Native creative writer Stacie Denetsosie-Mitchell (Diné Asdzáán) recommends some of her favorite books by Native authors that highlight the storytelling of Native Americans.
One of the most powerful ways to uplift the voices of Native Americans is to make the effort to listen to what they have to say. For centuries, Native authors have persevered through prejudice and adversity to bring their stories to life. Stacie Denetsosie-Mitchell (Diné Asdzáán), one of the many young Native authors redefining literature today, gives us a list of her favorite reads from some of the most transcendent voices within the Native community as well as the literary community overall. Whether you're a mystery buff, a poetry fiend, or a lover of all genres, these Native authors are sure to give you a good ride while broadening your perception of Native storytelling.
- “Shutter” by Ramona Emerson
The mysterious, the paranormal, and the historical come together in Romona Emerson's riveting debut.
We follow Rita Todacheene, a forensic photographer working for the Albuquerque police force. She is known for her almost supernatural ability to capture details through her photography. But Rita has been hiding a secret: She sees the ghosts of crime victims who point her toward the clues that other investigators overlook. As a lone portal between the living and traumatized spirits, Rita is terrorized by nagging ghosts who won’t let her sleep, begging her to help them exact their revenge. Being driven away from the Navajo reservation where she grew up by the nagging and pleading of ghosts, her ability has isolated her from friends and gotten her in trouble with the law. And now it might be what gets her killed. When Rita is sent to photograph the scene of a supposed suicide on a highway overpass, the furious, discombobulated ghost of the victim — who insists she was murdered — latches onto Rita, forcing her on a revenge quest against her killers, and Rita finds herself in the crosshairs of one of Albuquerque’s most dangerous cartels.
Emerson's powerful new voice brings a breath of fresh air to the crime fiction genre.
2. “The Removed” by Brandon Hobson
Decorated with awards and recognition of all sorts, including a National Book Award nomination, Brandon Hobson's “The Removed” is a moving excavation of generational trauma, family grief, and the power of keeping stories alive.
In the 15 years since their teenage son, Ray-Ray, was killed in a police shooting, the Echota family has been swallowed by grief. Maria, the mother of the grieving family, struggles to manage the onset of Alzheimer’s in her husband, Ernest, while caring for the remaining family. Their adult daughter, Sonja, leads a life of solitude, dancing in spells of dizzying romantic obsession. Their son, Edgar, fled home long ago, turning to drugs to drown his feelings of alienation. With the family’s annual bonfire approaching — an occasion marking both the Cherokee National Holiday and the anniversary Ray-Ray’s death — Maria attempts to rally the family together from their physical and emotional distances once more. But as the bonfire draws near, each of them feels a strange blurring of the boundary between reality and the spirit world. Maria and Ernest take in a foster child who seems to miraculously keep Ernest’s mental fog at bay. Sonja becomes dangerously fixated on a man named Vin, despite — or perhaps because of — his ties to tragedy in her lifetime. And in the wake of a suicide attempt, Edgar finds himself in the mysterious Darkening Land: a place between the living and the dead, where old atrocities echo.
Drawing deeply on Cherokee folklore, this book unravels the process of grief and generational trauma in dazzling and effective prose.
3. “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich
One of the most revered novelists of our time, author of “The Night Watchman,” “The Plague Of Doves,” and “Love Medicine,” Louise Erdrich returns with the 2012 triumph “The Round House”.
Erdrich transports readers to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, the same territory within which “The Plague Of Doves” takes place. One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface due to the traumatized state of the victim and her reluctance to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and 13-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared. While his father, a tribal judge, wrestles to extract justice for his wife to no avail, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a place of worship for the Ojibwe, where their journey becomes a twisting vine of trials and discoveries.
“The Round House” is a page-turning masterpiece — at once a powerful coming-of-age story, a mystery, and a tender, moving novel of family, history, and culture.
4. “There There” by Tommy Orange
Powerful Native voice Tommy Orange makes the literary debut of a lifetime with his wondrous and shattering 2018 novel “There There.”
The reader follows 12 characters from Native communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. They are all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize. Among them is Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind. Then there is Dene Oxendene, pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and working at the powwow to honor his memory. Next is 14-year-old Orvil, coming to perform a traditional dance for the very first time. All stories converge and collide on one fateful day at the Big Oakland Powwow, and together this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American — grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism.
This novel is fierce, funny, suspenseful, and impossible to put down. Full of poetry and rage, Orange's voice explodes onto the page with urgency and force.
5. “Crooked Hallelujah” by Kelli Jo Ford
Kelli Jo Ford's 2020 novel speaks to four generations of Cherokee women, and tells a sweeping narrative of sacrifice, love, and history.
It’s 1974 in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and 15-year-old Justine is growing up in a family of tough, complicated, and loyal women, presided over by her mother, Lula, and Granny. After Justine’s father abandoned the family, Lula became a devout member of the Holiness Church — a community that Justine at times finds uncomfortable and terrifying. But Justine does her best to assimilate into this new community as a devoted daughter, until an act of violence sends her on a different path forever. “Crooked Hallelujah” then jumps forward to tell the stories of Justine — a mixed-blooded Cherokee woman — and her daughter, Reney, as they move from Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country in the hopes of starting a new, more stable life in Texas amid the oil bust of the 1980s. However, life in Texas isn’t easy, and Reney feels unmoored from her family in Indian Country. Against the vivid backdrop of the Red River, we see their struggle to survive in a world riddled with unreliable men and near-biblical natural forces, like wildfires and tornados, intent on stripping away their connections to one another and their very ideas of home.
In lush and empathic prose, Kelli Jo Ford depicts what this family of proud, stubborn, Cherokee women sacrifices for those they love, amid larger forces of history, religion, class, and culture. This is a big-hearted and ambitious novel of the powerful bonds between mothers and daughters by an exquisite and rare new talent.
6. “A History of Kindness” by Linda Hogan
A major American writer and the recipient of the 2007 Mountains and Plains Booksellers Spirit of the West Literary Achievement Award, Linda Hogan is a Chickasaw poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, teacher, and activist whose fiction has garnered many honors, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination and her poetry collections have received the American Book Award, Colorado Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle nomination.
Through her 2020 poetry collection, “A History of Kindness,” Linda Hogan tenderly excavates how history instructs the present and envisions a future alive with hope for a healthy and sustainable world that now wavers between loss and survival. It is an interrogation of our past and present relationship with ourselves, the animals, and our surroundings.
7. “Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Rich with mystery and secrets, groundbreaking author David Heska Wanbli Weiden weaves an addicting narrative about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx.
Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop. The team follows a lead to Denver and makes the harrowing discovery that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. Back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power, adding to the web of deceit and danger. As Virgil starts to link the pieces, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.
“Winter Counts” is a tour de force of crime fiction that poses a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life.
8. “Trickster Riots” by Taté Walker
With a poetic narrative that is at once flamboyant and breathtaking, Two Spirit Lakota storyteller Taté Walker spins a tale of nature, spirits, and history in their poetry collection “Trickster Riots.”
In this debut poetry collection, Walker steps into the role of a contemporary trickster to continue the purposefully disruptive legacy of a cultural icon: Iktómi, the Spider. Walker's provocative wordplay channels Iktómi with sometimes inharmonious examinations of indigeneity. The poems weaponize the English language against colonial normativity and navigate the responsibilities of an urban Two Spirit writer carrying and empowering the next generations.
9. “My Heart Is A Chainsaw” by Stephen Graham Jones
Deemed as the Jordan Peele of horror literature, Stephen Graham Jones tells a chilling and nightmare fueled story that transcends genres in the horror novel “My Heart Is A Chainsaw”.
Jade Daniels is an angry, half-Indian outcast with an abusive father, an absent mother, and an entire town that wants nothing to do with her. She finds comfort in horror movies, feeling a sense of understanding for the masked killers who sought revenge. But when blood starts to spill into the waters of Indian Lake, she pulls us into her dizzying, encyclopedic mind of blood and masked murderers, and takes us on the murder mystery with her. Yet, even as Jade drags us into her dark fever dream, a surprising and intimate portrait emerges — the portrait of the scared and traumatized little girl beneath the mask, a girl whose feelings are too big for her body. “My Heart Is A Chainsaw” is her story, her homage to horror and revenge and triumph.
On the surface is a story of murder in small-town America. But beneath is its beating heart: a biting critique of American colonialism, Indigenous displacement, and gentrification, and a heartbreaking picture of a broken young girl who uses horror movies to cope with the horror of her own life.
10. “Night of the Living Rez” by Morgan Talty
The groundbreaking voice of Morgan Talty rings true through this short story collection, which follows 12 tales that explore the complexities of modern Indigeneity.
In a dozen striking, luminescent stories, Talty — with searing humor, abiding compassion, and deep insight — breathes life into tales of family and a community as they struggle with a painful past and an uncertain future. A boy unearths a jar that holds an old curse, which sets into motion his family’s unraveling; a man, while trying to swindle some pot from a dealer, discovers a friend passed out in the woods, his hair frozen into the snow; a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s projects the past onto her grandson; and two friends, inspired by Antiques Roadshow, attempt to rob the tribal museum for valuable root clubs. Set in a Native community in Maine, “Night of the Living Rez” is a riveting debut collection about what it means to be Penobscot in the 21st century and what it means to live, to survive, and to persevere after tragedy.
A collection that examines the consequences and merits of inheritance, “Night of the Living Rez” is an unforgettable portrayal of an Indigenous community and marks the arrival of a standout talent in contemporary fiction.
11. “Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual” by David Treuer
Author David Treuer creates an entirely new approach to reading, understanding, and enjoying Native American fiction in the anthology “Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual”.
Rather than create a comprehensive cultural and historical genealogy for Native American literature, Treuer investigates a selection of the most important Native American novels and, with a novelist's eye and a critic's mind, examines the intricate process of understanding literature on its own terms. “Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual” is a speculative, witty, and engaging read written for the inquisitive reader. These essays — on Native voices such as Sherman Alexie, Forrest Carter, James Fenimore Cooper, Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and James Welch — are rallying cries for the need to read literature as literature and, ultimately, reassert the importance and primacy of the word.
12. “The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature” edited by Esther G. Belin (Editor), Jeff Berglund (Editor), Connie A. Jacobs (Editor), Anthony K. Webster (Editor), Jennifer Nez Denetdale (Contribution), Sherwin Bitsui (Contribution), Michael Thompson (Contribution)
“The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature” is an unprecedented showcase of breadth, depth, and diversity of Diné creative artists and their poetry, fiction, and nonfiction prose. This wide-ranging anthology brings together writers who offer perspectives that span generations and offer unique insight on life and Diné history. The collected works display a rich variety of creativity in themes: home and history; contemporary concerns about identity, historical trauma, loss of language, and economic and environmental inequalities.
This volume combines an array of literature and provides illuminating accompanying interviews, biographies, and photographs of the featured Diné writers and artists. A valuable resource to educators, literature enthusiasts, and beyond, this anthology is a much-needed capsule of Diné writers and their compelling work. The volume also includes a chronology of important dates in Diné history by Jennifer Nez Denetdale, as well as resources for teachers, students, and general readers by Michael Thompson. “The Diné Reader: An Anthology of Navajo Literature” is an exciting convergence of Navajo writers and artists with scholars and educators.
13. “A Calm & Normal Heart” by Chelsea T. Hicks
From Oklahoma to California, the heroes of “A Calm & Normal Heart” are modern-day adventurers — seeking out new places to call their own inside a nation to which they do not entirely belong. A member of the Osage tribe, author Chelsea T. Hicks’ stories are compelled by an overlooked diaspora happening inside America itself: that of young Native people.
In stories like “Superdrunk,” “Tsexope,” and “Wets’a,” digital lifestyles co-mingle with ancestral connections, strengthening relationships or pushing people apart, while generational trauma haunts individual paths. Broken partnerships and polyamorous desire signal a fraught era of modern love, even as old ways continue to influence how people assess compatibility. And in “By Alcatraz,” a Native student finds herself alone on campus over Thanksgiving break, seeking out new friendships during a national holiday she does not recognize. Leaping back in time, “A Fresh Start Ruined” follows the life of Florence, an Osage woman attempting to hide her origins while social climbing in midcentury Oklahoma. And in “House of RGB,” a young professional settles into a new home, intent on claiming her independence after a breakup, even if her ancestors can’t seem to get out of her way.
Whether in between college semesters or jobs, on the road to tribal dances or escaping troubled homes, the characters of “A Calm & Normal Heart” occupy a complicated and often unreliable terrain. Chelsea T. Hicks brings sharp humor, sprawling imagination, and a profound connection to the Native experience in a collection that will subvert long-held assumptions for many readers, and inspire hope along the way.
14. “Humming Bird Heart” by Kinsale Drake
Kinsale Drake, a Diné poet, performer, and junior at Yale University studying the intersections of cultural (re)vitalization movements, Indigenous poetics, and Indigenous feminisms, has created a media-bending zine that expertly inverts the normative lens through which Native voices are consumed. The 2021 zine explores alienation, desire, loneliness, queerness, and other "ness"es through the Native eyes. Kinsale Drake is an important voice, using whimsical stories and beautiful prose to bring their narrative to life.
15. “The Marrow Thieves” by Cherie Dimaline
Inspired with the work she did with Indigenous children, Dimaline set out to write a novel in which those youth could envision themselves as protagonists, as people with a future. From that goal comes a riveting story of dystopian worlds and perseverance through adversity.
Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks. The Indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. In this dark world, Frenchie and his companions struggle to survive as they make their way up North to the old lands. For now, survival means staying hidden — but what they don't know is that one of them holds the secret to defeating the marrow thieves.
We would like to thank Stacie Denetsosie-Mitchell for her incredible recommendations. You can learn more about Stacie and her work through her social media. Did you try one of these books? Give us a review on our Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.
Photography courtesy of vendors