(Kelly Bilz is a Local History Associate in Boone County Public Library’s Local History Department.)
November, in addition to Election Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving, also celebrates Native American Heritage Month (or: American Indian Heritage Month). To get in the spirit, here are five Native American authors to read next:
1.Leslie Marmon Silko
“You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories,” Leslie Marmon Silko wrote in Ceremony, perhaps her most famous book, in 1977. Ceremony follows a half-Native American, half-white World War II veteran who returns to his Native roots to adjust to civilian life. Silko emphasizes the importance of preserving Native American cultures and their stories in the modern age. She is also a poet, with her collection Laguna Woman, and a memoirist, with The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir.
Maybe you or your child have read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for school (or Banned Books Week!). Maybe you’ve already seen the movie based on one of his short stories, Smoke Signals. Maybe you’ve never heard of either! Regardless, Sherman Alexie’s novels, short stories, and poetry have won the hearts of readers everywhere, and his short story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World, is a great gateway into Native American literature.
Also among the most prominent Native American writers is novelist Louise Erdrich. Her books have had wide critical acclaim: Erdrich’s 2016 novel, LaRose, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2009. Readers who enjoy overlapping storylines from the past and present will enjoy Erdrich’s work!
Momaday’s House Made of Dawn is another book that follows a Native American WWII veteran. A winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize, N. Scott Momaday’s book is credited with helping Native American literature break into the mainstream. It was inspired by events and people in Momaday’s own life, which you can also read about in his memoir, The Names.
It might seem odd to include an author whose debut novel was released just this year, but Tommy Orange’s There There has already gained critical attention. There There was shortlisted for the 2019 Carnegie Medal in Fiction, and it was called “an astonishing literary debut” by none other than Margaret Atwood! Orange doesn’t pull any punches about the struggles Native Americans have faced historically (in fact, you might want to read it after Thanksgiving), but he has a distinctly modern voice as his characters explore their different identities.
BONUS: John Tanner (Okay, I’m cheating with this one–but I work in Local History! How could I resist?)
Historically, Boone County hasn’t hosted the best interactions between white colonizers and indigenous peoples, and John Tanner Jr. is an example. John Tanner Jr., whose father is the first known settler of Boone County, was kidnapped at age 9 by Shawnee and sold to the Ojibwa tribes. Tanner was raised, for the most part, as a Native American, and he wrote his experiences in Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner, also published as The Falcon (with an introduction by #2 on this list, Louise Erdrich, who is Ojibwe herself!). Although he later reunited with his original family, Tanner ultimately was not accepted by either his Native or white companions.
These are just a few Native American authors to get you started, but there are so many more out there. If you want to know more about Native American veterans, who inspired two of the authors on this list, check out the Patriot Nations exhibit at the Main Library, on display until November 30!
Kelly Bilz is a Local History Associate in Boone County Public Library’s Local History Department.