By Serena Morales
Because I want to hurry and get to the books, I won’t stay here long, and I will not try to present an argument for why you should be reading Native authors widely or at all — simply because, if you are not already, that is very sad for you and your soul. Get with it!
Here, I present a list of books that you ought to be reading first and foremost because they are incredible books; I believe they will move you, nourish you (mentally and spiritually), make you cry, make you laugh, and challenge you in necessary, important ways. The work being done here is laborious, painstaking work. We are very fortunate to be living and reading in the time of these writers because, across the board, they have created thoughtful, deeply intelligent, rich, generous and provocative books. I relish the opportunity to share them with you this Native American Heritage Month, but I assure you that reading them any and all times of the year would be appropriate, and even encouraged. Thank you for reading.
American Sunrise by Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo, US Poet Laureate, president of my native heart! I am constantly learning from her and this collection offers no exception. This latest project involves returning, 200 years later, to her ancestral homelands where her people, the Mvskoke, were forcibly removed under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Here, in the American Southeast, Harjo confronts the historical trauma that still lives within her, the hearts of her people, and in the spirit of the land itself. She has an incredible gift for honoring all the truths at once, both the heinous and the beautiful, shedding light on the nation’s deepest wounds so that our children may have a fighting chance to see our communities healed, if only a little, from the unspeakable evils of settler colonialism. Joy Harjo writes so that native people everywhere can dance.
The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote
A very special and unforgettable story collection with impeccable range, music, and texture. Piatote writes with startling emotional clarity, I feel rejuvenated from reading her intricate and affective renderings of the inner lives of modern Native Americans. Each piece in this collection tells a story, but what form the story takes adapts with the shape of its content — there’s poetry here, song, and perhaps most impressively, a play called Antikoni, which artfully reimagines the Greek tragedy of Antigone. Dynamic, resonant, multilayered, and yet still compulsively readable, Piatote takes broken glass and turns it into a mosaic. One of the most exciting reads of the year for me, this book is breathing! It demands to be read more than once.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Part memoir, part natural history, I love this book for Kimmerer’s for joyful curiosity in and deep gratitude to the natural world. This book is a wonderful meditation on the reciprocal nature of ecological systems and beings, and inspires a more generous and loving world. We could all do well to take the opportunity to appreciate the abundance around us and find ways to honor and protect our surrounding environments.
Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers by Jake Skeets
A harrowing and exquisite examination of queer desire, masculine violence, indigenous identity, and the intersections between them. Here, the experiences of Diné men are grafted onto the flora of the Navajo countryside, both rendered with gorgeous, rich imagery in language that is at once precise and unsparing (also like, c’mon, this title! This cover! I weep!).
Feed by Tommy Pico
This fourth and final installment of the Teebs tetralogy is as engrossing, funny, sharp and inventive as we have come to expect from Pico, who in addition to being a Lambda finalist, is a Whiting and American Book Award-winning poet. Covering a wide range of topics — including food, music, desire and dating, extraterrestrial life and much more — this collection marks a vital and necessary shift in the poetic paradigm; one that is critical of language as a means of either enforcing or subverting oppressive power dynamics. Fatimah Asghar puts it best when she says that “Pico is at the forefront of a new poetics, blazing an unchartable trail that we should all attempt to follow.”
Fry Bread written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal
An informative, uplifting and gorgeously-illustrated picture book about family, food, history, heritage and more. The end pages feature the names of hundreds of Native American tribes and communities, and the book even has a real fry bread recipe inside! There is also a thoughtful and educational author’s note — complete with references and citations — at the end of the book, making it a perfect read for parents and children alike! This book is everything, I love it so much.
Heartberries by Terese Marie Mailhot
There are so many bittersweet gems — overly ripe, and unripe berries, if you will — in this incisive, honest book. Marie Mailhot’s writing is sharp, stirring, and elegeic. She writes with such brevity and lyricism, fusing lightness into the heaviest of topics, which include: mental illness, abuse and trauma, love and loss, motherhood, and the condition of indigenous women. A quick and impactful read.
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
This is a book that I would gift to my mother and my sister and my aunties, though they are not huge readers, because they are so many points of entry here, it’s accessible and complex and evocative. This book presents a rare and delicious opportunity for working class Latinas of indigenous descent — in particular, those from the American West — to see themselves, and for that, I am thankful. The characters in these stories are so, so real that it hurts me. It hurts because Kali Fajardo-Anstin distills storytelling into its purest form, baring all the painful truths of the violence inflicted on and internalized by these women. This is a trenchant and tender collection, told with a chorus of vital, unforgettable voices. I love these women, I know these women, and, in many ways, I am these women.
Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq
Okay, I don’t want to get too generic here by just reiterating the book summary, which claims that this is a “fierce, tender, heartbreaking story unlike anything you’ve ever read before” but that is exactly what this is, no joke, it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. Although, I should be transparent about the fact that I didn’t read it, I listened to the author — an acclaimed Inuit throat singer — read it to me (audiobook), which definitely intensified the experience. To oversimplify, this book tells the story of a girl growing up in the Nunavut in the 1970’s. The girl discovers her shamanic abilities as she is coming-of-age in the brutal and beautiful Arctic landscape. This is a hard one to summarize so I’m just going to list a bunch of adjectives: it’s intense, strange, painful, mystical, startling, profound, erotic, challenging, raw and rhapsodic. Lastly, I’ll say that this book absolutely defies genre, but everything about it is true.
There There by Tommy Orange
Tommy Orange’s larger-than-life debut tells the story of twelve Urban Indians with intersecting lives, who are all on their way to attend the Big Oakland Powwow. This book is monumental. Orange orchestrates each moving part of this propulsive narrative with virtuosity, vision, and acuity. This is another one that I would gift to literally anyone. It’s an essential read.
Shapes of Native Nonfiction ed. by Elissa Washuta & Theresa Warburton
A rigorous and thoughtfully-edited anthology of lyric essays featuring twenty-seven established and emerging Native writers. The collection is organized into four sections based on the art of basket weaving: Technique, Coiling, Plaiting, and Twining. The result is a fresh, visionary, and experimental body of work that honors the prowess of some of Turtle Island’s leading thinkers, while envisioning — and manifesting — a site of endless possibility within Native literary traditions.
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
In Whereas, poetic innovation pushes back against political duplicity as Long Solider, a young Oglala Lakota poet, interrogates both what language has done to, and perhaps more importantly, what language can do for a nation. This ambitious debut collection — which has been widely lauded for both its formal and linguistic ingenuity — holds a mirror to the bureaucratic jargon weaponized by the US government against native peoples, fragments it with fierce mastication, and spits it back out. “Employing discrete lyric, conceptual, and concrete forms; extended sequences; and sprawling prose series,” (Publishers Weekly) Long Solider is at once a historian, a poet, and a dual-citizen baring her teeth and her truth in the same masterful proclamation.
New Poets of Native Nations ed. by Heid E. Erdrich
Heid E. Erdrich gathers twenty-one contemporary Native poets in this very exciting, very diverse, comprehensive new anthology. The first of its kind to be published in the 21st century, the work seeks to combat Native erasure in mainstream literature and bring a wider audience to the engaging, meaningful work that these writers are producing. Similarly to the other anthology on this list, Shapes of Native Nonfiction, the anthology is edited by an actual Native woman (in the case of Shapes, two) and exclusively features actual writers from Native nations. Also similarly, the writers here are at the forefront of the new Native literary canon, radically shifting the expectations and the goal posts for modern American literature.