Blog – Posted on Friday, Feb 26
40 Best Native American Authors to Read in 2021
Prior to 1968, only nine novels by Native American authors had been published in the US and Canada. Thankfully, things are different now: due to the political transformations of the 60s and 70s, Indigenous voices have started reaching a far larger audience. Subsequent social changes have further catalysed waves of Indigenous writing, as Native American writers grapple with increasing urbanisation and integration into mainstream America. Most recently, the events at Standing Rock in 2016 and the tumult of the Trump era have inspired a new generation of Native American voices to pick up the baton and produce brilliant, incisive writing that confront important questions of identity.
Though the Native American experience takes many forms in writing— a testament to the variety and complexity of Indigenous realities — what does unite these authors is a resounding rejection of whitewashed stereotypes. In this list, we’ve put together the best Native American authors to give you a headstart, from renaissance titans like James Welch and N. Scott Momaday to big hitters like the current poet laureate Joy Harjo and emerging voices like Tommy Orange.
Pro-tip: the list is organized chronologically, so you can feel free to pick and mix from the eras that interest you. Let’s get started!
The First Wave
Beginning in 1969 with N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, the first wave of the Native American Renaissance is characterized by a struggle between two worlds for a generation existing both on and off the reservation, a devotion to the land, and a celebration of traditional customs and myths.
1. N. Scott Momaday
N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa Nation member, is often considered the trailblazer behind the Native American Renaissance, thanks to his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, House Made of Dawn. As a powerful voice for Native American concerns, he has spoken at the United Nations and, in 1990, founded the Buffalo Trust — to name only a few of his accomplishments. Through his own work as well as his amplification of works of other Native American authors, he ensures that conversations about Native American traditions are not submerged by the forces of modernization.
Start with: House Made of Dawn
Considered the first Native American Renaissance novel, this book touches on the dilemma of being split between two worlds. Abel, the young protagonist, finds himself torn between the spiritual world that his father shows him and the exhilarating developments of 20th-century America.
2. James Welch
James Welch is a member of the Blackfeet and A'aninin tribes whose literary output spans decades and has been translated into nine languages. As a champion of the Native American voice beyond the US context, he soulfully reflects on his dual Indigenous and Irish heritage and aims to ‘remember the world of his ancestors,’ capturing the poignance of the reality of life for Indigenous people living on and off of the reservation.
Start with: Winter in the Blood
Welch’s debut novel became a seminal piece of Native American literature — so it’s definitely one to keep in your arsenal. Written at a time when Native American voices were largely unheard, it charts the story of a nameless youth from Montana who finds momentarily relief in alcohol as he struggles to find the meaning of life after a family tragedy. The tale drew nationwide attention upon publication and was turned into a film of the same name in 2014.
3. Janet Campbell Hale
Hale is of Coeur d'Alene, Kootenay, and Cree descent. Known for her sparse, economic writing style, Hale deals with topics such as poverty, colonial oppression, the female condition, and how they collide with the Indigenous identity. The Jailing of Cecelia Capture, her most notable work, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1985. A master of different creative writing forms, she has also ventured into Young Adult fiction with The Owl’s Song, and into poetry with her contributions to The Whispering Wind: Poetry by Young American Indians, a poetry collection published in 1972.
Start with: The Jailing of Cecelia Capture
This critically acclaimed story is the very best of Hale’s lyrical and arresting prose. It follows the title character, a mother and law student who has lost her way, and on the eve of her 30th birthday, is arrested and jailed for drunk driving. During her confinement, she reflects on her misspent childhood and teenage years.
4. Leslie Marmon Silko
Not one to bend to the temptation of quick gratification, Leslie Marmon Silko took a decade to write her 800-page epic about the multitudes of life in America, Almanac of the Dead. But her star had started rising long before then: her searing 1977 debut — Ceremony — earned her the MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the Genius Grant) and led many to consider her the first female Native American novelist. Her experiences growing up in the Laguna Pueblo tribe has been the fuel to her barrier-breaking career, committed to raising awareness about ingrained forms of racism, settler colonialism, and women’s issues.
Start with: Ceremony
Following Tayo, a young soldier who finds himself alienated from society after his return to America as a prisoner of war to the Japanese in World War II, Silko’s debut asks big questions. Can a turn towards old traditions and the long-held beliefs of his people prove to be the curative ceremony Tayo needs to overcome his despair?
5. Gerald Vizenor
As a pivotal figure in the first wave of the Native American Renaissance, Vizenor — a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe — has inspired a whole generation of Native American authors and readers across the world. Alongside a lifelong dedication to activism, he has published more than 30 books which defy simple categorizations, drawing on a mixture of Native myth, research, motifs from science fiction, and personal reflections.
Start with: Bearheart
This is the way to go if you’re on the lookout for an original science fiction novel (bonus points if you enjoy trickster characters in your fiction). The story follows a motley crew of pilgrims as government agents descend on their reservation to claim their sacred cedar trees. Reversing Manifest Destiny, they travel south through a world ravaged by fossil fuel consumption, the vivid descriptions of which brings to life the terrifyingly real prospect of environmental dystopia.
6. Joseph Bruchac
Bruchac’s oeuvre contains an immense 120 books, which channel the traditions and mythologies of this Abenaki roots. Considering himself a storyteller at heart, he’s even mastered several Indigenous American instruments (the hand drum, wooden flute, and the double wooden flute, to name a few) to aid his imaginative retellings of native American mythology. He also practices various martial arts and is an educator who has developed programs for maximum security prisons — quite the polymath!
Start with: Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two
A compelling novel that’s inspired by the true (and previously marginalized) story of the Navajo marines of World War II, who turned their native language into a code that proved impossible for the enemy to break.
7. Vine Deloria Jr.
Deloria Jr. was a prominent activist and writer belonging to the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota. As the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and a key board member of the National Museum of the American Indian, Deloria Jr. spent most of his career tirelessly advocating for the rights of Native American peoples. This work continues in his impressive bibliography as an author, which includes a number of non-fiction titles on Native American education, religion and politics.
Start with: Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto
Pivotal in drawing attention to Native American socio-political issues alongside the Alcatraz-Red Power Movement, this book implores white people to challenge the racist stereotypes they hold about Indigenous peoples. It also proposes a new framework for better understanding the history of colonialism in the United States.
The Second Wave
While the second round of Native American Renaissance still grappled with the question of identity, this next generation of Native American authors promoted a more integrated experience in which the reservation and the outside world can coexist.
8. nila northSun
nila northSun, of Shoshone and Chippewa heritage, is one of the principal figures of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance. Her poetry deftly applies irony and humor to difficult, emotional topics like alienation, oppression, violence, and the difficulties of life on and off the reservation — though she doesn’t stop there. In red flags yellow flags, a poem about womanhood and dating in the modern era, she quips, “i don't feel like being bored / so i court disaster.”. It’s not hard to see how she’s been able to attract a wide following since her 1977 debut, Diet pepsi and nacho cheese, and was the recipient of the Indigenous Heritage Award in Literature in 2004.
Start with: Love at Gunpoint
Her latest collection is a testament to a writing style which remains fresh and still attracts the adulation of critics and readers alike, decades after her debut. Indeed, her skills have only been sharpened through years of practice and reflection.
9. David Treuer
David Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota, and an acclaimed author with an impressive body of work spanning fiction, non-fiction, and literary criticism. Throughout his stories and essays, Treuer strives to map the multidimensionality of the Indigenous experience. His debut novel, Little, written alongside a PhD in anthropology, was published in 1995 to great acclaim.
Start with: The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present
Fusing personal experience with a scholarly framework to map out the history of the Native American people, Treuer’s creation is a masterful, intelligent portrait of resilience and survival. If you don’t want to just take our word for it, take Barack Obama’s: this New York Times Bestseller was among his favorites in 2019.
10. Paula Gunn Allen
Paula Gunn Allen, a stalwart in Native American scholarship, was much beloved by those who studied under her at UC Berkeley, UCLA, and a number of other schools. Beyond her research, Allen’s impressive literary oeuvre also includes poetry, short- and long-form prose, many titles of which draw inspiration from the Pueblo mythology of her ancestors, like the Corn Maiden and Grandmother Spider. Her mixed Laguna, Sioux, Scottish, and Lebanese heritage has also led to introspective pieces about the nuances and struggles of belonging to multiple minorities, such as The Woman Who Owned The Shadows.
Start with: The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions
A seminal feminist text within the currents of Indigenous political writing, Allen’s research is a reclaiming of voices for the marginalized. Applying an anthropological framework, she argues that the dominance of Western thought has misinterpreted Native society and obscured the prominence of women within it.
11. Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is the current US poet laureate and became, with her 2019 election, the first Indigenous writer to ever hold that title. Her eloquent verses have been featured in the best poetry books of all time, winning her multiple literary awards. She’s also ventured into other literary forms, producing several plays, two children’s books, and a transcendent, haunting memoir that all draw on First Nation myths, symbols and values, as well as poetic traditions within feminism and social justice.
Fun fact: Harjo is also an accomplished saxophonist, though she chose to pursue poetry upon encountering other Native poets during the renaissance of the 1960s and 70s.
Start with: An American Sunrise: Poems
Harjo’s 2019 acclaimed poetry collection follows her return to her family’s lands, where she confronts its history of forcible removals to remember and celebrate the healing that can come after crisis and brokenness. The title poem sets up the central motifs of remembrance and connection to a generational pain caused by injustice:
We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We
were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.
As a bonus, because Harjo is so exquisite that we can’t just recommend one of her books, consider picking up For a Girl Becoming as well. It’s a children’s book, but the ode to the cyclical nature of birth, innocent youth, and blooming adulthood, completed with stunning illustrations, can be appreciated by readers of all ages.
12. Linda Hogan
Linda Hogan is a poet, essayist and — as of this publication date — the Chickasaw Nation’s Writer in Residence. We could write a whole post dedicated to her accomplishments, but here are a few standouts: her debut novel, Mean Spirit, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Literature; she was nominated for the International Impact Award twice; and her Solar Storms was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Beyond amplifying the hidden voices of women and Native Americans, Hogan's work actively engages in questions concerning the destruction and preservation of our environment.
Start with: A History of Kindness
If you want to meditate on the relationship between humans and the environment, let this gentle collection of poetry be a reminder of our inextricable connection to the land we walk on. Take it as an invitation to kindness and living in harmony with the world around us.
13. Simon J. Ortiz
Simon J. Ortiz is a prominent Acoma Kerese Pueblo author committed to promoting and retaining the culture and mythology of his people. Even as a child, his solemn enthusiasm for the stories of his elders earned him the nickname “The Reporter”. Carrying this earnestness and a strong sense of awareness into his career, Ortiz combines a confident, expressive writing style with a focus on the politically marginalized voices and stories of Native American peoples.
Start with: From Sand Creek Rising in This Heart Which Is Our America
This collection of poems recounts Ortiz's modern-day experiences at a veterans recovery center, weaving them into America's history of violence against Plains Native Americans. Originally a small-press publication in 1981, its powerful reflections on American colonialism inside and outside the continent called for large-scale reprint in 2000.
14. Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich is one of most prolific and best-known contemporary novelists on this list. She’s an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe Nation (Chippewa), and much of her writing reflects the mixed heritage of her German-American father and half-Ojibwe, half-French mother. She often writes of romance, filial ties, and the complexities of interpersonal relationships. As you make your way through her body of work, keep an eye out for her postmodernist writing style and use of multiple narrators within one story: they’re considered trademarks of her work.
Start with: Love Medicine
Erdrich’s first novel is part of a trilogy which follows the intertwining fates of the Kashpaw and Lamartine families. An epic family drama akin to E. M. Forster’s Howards End, it blends dark humor with betrayal, loyalty, and a touch of magic on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.
15. LeAnne Howe
LeAnne Howe is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Her experiences growing up on a reservation and listening to her grandmother’s stories, she once said in a short film, set her on a path towards a career as a playwright, a poet, and a novelist. Speaking of the challenges that Indigenous writers face, she has pointed to a ‘tribalography’ — a rhetorical space in which overlooked perspectives and stories get their time to shine.
Start with: Shell Shaker
Immerse yourself in the parallel tales of two Choctaw leaders separated by over 200 years. As much as it’s about the perceived reality of this Native culture, Shell Shaker is also about the abuse of power and its consequences, which is a relevant concern for readers of any background. That said, for a taste of Howe’s skill as a critic and editor, check out Seeing Red — Hollywood’s Pixeled Skin. It’s an accessible anthropology of movie reviews that critically assesses the cinematic representations of Indigenous peoples.
16. Susan Power
Susan Power is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Tribe of the Dakotas and a descendant of Sioux Chief Mato Nupa. A Harvard alumna, Power first started out in the legal profession. She quickly veered to an editing and technical writing career path, in which creative writing was only enthusiastically pursued outside of work hours. But what began as a hobby soon became a lifelong calling, as she found a national audience for her short stories, which were featured in a number of prestigious literary magazines, from The Paris Review to Atlantic Monthly.
Start with: The Grass Dancer
Power’s debut novel is a tour-de-force of historical fiction with a twinge of magical realism. Set between 1864 and 1986, this multilayered work follows four generations of Native Americans as they each struggle with the cultural and familial legacies they are given — as well as the ones they leave behind. It received the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for Best First Fiction in 1995, and is the perfect read for those who enjoyed Yaa Gyasi’s recent African American hit, Homegoing.
17. Thomas King
Thomas King is an author of Cherokee descent, whose writing career has been devoted to the representation and rights of North American Natives in both Canada and the US. Much of his career is devoted to the representation and protection of the rights of North American Natives in both countries. Through his novels and children's books, he has strived to portray Canadian Natives in a more nuanced light, sharply criticizing the place that has been mindlessly assigned to them in literature and fiction. For this activism and his humorous and poignant writing, he's been made a Member of the Order of Canada, and was twice nominated for the Governor General's Award.
Start with: The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
Watch King candidly unpick what it meant throughout history to be “Indian” in North America. This richly subversive book centers the issue around land, using knowledge gleaned from film, pop culture, and King’s own experiences as an activist as evidence to support this core factor.
18. Eddie Chuculate
Eddie Chuculate is an American fiction writer of Cherokee descent who’s enrolled in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. He found his beginnings as a sports journalist and editor before deciding to dedicate his lucid and forthright prose to a flourishing literary career. It's not just us that love his work —commenting on “Galveston Bay, 1826,” the short story that won him the PEN/O. Henry Award in 2007, novelist and panelist Ursula Le Guin wrote:
‘Galveston Bay, 1826’ won me first, and last, by surprising me: every sentence unexpected, yet infallible. On rereading, both qualities remain. The calm, beautiful, unexplaining accuracy of description carries us right through the madness of the final adventure.
Start with: Cheyenne Madonna
This is Chuculate’s first work of published fiction, and according to poet laureate Joy Harjo, it’s the work that helped him “emerge as an important new talent in his generation of storytellers.” It tells the story of a Cherokee (Creek) man who writes a series of letters to his father throughout his journeys across the Southwest. The book serves as a moving investigation of the transformation from boyhood to manhood, from hopeful expectations to a return to ancestral roots.
19. Heid E. Erdrich
If you think “Erdrich” looks familiar, you’re not mistaken — she's the sister of Louise Erdrich. An accomplished poet and writer in her own right, Heid E. Erdrich has published several volumes of poetry and contributed to various anthologies of Native American writing. Going beyond written authorship, Erdrich is also a pioneer when it comes to using video poetry as a means of self-expression. Her recent efforts have involved collaborations with other Native American digital media artists and poets on politically and socially imperative projects like the Idle No More movement.
Start with: New Poets of Native Nations
Erdrich’s poetry is truly stunning, though the essence of her work lies in the support she lends to others. Which is why we recommend you check out the latest poetry anthology that she edited, where she champions a diverse assortment of Native writing by the young authors of the 21st century.
The turn of the 21st century marked the advent of a literary scene more explicitly focused on the realms of the intimate and the personal. Writers discussed life on and off ‘the rez’, and grappled with the intertwinement of Indigenous identity, class, gender and sexuality.
20. Natalie Diaz
In her poem ‘The First Water Is the Body,’ Natalie Diaz writes:
Let me tell you a story about water: / Once upon a time there was us. / America’s thirst tried to drink us away. / And here we still are.
Addressing the scorched terrain of American race relations, the writing of this decorated poet and MacArthur Foundation fellow disrupts the white gaze and put the Native experience front and center. As a Mojave enrolled in the Gila River Indian Tribe, Diaz pens incisive lines on Native culture and mythos with a strong personal voice, irrigating the land with her words.
Start with: When My Brother Was an Aztec
Diaz’s 2012 award-winning debut collection deals with a host of issues, namely her brother’s meth addiction, the complexities of family ties, and queer romance — all in the context of the Mojave life. In this memoir, the violence directed towards Native bodies is never far away — but nor is the ability to reclaim what the colonizers have taken.
21. Melissa Febos
Melissa Febos’s Native American heritage remained a mystery until she got to visit her father’s people, the Wampanoag tribe, as a teenager. Then, she started learning about a group of people that had — until that point — been far removed from her own understanding of family and identity. Combined with her love of literature and the creative arts, she has used this eye-opening journey to produce lyrical nonfiction books that reflect on the development of contemporary identities.
Start with: Whip Smart
Febos’s first memoir, which brings to life her time as a student and a professional dominatrix struggling with substance abuse in New York City. If you like her engaging and pacy prose as much as we do, keep an eye out for her latest publication, Girlhood, which is expected in March 2021!
22. Cherie Dimaline
Cherie Dimaline made waves with the publication of her YA title, The Marrow Thieves, in 2017. The combining of Indigenous knowledge with science fiction to create an apocalyptic world not too different from our own proved to be a bestselling combination that allowed this debut to climb the ranks as one of the best YA books. In her novels, this writer and activist from the Georgian Bay Métiz Nation in Canada brings to light the dark history of forced removals of children from their families along with assimilation policies in Canada and the US. At the heart of it all, despite the hardship, storytelling, oral traditions, family, and hope are championed.
Start with: The Marrow Thieves
Set in a climate-dystopia where most of the population have lost their ability to dream, and Indigenous people are being hunted for their bone-marrow, the alleged cure for ‘dreamlessness’. Fear of this precarious situation drives fifteen-year-old Frenchie and his companions into flight — but one of them may carry a secret that can help defeat the marrow thieves.
23. Brandon Hobson
Brandon Hobson is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma with a knack for eerie, contemporary fiction punctuated by acerbic social commentary. His novels are haunted by the ghosts of genocide and violence directed towards Native American peoples throughout history and today. In 2018, he was a finalist for the National Book Award with his novel Where the Dead Sit Talking and the winner of the Reading the West Award.
Start with: The Removed
Hobson’s 2021 release explores historical and contemporary government-sanctioned violence against Cherokee teens. The trauma of the Trail of Tears is relived through the pages of this novel via the contemporary fatal police shooting of fifteen-year-old Ray-Ray Echota. Blending the realms of the real and the spiritual, this text is a potent meditation on generational grief and the power of storytelling.
24. Rebecca Roanhorse
Roanhorse is of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African American heritage — an identity she described as “pretty limiting… in 1970s Fort Worth.” But it became a catalyst for a childhood spent using science fiction as a means of escapism. Years later, she became a science fiction writer herself — the popular novels Trail of Lightning and Black Sun are just two in a diverse collection of published work. She has even contributed to the Marvel universe, writing a one shot for the character of ECHO.
In an interview with the New York Times, Roanhorse said much of her early works were “Tolkien knockoffs about white farm boys going on journeys,” before she started writing stories inspired by First Nation traditions and mythologies, centering queer characters and plotlines. Paving the way for a reimagination of indigenous narratives has characterised Roanhorse’s career — her fiction flies in the face of the traditionally white, Eurocentric sci-fi genre and has redrawn the margins of epic fantasy as we know it.
Start with: Black Sun
Roanhorse’s latest release and the first in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy. This epic fantasy is set in the magical city of Tova, during the onset of a solar eclipse which threatens to disrupt the harmony of an entire civilization. Let Roanhorse’s suspenseful writing immerse you in a brand new world.
25. Stephen Graham Jones
With 15 novels and over 300 published short stories to his name, there’s no shortage of material to choose from when it comes to reading Stephen Graham Jones. A master of the horror and science fiction genres, he has wooed readers the world over with his highly original, technically accomplished style. As a Blackfeet Native American, he is known to pay homage to writers of the Native American Renaissance like Gerald Vizenor, who heralded an era of increased Native American representation in writing.
Start with: The Only Good Indians
One of the two novels Jones published in 2020 (because someone’s got to be productive), The Only Good Indians features four American Indian men who find themselves in a desperate struggle for survival, after a disturbing event from their past comes back to haunt them. In this suspenseful revenge-tale, the culture and traditions they had once abandoned catch up with the group in a series of violent and unanticipated ways.
26. Robin Wall Kimmerer
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist and professor of Environmental and Forest Biology, as well as bestselling non-fiction author. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she combines her Indigenous heritage with a passion for the natural world. Drawing on ancient knowledge curated by Native peoples, she turns a factual approach to science writing into its own kind of poetry, as a means to honor the reciprocal relationships of the living world.
Start with: Braiding Sweetgrass
A piece of ecological nonfiction in which she heartbreakingly writes:
"What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn't you dance it? Wouldn't you act it out? Wouldn't your every movement tell the story? In time you would be so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green lives."
27. Layli Long Soldier
Layli Long Soldier is an Oglala Lakota poet and writer who champions feminist and political themes in her work. Her poetry primarily aims to uncover the injustices and oppressions against Native American peoples through "prob[ing at] the unreliable relationships between language and meaning," most notably in her attack of the US government's apology to Native American peoples in 2009. An artful combination of arresting Indigenous imagery with social history is what makes her poetry sing:
“Whereas I could’ve but didn’t broach the subject of “genocide” the absence of this term from the Apology and its rephrasing as “conflict” for example; / Whereas since the moment had passed I accept what’s done and the knife of my conscience pierces with bone-clean self-honesty;”
Start with: Whereas
Long Soldier’s 2017 poetry collection which won the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for its brilliant, elegantly radical takedown of the government's official apology to Native Americans in 2009.
28. Eden Robinson
Eden Robinson has a penchant for high drama — perhaps this was written in the stars for somebody who was born in the midst of a heavy snowstorm, as she recalls in this Granta interview. A member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, Robinson writes gothic page-turners set on and around Canadian reservations in coastal British Columbia. With many short stories under her belt, her writing has experimented with a host of themes, from psychological thriller to post-colonial reflection. What runs like a thread through her work is her trademark dark humor, and a knack for granting special significance to the happenings of everyday life in Indigenous communities.
Start with: Monkey Beach
Robinson’s first stand-alone novel that follows a young teenage girl as she searches for answers about her little brother’s disappearance at sea. In this midst of this, Robinson’s protagonist attempts to reconcile her Haisla heritage with Western ways of living — a struggle which reveals a supernatural power she never knew of.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for a new YA series to pick up, check out Son of a Trickster! This wildly imaginative novel builds on the traditional symbolism of the Trickster (Wee’git) — a character that teaches children protocol (nuyum) by constantly breaking all the rules.
29. Tanya Tagaq
Tanya Tagaq is perhaps best-known for her Inuk throat singing and her “Polar Punk,” larger-than-life personality, but you should also know her as an accomplished writer. Bringing her fusion of traditional techniques with the avant-garde to the written word, she produces electrifying stories, abundant with musicality. Having come from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, her writing on the Inuk way of life is deeply personal and informed by a strong political ethos.
Start with: Split Tooth
Straddling the line between fact and fiction, Split Tooth takes heavy inference from Tagaq’s own childhood with the story of a girl growing up in Nunavut, Canada. As our protagonist goes through the grandeur and mundanity of life and navigates the demands of her arctic town, she knows the ravages of alcohol, violence at the hands of trusted ones, and the power of the animal as well as the spirit world. When she becomes pregnant, boundaries and binaries lose their meaning as only the guiding power of love remains. We think you’ll particularly enjoy this unique book in its celebrated audiobook format.
30. Terese Marie Mailhot
Mailhot is a First Nation writer and journalist form Seabird Island who grew up with her mother — a healer, social worker, poet, and radical activist — and alcoholic father. In her debut memoir Heart Berries, she writes candidly about an upbringing marred by sexual abuse, neglect, and substance abuse. Diagnosed with Bipolar II, she started writing as a means to unpack her dysfunctional and traumatic childhood. The result is a raw and deeply moving ode to her mother and a record of her own reconciliation with her father after his murder.
Start with: Heart Berries: A Memoir
This book became a sensation in online literary spheres when it was released three years ago. It follows Mailhot’s coming of age on Seabird Island, her traumatic childhood, and how she faces a dual diagnosis of PTSD and Bipolar II. With unique and often unsettling narration, Mailhot melds imagination and memory and takes control of her own story, reestablishing her place in the world as she ‘gives herself to the page.’
Representing a younger generation who are finding their voice at the intersection of political and social debate sparked by the Trump administration’s divisive policy making and the political action at Standing Rock. With just a handful of publications to their names, these young writers are just out of the starting blocks — but we’re sure they will be setting the tone for years to come with writing which ruptures boundaries and questions what a future for Native American people will look like.
31. Tommy Orange
Orange is an enrolled citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, and grew up in Oakland, California. If there is such a thing as old-school and new-school Native American authors, he would certainly be said to represent the latter. Wary of tokenistic representations of his people in media and popular culture, he seeks to present the view of the contemporary, city-dwelling generation of Native Americans that are coming-of-age amongst the tumult of the Trump era.
Start with: There There
Orange’s 2018 debut made the rounds on social media platforms as one of the most talked-about novels of the year. It follows 12 individuals travelling to the big Oakland Powwow, and — reminiscent of Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other — demonstrates the sometimes contradicting and often highly individualized ways that cultural inheritance expresses itself in modern life.
32. Billy-Ray Belcourt
Billy-Ray Belcourt is a poet, essayist, and academic of the Driftpile Cree Nation. Born in Alberta, this young writer broke the mould as Canada’s first First Nation’s Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. His debut poetry collection This Wound is a World made him the youngest winner of the Griffin Prize and the recipient of the 2019 Indspire Award in the First Nation’s Youth Category — a high honor in the Indigenous community. His striking work is an intermingling of queerness, intimacy, and grief, paying respect to and building upon currents of decolonial love established in Indigenous women’s grassroots resistance movements.
Start with: A History of My Brief Body
Belcourt’s 2020 autobiographical essay collection, in which he draws on personal experiences to reconcile two worlds: the world he was born into and the world that could be. Lending credence to seminal queer texts, he charts a path across the terrains of colonial violence and resilient joy, of first loves — and of shame.
33. David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Heska Wanbli Weiden is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota nation. His debut has been nominated for the 2021 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and is also a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, so you can be sure there are promising things to come from this young writer. Having majored in Political Sciences, Weiden has a sustained interest in criminal justice issues in Native communities, and this penchant for social critique pervades his acerbic, intelligent writing.
Start with: Winter Counts
This book straddles the line between noir fiction and classic mystery, and tells the story of a Native American enforcer who’s working to find and stop a drug dealer from bringing increasingly dangerous substances into his community. Weiden himself describes it as “an examination of the broken criminal justice system on reservations, and a meditation on Native identity.”
34. Elissa Washuta
Elissa Washuta hails from the Cowlitz people of Washington state and is one of the newest and most impressive young Indigenous writers on the scene. Her writing career began with essay publications in a variety of prestigious literary magazines. Her first published release, the candid and honest My Body is A Book of Rules, is an autobiographical recounting of Washuta’s experiences of manic depression as a young Indigenous woman, and an immense contribution to the increasingly popular auto-fictional genre.
Start with: Starvation Mode
The best place to start is Washuta’s shortest piece of autobiographical, Starvation Mode, which comes in at under 100 pages. In this book, she discusses her personal battle with eating disorders and body dysmorphia, presenting a deep dive into her psyche during this time.
35. Jake Skeets
Jake Skeets is Diné (of the Navajo people) from New Mexico, and is no doubt an Indigenous poet du jour. Despite his youth, Skeets has been making waves in the Native American literary scene and beyond. His work experiments with literary convention and novel ways to tell stories with expression and feeling. Reminiscent of recent literary sensation Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Skeets’s writing is as provoking to the heart and mind as it is soothing to the ears. If you’re looking for the next literary hit, look no further.
Start with: Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers
A National Poetry Series award-winner, this poetry collection discusses queerness, Skeets’s Diné heritage, violence, destruction — and the cyclical, colliding nature of all these things — with verve and eloquence.
36. Kali Fajardo-Anstine
With roots both in the Latinx and Indigenous communities, Kalo Fajardo-Anstine became a writer to see her own people better represented in fiction. Often situated in Colorado and the American West, her work features both Latina and Native American women, seeking to challenge the way the American West has been claimed in literature by white and male storytellers.
Start with: Sabrina & Corina
A short story collection inspired by Faulkner’s fictional location of Yoknapatawpha County, many of the stories in this collection take place in Saguarita, a fictitious town based on San Luis Valley. As Fajardo-Anstine describes it in an interview, her writing is based on a feminine view of place, influenced by her ancient heritage.
37. Tommy Pico
Tommy Pico — poet, screenwriter, and podcast host — is from the Viejas Indian reservation of the Kumeyaay Nation, but now splits his time between Los Angeles and Brooklyn. His debut epic poem, IRL, is a nearly-100-page poem in the form of a long text message, following a character called Teebs. Fun fact: Teebs is also what Tommy Pico nicknames himself, so it wouldn’t be that far-fetched to read this poem about a “reservation-born, queer NDN weirdo, trying to figure out his impulses/desires/history in the midst of Brooklyn rooftops” as somewhat autobiographical.
Start with: IRL
There’s no better place to get a taste of Pico’s unique style. Let that whet your appetite, and then check out his latest release, Feed, for the 4th installment of the Teebs suite — an exploration of personal nourishment, written as an epistolary recipe. (You can see that Pico likes to experiment with form!)
38. Darcie Little Badger
Darcie Little Badger is a rising Lipan Apache writer who has recently burst onto the YA scene. As a member of a tribe that has been granted no official homeland by the state of Texas, Little Badger was keen to provide further representation to Lipan people in literature, especially for children, as she recalls not reading any indigenous fiction growing up. Her debut novel, Elatsoe, published in 2019, received great critical acclaim and was featured in TIME Magazine as one of the best 100 fantasy novels of all time, as well as one of the top books of 2020 by Publishers Weekly.
Start with: Elatsoe
Of course! This work of speculative fiction, which was nominated for the Golden Kite Award for Young Adult Fiction, follows a young girl and her dog as they investigate the murder of her cousin. In doing so, they threaten to reveal the dark secrets of their small town, Willowbee.
39. Joshua Whitehead
Joshua Whitehead — a Canadian novelist, poet, and academic — writes about Indigenous queer experiences and is an Oji-Cree member of the Peguis First Nation. Whitehead is Two-Spirit: an umbrella term used by some Indigenous North Americans for Native people who hold a traditional, third-gender ceremonial and social role in their cultures. In 2018, he was nominated for a Lambda Award for Transgender Poetry with his explosive debut collection Full-Metal Indigiqueer, but withdrew the nomination on account of it being misrepresentative of his identity.
Start with: Jonny Appleseed
Whitehead’s debut novel about titular character Jonny, who identifies as Two-Spirit or Indigiqueer. Navigating the newness of city life, Jonny finds his own ways to thrive and survive without losing himself — but when his stepfather dies, with a week to prepare for his journey back to his homeland, he can run away from his roots no longer.
40. Dennis E. Staples
Dennis E. Staples is an Ojibwe writer from Bemidji, Minnesota, whose bold work has been featured on numerous ‘most anticipated’ LGBT literature lists. If you're looking for books that meditate on the pull of home and the push toward a search for something more in life, Staples is your author. In discussing these themes, he once said, “when I got older and someone asked me if I hated small-town life, I realized I actually love this place. I feel something really powerful for it.” It is this reconciliation that many young Native people struggle with in an internal battle that Staples so deftly put into words.
Start with: This Town Sleeps
To cap the list off, here’s genre-defying and innovative work of fiction that combines queer love, murder-mystery and supernatural horror. It has been described as being “elegant and gritty, angry and funny... emotional without being sentimental.”
Looking for more inspiring and diverse writing to inhabit your shelves? Check out our list of children's books about diversity to kickstart the conversation with your young ones.