Resistance, Resilience, and Reclamation: A Native American Heritage Month Reading List
This Native American Heritage Month, PEN America is proud to present a reading list highlighting books that spotlight Native American writers and their experiences and celebrate Indigenous histories and cultures. This list was curated by Communications Intern Dana Keiser, a graduate student of library science at Queens College. Dana also holds a BA in linguistics from Stony Brook University and works for The New York Public Library.
Among Dana’s greatest passions with respect to librarianship is the crucial role libraries play in elevating a multiplicity of voices, promoting diverse literature, and empowering marginalized populations. With these goals in mind, Dana strove to curate a list that reflects the breadth of Native American perspectives and realities present in America, and selected titles that communicate authenticity as well as a profound respect for Indigenous knowledge, spirituality, and vitality.
The Night Watchman takes place during the 1950s and tells of Chippewa members of the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Based on the life of Erdrich’s grandfather, its narrative concerns the efforts of a factory night watchman to fight the dispossession of Native American lands by the U.S. government, as well as the struggles faced by his extended family and community. The novel describes the ways in which the rights of Native American people have been threatened and the United States government has broken its promises. The Night Watchman is a stirring exploration of themes including poverty, violence, love, and dreams.
Asegi Stories presents an overview of understandings of gender, sexuality, and queerness in Cherokee culture. Driskill explores Cherokee history and perspectives through an examination of “asegi” stories. (Asegi, which translates literally to “strange,” is also used by some Cherokees as a term analogous to queer.) S/he centers Cherokee Two Spirit thought and incorporates frameworks from Indigenous traditions, feminisms of color, queer and decolonial politics, and intertribal social justice movements.
Earth Keeper focuses on the relationship between people and our environment, and serves as a tribute to the American land. Momaday writes with reverence for the earth, sharing stories of his childhood and of the Kiowa Tribe to which he belongs. Imbued with Momaday’s knowledge of and connection to the American Southwest, Earth Keeper celebrates the wonder and beauty of the Earth, but also warns of the need to protect the Earth against the destructive forces of climate change.
Orange’s fierce debut novel follows a cast of 12 Native American people in Oakland, CA, all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow and with their own motivations for doing so. Through the portraits of these characters as they grapple with the complexities of their lives, There, There examines questions of identity and what it means to be Native American. They struggle to belong in a land which is theirs and a society which is not, and seek to reconcile their heritage with the detachment and alienation they experience living in urban America.
In this powerful debut memoir, Jensen explores both gun violence and the violence her body has known as a Métis woman on stolen land in America. Told through a series of essays, Carry navigates Jensen’s personal experiences growing up with and surrounded by guns, and connects them to the broader cultural landscape of violence in the United States. Jensen demonstrates the ways in which these histories have deeply shaped her own life.
In a narrative spanning several generations, The Seed Keeper is a novel about the connections between memory, the roots of family, and our relationship with the Earth. Readers are immersed in the reflections of Rosalie Iron Wing, whose personal discoveries confront the legacies of colonialism, particularly Native American genocide and environmental destruction. Wilson spotlights the voices, traditions, resilience, and triumphs of Native American women of the past, present, and future, and invites us to reconsider our understandings of pain, trauma, and the natural world.
This collection of poetry from Ojibwe writer Beardslee bridges tradition and contemporaneity. Words like Thunder celebrates the adaptability of Indigenous people worldwide in the face of community loss, including climate change, a lack of resources, and socioeconomic challenges. Beardslee spotlights the ways in which Indigenous communities have preserved their cultures, as well as accommodated some elements of modernity to ensure survival. All the while, she transcends the boundaries of time and perspective to paint a picture of present-day life for Native Americans and honor the experiences of her people.
In this debut collection of 12 short stories, Johnston uses spare language to reveal the experiences of Native Americans in present-day Oklahoma and explore themes of pain, sorrow, loss, family relationships, and everyday victories and defeats. Based on Johnston’s own experiences as a member of Choctaw Nation, Rites honestly illuminates hardships and the ways that rites and rituals can help us cope with them.
An internationally acclaimed poet, Harjo is the incumbent United States Poet Laureate, the first Native American writer to hold that honor. In Poet Warrior, Harjo interweaves elements of prose, song, oral tradition, and nonlinear narrative to examine her journey as an artist and the influences that have shaped her worldview. Poet Warrior includes insights about love, healing, truth, and justice; meditations about the Earth; and stories of her Mvskoke Nation ancestors.
This intersectional history of the struggle for freedom spans the pre-Revolutionary era up to and including contemporary activism movements, and discusses how the United States is not only rooted in anti-Blackness and colonialism, but continues to perpetuate these oppressions. In particular, Afro-Indigenous historian Mays examines the ways in which Black and Native American communities have resisted white supremacy both together and apart, thereby illuminating the potential power of Afro-Indigenous solidarity in calls for justice.