Ten Native American Authors You Should Know

Posted on November 22, 2017

by Claire F

With Thanksgiving happening tomorrow, the thing at the front of most people’s minds is food. After that, perhaps you’re thinking of all you are thankful for, and the time you will get to spend with loved ones. Maybe you’re even thinking about the history of Thanksgiving and the time in which the first settlers in America joined together with Native Americans for a feast.

Beyond the first Thanksgiving, how much do you know about Native Americans? What do you know about their contributions, culture, and history? Did you know President George H.W. Bush designated November as Native American Heritage Month in 1990? In honor of this month, and Thanksgiving, here is a list of ten Native American authors you should get to know.

1. Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie - ASU Department of English (Arizona State)
Sherman Alexie (flickr, Arizona State Department of English, Creative Commons license).

“You know, people speak in poetry all the time. They just don’t realize it”

Growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation but leaving as a young adult, Alexie writes short stories, poems, and novels which focus largely on life on and off the reservation. Other themes he explores are alcoholism, authenticity, violence, and Native American culture. His short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was adapted into the film Smoke Signals, and his YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for Young Adult Literature.

An Interview with Sherman Alexie

2. Leslie Marmon Silko

Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko (CSU English Department)

“But as long as you remember what you have seen, then nothing is gone. As long as you remember, it is part of this story we have together.”

Considered by literary critics as one of the leading figures of the Native American Renaissance, Silko uses her poems, short stories, novels, and memoir as a way of highlighting the history and lives of Laguna Pueblo. She won the Native Writers’ Circle of Americas Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, with her works Ceremony, The Man to Send Rain Clouds, and The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir becoming critically acclaimed. Silko also experiments with the ways in which literature is produced, often creating limited runs of works involving her personally typing each copy on her typewriter, or handmaking the books herself.

3. N. Scott Momaday

N. Scott Nomaday
N. Scott Nomaday (Academy of Achievement, Creative Commons license)

“A word has power in it of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things.”

While Silko is a major figure of the Native American Renaissance, Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn is considered the first major work, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. His novels, poetry, and essays focus largely on Kiowa folklore and history through oral storytelling and art. Awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2007 by George W. Bush, Momaday is often recognized for his role in preserving Native American tradition.

4. Louise Erdich

Louise Erdich
Louise Erdich (photo by Alessio Jacona, flickr, Creative Commons license).

“To love another human in all of her splendor and imperfect perfection, it is a magnificent task…tremendous and foolish and human.”

Biracial, with a German-American father and Chippewa mother, Erdrich’s novels, poetry, and children’s books contain Native American characters and settings, while also exploring Post Modern writing style. Indeed, Silko criticized Erdrich’s The Beet Queen for being more concerned with technique than politics, though her works are largely well received. Her most recent work, Future Home of the Living God, is a dystopian novel focusing on a reverse evolution which is plaguing the world, and a pregnant Native woman’s attempt to navigate this scape.

5. James Welch

James Welch
James Welch (photo by Jack Rossiter-Munley via Poetry Spoken Here).

“I do believe in the viability of Indian spiritualism”

A novelist and poet, James Welch grew up with both Blackfeet and A’aninin cultures to influence him. Initially focusing exclusively on poems, his works revolve around animals, nature, and life on the reservation. His debut novel Winter in the Blood was critically acclaimed, with seminars and symposiums dedicated to it. In 2013, this novel was turned into a movie of the same name. Welch received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas in 1997, and passed away from lung cancer in 2003 at the age of 62.

6. Gerald Vizenor

Gerald Vizenor
Gerald Vizenor (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license).

“Life is a chance, a story is a chance. That I am here is a chance.”

Gerald Vizenor, a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, has spent his life writing collections of haiku, poems, plays, short stories, translations of traditional tribal tales, screenplays, and many novels. His first novel, Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles, is viewed as one of the few works of Science-fiction written by Native American authors, and has been widely celebrated since its debut in 1978. With over 30 published works, Vizenor also works as the founder-editor of the American Indian Literature and Critical Studies series at the University of Oklahoma Press, which highlights critical work on and by Native writers. Vizenor takes a postmodern approach in his writing, often calling on philosophers to deconstruct the idea of there being an essential “Indianess” as he calls it.

7. Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo (photo by Joy Harjo, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license).

“There is no poetry where there are no mistakes”

Publishing poems, non-fiction, and children’s literature, Joy Harjo is unique from the other authors on this list in the ways in which her works take on a specifically oral nature. Touring the country, Harjo performs her poems as well as tells the stories she grew up with as a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She has also released five CDs containing both her music and that of other Native American musicians, and tours with her group Arrow Dynamics. When she is not working on her music, poetry, or books, she is often teaching at numerous universities around the country. Her latest book is a book of poems entitled Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.

Joy Harjo A Poem to Get Rid of Fear

8. Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke (photo by Sustainability at Portland via flickr, Creative Commons license).

“Someone needs to explain to me why wanting clean drinking water makes you an activist, and why proposing to destroy water with chemical warfare doesn’t make a corporation a terrorist”

While most of the people on this list would likely describe themselves as writers first, LaDuke would likely identify herself more as an activist, though she has written and cowritten numerous books in her lifetime. Primarily, her work revolves around tribal land claims, preservation, and sustainable development. She played a big role in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and in 2016 became the first Native American woman to win an electoral vote for Vice President. One of her best-known books, Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming, discusses the importance of traditional Ojibwe beliefs and practices.

Seeds of Our Ancestors, Seeds of Life – Winona LaDuke (TEDxTC)

9. Linda Hogan

Linda Hogan
Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan (Uyvsdi via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license).

“Some people see scars, and it is wounding they remember. To me they are proof of the fact that there is healing.”

Currently the Chickasaw Nation’s Writer in Residence, Hogan is known for her poetry, storytelling, novels, plays, and short stories. Her work primarily centers on the environment, the world of native peoples, and her own experience as a Native American. Her writing often takes a feminist perspective as she attempts to confront the imbalances in power among Native American men and women. Her latest novel, Mean Spirit, follows a family through generations after their Native ancestor is murdered over money.

10. Vine Deloria Jr.

Vine Deloria Jr.
Vine Deloria Jr. (photo by So May We Be via Global Social Theory, Creative Commons license).

“Religion is for people who’re afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.”

As a novelist and activist beginning his career in the late 60s, his first book Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, helped generate national attention to Native American issues. As his most famous work, he challenges white readers to rethink the ways in which American history has portrayed Native Americans, and brought attention to many of the injustices they still face. He published many more books and over 200 articles, focusing largely on Native American education and religion. He also worked at numerous Universities, and established the first Master’s program in American Indian Studies in the United States. He continued to write until his death in 2005.

This Thanksgiving, when you have a moment away from preparations and spending time with family, pick up a book by a Native American author. Then continue to do so, as these are great reads even outside of November.

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