The 20 Essential American Indian Novels

The indigenous tribes of North America must watch their ancient traditions slowly burn out thanks to the juggernaut of European influence. One of the many ways these unfairly marginalized demographics educate the world on the horrors of colonialism is, of course, through literature. Because Native American cultures vary widely from tribe to tribe and region to region, the following books involve a diverse selection of perspectives, traditions and histories. Use them as a beginner’s guide to some of the best examples out there and start exploring the amazing works existing well beyond this list.

  1. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko: After returning from World War II, protagonist Tayo grapples with crippling post-traumatic stress disorder and his bi-racial heritage. Both roadblocks inspire an existential crisis in the veteran, who also finds the Pueblo and white communities rejecting him during his time of great emotional need. Tayo alternates between finding solace in spirituality and substance abuse before finally coming to terms with his rough life.
  2. Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie: Music buffs will find one of Sherman Alexie’s most celebrated masterpieces particularly relevant to their interests, as it chronicles the all-too-familiar ascent and collapse of a blues band, Coyote Springs. Every member hails from the Spokane Reservation in Washington and channels his or her frustration with marginalization — and more universal struggles — into the music. But infighting and addiction pick away at their success until everything they worked so hard for begins to unravel.
  3. House Made of Dawn by M. Scott Momaday: This Pulitzer winner continues to stand as one of the greatest works of Native American literature, oftentimes cited for its sociological, cultural and anthropological significance. Many oft-overlooked corners of reservation life come pushed to the forefront here — both the good and the bad — and historians praise its detailed, accurate depiction of peyote. Some of the novel’s events were inspired by an actual incident where a Native American murdered a New Mexico state trooper, sending surges of shock throughout the reservation and state alike.
  4. The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich: Lauded Anishinaabe author and cornerstone of the Native American Renaissance Louise Erdrich earned a Pulitzer nomination for The Plague of Doves in 2009. Set in North Dakota, it spans multiple generations of the same family, with a murder and false accusations kicking off the intensity. Three Native American men suffer lynchings in retaliation despite their innocence, though one escapes. His successors — and those of his two deceased companions — phase in and out of the lives of the families responsible for the heinous torture and lies.
  5. Fools Crow by James Welch: This rightfully decorated novel comes to a head with the very real Marias Massacre, chronicling how the encroach of American settlers destroyed the indigenous way of life. Young Blackfoot man Fools Crow comes of age at one of the most turbulent eras in his tribe’s history. As the bodies hit the floor, he must pull from parts of himself he never knew about and display leadership skills he never thought possible — all in the interest of survival.
  6. La Maravilla by Alfredo Vea, Jr: In the Chicano classic La Maravilla, protagonist Beto lives in two worlds — one of Native American spirituality, the other in Spanish Catholic mysticism. On Buckeye Road, members of marginalized religious, ethnic and sexual orientation/identification demographics converge and find both solace and gulfs. Their differing philosophies on faith add texture to this absolutely amazing, underrated and provocative novel about lives forced outside the mainstream for arbitrary reasons.
  7. The Heirs of Columbus by Gerald Vizenor: Gerald Vizenor commemorated the 500th anniversary of Cristoforo Colombo by re-imagining the Italian explorer as a half-Mayan, half-Sephardic Jew hoping to return to his American homeland. In the future, his descendants hope to do the same with what remains of the mostly-decayed body. Anyone wanting to read up on Native American perspectives through an irreverent, satirical eye will find this an engaging entry on their “to-read” list.
  8. Tideland by Mitch Cullin: Narrator Jeliza-Rose ekes away her summer with Barbie doll heads inside an abandoned Texas farmhouse. Over time, she wanders into the grounds’ generous grass fields and loses herself to dreamlike adventures. This is Mitch Cullin’s third entry into the Texas Trilogy, preceded by Wompyjawed and Branches.
  9. Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King: Nobody is spared Thomas King’s hilarious and completely satirical pen, most especially “Western” politicians and those adhering to Judeo-Christian credos. He infuses traditional Blackfoot spirituality with the terrestrial tale of four tribal elders interred in a mental institution whose lives intersect with women from its religious tradition. Their quartet of personal stories eventually culminate in a climactic Blackfoot Sun Dance.
  10. Ravensong: A Novel by Lee Maracle: Take a glimpse at the reality of a Native American tribe in the Pacific Northwest shortly after World War II. A flu epidemic and rapid influx of white settlers both threaten its already tenuous cohesion, and 17-year-old Stacey finds herself stuck right in the middle. Lee Maracle’s status as a respected sociologist and feminist certainly played a major role in shaping her compelling narrative.
  11. From the River’s Edge by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn: At the center of this novel lay the broad theme of tensions between Native Americans and European settlers in South Dakota. The story itself involves a cattle rustling and stealing trial, which Sioux members initially win before finding themselves inside the courthouse yet again. Once families begin testifying against each other, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s main character John Tatekeya sadly notes how far his tribe has fallen thanks to colonialism.
  12. Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson: Inspired by the horrifying true story of the Ponca tribe fighting for its Nebraska homelands, Helen Hunt Jackson crafted a tragic romance around a similar thematic struggle. The eponymous heroine, a half-Native American, half-Scot, renounces her European heritage for her marginalized love. As a result, both find themselves chastised by the government and their peers and steal away in order to forge a more comfortable personal peace.
  13. Remnants of the First Earth by Ray Young Bear: Edgar Bearchild, Ray Young Bear’s literary avatar, navigates the perilous balance of ancient tradition with contemporary stresses. Starting in the 1950s, the protagonist has to overcome the challenges of the Black Eagle Child Settlement, including poverty and racism. As he grows older, the truth of living in a marginalized community begins seeping into his consciousness — along with the emotional loads of love and death.
  14. Last Standing Woman by Winona LaDuke: Native American politician, activist and writer Winona LaDuke pulled from her Anishinaabe heritage to deliver a profound, detailed look at the tribe’s history. Last Standing Woman covers seven generations, beginning with the first Caucasian contact in the 1860s. As the narrative unfolds, she offers up solace and solidarity to others experiencing isolation and the loss of traditional ways of life thanks to colonialism’s ravages.
  15. Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan: Two Osage families living in Oklahoma ignite in a violent uproar thanks to the discovery of oil — lots and lots of the goopy stuff, too. Politics and conspiracies abound after one of the Native American landowners is found murdered, resulting in an increasingly complex maze of deception and destruction. Justice only comes through the most impersonal, arbitrary conduits possible, with many youth defecting from the tribe for want of a more “Western” lifestyle.
  16. The Story Catcher by Mari Sandoz: This bildungsroman sees a Sioux boy grow beneath a banner of war, hunting, medicine and plenty more. Captivated, he eventually earns the name Story Catcher for his painstaking passion in chronicling as many moments of his tribe’s history as he can. Which, of course, challenges him to emotionally grow as he learns about great tragedy and heartfelt triumph.
  17. The Grass Dancer by Susan Power: More than a century of Dakota Sioux history springs to vivid life through some of literature’s most stunning examples of magic realism done right. 17-year-old protagonist Harley Wind Soldier finds his world turned awry when his family’s unavoidably real history insinuates itself to the forefront of his life. Other actual events and components of Native American spiritual traditions weave in and out of the narrative as well.
  18. The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta by John Rollin Ridge: One of the earliest examples of Native American literature focuses on a Mexican protagonist, whom many historians believe to also be Cherokee. Joaquin Murieta attained infamy during the California Gold Rush as something of a Robin Hood figure, with some considering him a hero and others a criminal. Here, he rebels against a society perpetually closed to the nonwhite and rebels in ways both subtle and major.
  19. Sundown by John Joseph Mathews: This semi-autobiographical novel involves a young Osage man returning home from both university and military service. After such experiences, Challenge Windzer discovers a newfound isolation from his family and friends. And once the Oklahoma oil boom hits tribal lands, everything begins slipping from his weakening grip.
  20. The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong by Stephen Graham Jones: Even in these supposedly “enlightened” times, myths and misconceptions about Native American tribes still swirl throughout pop culture. Stephen Graham Jones proudly picks up his pen and shoots them all down. His debut novel comes tinged with familiar tropes of the western genre and packs it full of familiar themes of forced living outside the mainstream.