The lines between normal life and the spirit world are blurred as Edgar takes a train to the Darkening Land, leaving the reader to wonder whether Edgar has died. Meanwhile, Maria and Ernest’s foster child, Wyatt, seems to spark something in Ernest’s deteriorating mind. Alternating first-person narration is interspersed by the voice of Tsala, a family ancestor who died before he was forced onto the Trail of Tears.
I also recommend this title, though it was not written by a Native American:
Spirit Run, opens a new window by Noé Álvarez
Struggling to find his place in the world, 19-year-old Álvarez discovered a Native American/First Nations movement called the Peace and Dignity Journeys, epic marathons meant to renew cultural connections across North America. Dropping out of school, Álvarez joined a group of runners, all from different Native American tribes, all fleeing difficult beginnings. Telling their stories as well as his own, Álvarez describes a four-month journey from Canada to Guatemala, overcoming hunger, thirst and danger from humans and animals alike. But he also affirms indigenous and working-class humanity in societies where oil extraction, deforestation, and substance abuse destroy communities, and forges a new relationship with the land against all odds.
Visit librarypoint.org for a robust Indigenous Voices e-book and audiobook collection.
Tracy McPeck is the adult services coordinator at Central Rappahannock Regional Library. This column first appeared in the Free Lance-Star newspaper.