One of the best parts about making this list of must-read First Nations and Native American authors is that I could have just as easily picked ten entirely different authors to highlight. Contemporary Indigenous literature in North America is currently overflowing with stories of all kinds. Whether you’re into memoir, history, lighthearted YA, fantasy, sci-fi, poetry, family dramas, horror — well, you get the idea. There’s far more Indigenous lit and far more Native American authors than I could ever cover in just one list.
I’ve limited this list to living Native American authors, and I’ve focused on authors with deep backlists. I have included some Indigenous Canadian writers as well. The United States is just one part of North America, and there are so many brilliant Indigenous authors from all over the continent, writing across so many different genres! These ten are just a few of the many must-read Native American authors working today, including some of my personal favorite authors, whose work continues to move me and delight me in new ways every time I return to it. I hope that it will serve as a starting place for those new to Indigenous lit, and perhaps remind those who already know and love these authors that many of them have extensive back catalogues just waiting to be discovered!
No list of Native American authors would be complete without powerhouse writer Louise Erdrich, whose dozens of books have won numerous awards. It’s hard to pick what she’s best known for! Her Love Medicine series, which includes eight books published between 1984 and 2005, is a collection of novels about a group of interconnected characters living in Ojibwe communities in Minnesota. Her children’s series The Birchbark House is a gorgeous historical novel about an Ojibwa girl in the mid-1800s. If you’re new to Erdrich, you can’t go wrong with any of her books, but my recommendation is to start with her newest, The Sentence. It’s set in Minneapolis in 2020, and while it deals with the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder, it’s both hopeful and moving. Plus, Erdrich herself, and her bookstore Birchbark Books, appear in the novel!
Stephen Graham Jones
Another powerhouse of a writer, Stephen Graham Jones is without question one of the best and most prolific horror writers working day. Though his books mostly fall under the horror umbrella, they cover a whole slew of sub-genres, from slashers and family dramas to ghost stories and other supernatural horror. Much of his work plays with horror tropes, and he blends terrifying plots and creepy monsters with social commentary and rich character development. It’s impossible to pick just one go-to book, but I’d recommend starting with The Only Good Indians, which follows four Indigenous men whose past comes back to haunt them in unexpected ways.
Joy Harjo was the first Native American author to become United States Poet Laureate. She’s written over a dozen collections of poetry, as well as several books of memoir and nonfiction, two children’s books, and a play. She’s also a musician, and has released several albums that feature both her own original songs and those of other Native musicians. In other words: she’s a brilliant and prolific writer, and if you’ve yet to discover her work, you’re in for a treat! For fans of memoir who are interested in learning more about her life, Crazy Brave and Poet Warrior are both great entry points. If you’re looking for poetry, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings is a beautiful introduction to her work.
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Cynthia Leitich Smith is an author of YA, middle grade, and children’s books that center contemporary Native teenagers. She’s also an advocate of Indigenous literature, and curates an incredible selection of resources on her website. Her 2018 YA novel Hearts Unbroken will give readers a taste of her style (though she definitely writes across genres). It’s about a Native teenager wading through the murky waters of first love while also dealing with the racism she faces from her white peers.
Ojibwe author David Treuer is best known in the book world for his comprehensive history of Native America, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Through an in-depth exploration of Native history in the late 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, he refutes the harmful stereotype that Native American history is ancient history. It’s a challenging and thought-provoking book about essential American history that is too often overlooked. But it’s not the only thing Treuer has written! He’s also the author of several novels and memoirs, including Rez Life (a memoir/social history of reservation life) and Prudence (a historical novel set during WWII).
Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko is certainly one of the most well-known Native American authors working today. She was one of the debut recipients of a MacArthur grant and has been contributing to and shaping Indigenous literature in America since the 1970s. Her debut, and arguably most famous novel, Ceremony, follows Tayo, a Native American man who returns to his reservation after WWII and finds both himself and the world he left changed forever. Silko uses a blend of poetry, prose, and white space to tell an unforgettable story. Like much of her work, it is nonlinear and expansive, the kind of book that requires some work to read — work that is absolutely worth it.
Marcie R. Rendon
Crime fiction fans: If Marcie R. Rendon isn’t on your radar yet, it’s time to change that! Her Cash Blackbear series is set in 1970s Minnesota, and it has everything that makes for a great mystery: a vivid setting, an irrepressible protagonist, and the perfect blend between action and atmosphere. Cash Blackbear is a 19-year old Ojibwe woman who plays hard, takes no nonsense, and happens to be really good at solving mysteries. Start with Murder on the Red River, but make sure you have the second installment, Girl Gone Missing, ready and waiting.
Joshua Whitehead may still be in the earlier stages of his career, but he already has incredible range. So far he’s published a book of poetry, a novel, an essay collection, and edited an anthology of Two-Spirit speculative fiction. He seems completely at ease in just about every genre, and there’s a vibrancy and immediacy that comes through in all of his work. His novel Jonny Appleseed is a funny, sad, and tender story about a queer Indigenous twenty-something navigating work, love, family, grief, friendship, and sex.
I fell in love with the work of Canadian author Cherie Dimaline after reading The Marrow Thieves, a young adult dystopia set in a future in which Indigenous people are hunted for the power that lives in their bone marrow — the ability to dream. It’s a bleak book at times, but the bleakness doesn’t define it; it’s also about found family and the power of storytelling. She’s also the author of several other adult and young adult fantasy and speculative novels, including the just-released VenCo, a highly entertaining romp about a coven of witches on a scavenger hunt across America.
Eden Robinson is a Canadian author from British Columbia with a particular talent for bringing places to life in her work. Monkey Beach, one of my favorite novels of all time, is set in a close-knit Haisla community in Robinson’s hometown of Kitamaat. It’s a coming-of-age novel about family, healing, ancestral traditions, ghosts, and the ocean. Her other most notable work is the Trickster trilogy, beginning with Son of a Trickster, a very different but equally wonderful coming-of-age story with the lightest touch of magic.
Looking for more books by Native American authors? Check out this list of 22 must-read Indigenous authors, these debut novels by Indigenous authors, these audiobooks with Indigenous narrators (and authors!) and these Indigenous poets you should know!