Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day with 10 Native Novels

While cities and states across the nation celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, why not pick up one of these outstanding books by an outstanding Native American author? The following ten titles are linked to their excerpted Booklist reviews. (A version of this post appeared on October 9, 2017.)


An American Café, by Sara Sue Hoklotubbe

Ready for a change from the banking career that proved hazardous, 36-year-old Sadie Walela, armed with recipes from her great-aunt Vera, buys a café in northeastern Oklahoma, Cherokee territory, from terminally ill Goldie Ray. But initial developments don’t bode well for Sadie. First, Goldie is murdered on her back porch. Then mentally unbalanced Pearl Mobley threatens Sadie with a shotgun. Sadie uncovers discrepancies in the local bank’s ledgers and works with an old friend, deputy Lance Smith, to uncover an embezzlement scheme and look for Goldie’s killer, an investigation that reveals long-held family secrets and long-buried hostilities.




Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, by Joy Harjo

The title of Harjo’s long-awaited new collection provokes such questions as Why would holy beings be in conflict?, which Harjo answers by suggesting we are the holy ones at odds because we have forgotten all that is holy about us. These poem-songs have a magical quality akin to incantation as they conjure up a collective remembering. Through them, Harjo seems to sing the holy back into the world, sing the world’s beauty and love back into being, sing praise for nature’s songs, sing self, history, and humanity into a form we can recognize and (hopefully) revere again.


The Dance Boots, by Linda LeGarde Grover

In linked stories, Grover portrays the inhabitants of an imaginary Ojibwe reservation north of Duluth, Minnesota. While Artense, the narrator, attends community college and goes on to graduate school, her aunt Shirley, who lives in Duluth, calls her every couple of weeks to tell her family stories, which Artense passes on to us. Shirley’s multigenerational tale involves Indian boarding schools, homesickness, and racism. Before Shirley dies, she gives Artense her suede beaded dancing boots. Grover’s collection, for which she won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, is simply mesmerizing.





The Heartsong of Charging Elk, by James Welch

Based loosely on historical events, Welch’s novel is the story of a Native American abandoned in France at the turn of the century. After years of fighting with the government, the Oglala Sioux have finally surrendered to the American government and begun to adjust to life on the reservation. Determined to remain free, Charging Elk chooses a solitary life in the wild, away from his tribe. His fierce independence attracts the attention of showman Buffalo Bill, and soon Charging Elk finds himself traveling through Europe with the Wild West Show. In Marseilles, the young Indian is injured and during his long convalescence, the show moves on, leaving him behind.


The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

A noteworthy literary achievement, Boyden’s mesmerizing third novel sits at the confluence of three civilizations in seventeenth-century Ontario. The narration alternates among Bird, a Wendat (Huron) warrior; Snow Falls, the young Iroquois captive he adopts after killing her family to avenge his wife and daughters; and Père Christophe, a thoughtfully intelligent, multilingual Jesuit missionary. In this deeply researched work, Boyden captures his characters’ disparate beliefs, remaining impartial even as they pass judgment on the customs they find simultaneously fascinating and repellent in the others.





People of the Whale, by Linda Hogan

“The ocean is a great being”; each whale is a planet, so much life does it sustain. These are truths Thomas and Ruth’s Northwest Pacific Coast tribe once held as self-evident. Sweethearts since childhood, they each inherited a working intimacy with the ocean, and their marriage is joyful until Thomas goes off to fight in Vietnam. Ruth is pregnant when he leaves, and when he doesn’t return, she devotes herself to their son, who possesses the old gift for communing with whales. Deeply ecological, original, and spellbinding, Hogan ascends to an even higher plane in this hauntingly beautiful novel of the hidden dimensions of life, and all that is now imperiled.


Perma Red, by Debra Magpie Earling

“When Louise White Elk was nine, Baptiste Yellow Knife blew a fine powder in her face and told her she would disappear.” So begins a love story of uncommon depth and power, a love story that is as painful as it is transcendent, a love story in which the lovers, like Birkin and Ursula in Lawrence’s Women in Love , are unwilling to diminish themselves in the act of joining together but are equally unable to turn away. Set in the years following World War II on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, Earling’s superb first novel throws two indomitable characters together in a tightly circumscribed world and gives them free rein to bang into the furniture and each other.



The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

In her intensely involving, National Book Award-winning fourteenth novel, Erdrich writes with brio in the voice of a man reliving the fateful summer of his thirteenth year. The son of a tribal judge, Bazil, and a tribal enrollment specialist, Geraldine, Joe Coutts is an attentively loved and lucky boy—until his mother is brutally beaten and raped. Erdrich’s profound intimacy with her characters electrifies this stunning and devastating tale of hate crimes and vengeance, her latest immersion in the Ojibwe and white community she has been writing about for more than two decades.


There There, by Tommy Orange

The at-first disconnected characters from whose perspectives Orange voices his symphonic debut are united by the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow. Some have been working on the event for months; some will sneak in with only good intentions, while others are plotting to steal the sizable cash prizes. Creative interludes from an omniscient narrator describe, for example, the names of First Nations people or what it means to be an Urban Indian: “We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”



The Turquoise Ledge, by Leslie Marmon Silko

The turquoise stones Silko finds in the Tucson Mountains near her home embody the story of the land and her own complex heritage. A MacArthur fellow, Silko drew on her Laguna Pueblo, Cherokee, Mexican, and European ancestry in her previous books. She digs even deeper in this richly veined, dramatic, and mysterious self-portrait, telling gripping stories of suffering and wisdom from each branch of her complex family tree that reveal the consequences of racism, the war against Native Americans, and the abuse of nature, including shocking glimpses into the Indian slave trade and the dire effects of the atomic bomb tests and uranium mining.






About the Author:

Eugenia Williamson is the former Associate Editor of Digital Products at Booklist.

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