In the U.S., today marks Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and National Native American Heritage Month is just around the corner. At the same time, the mainstream is finally starting to pay attention to the disproportionate impact of violence on Native women, girls, and two spirit people. With these dates and the #MMIWG2 movement in mind, there’s no time like the present to pick up a book (or 20) by some of the amazing Indigenous women writers on the scene today. These women are creating art that has far-reaching implications for everyone, Native or otherwise. Whether they’re writing about gendered issues, settler colonialism, the environment, or mental health, their works offer important insights into contemporary Indigeneity. Also, they’re frankly amazing. So in the spirit of decolonizing your bookshelves, here are ten contemporary books by Native North American women writers for you to check out.
An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo
Where better to start than with Mvskoke (Creek) writer, musician, and activist Joy Harjo? She’s the 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate and the first ever Native American to hold that title. Her latest collection, An American Sunrise, was published last fall. It’s a moving personal and political reckoning of settler colonialism in the United States. And yet, the collection is full of music, infused by the jazzy quality of Harjo’s poetry. In a nutshell, this book is an ambitious and fierce meditation on place and nation.
Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle is the first enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to publish a novel. Even As We Breathe is a historical novel that tells the story of a young Cherokee man who leaves home to work at a resort hotel in the Blue Ridge Mountains during WWII. Unfortunately, shortly after his arrival he finds himself entangled in a fight to prove his innocence for a crime he didn’t commit. Not only does Clapsaddle tell a darn good story, but she does so in a way that feels conversational and intimate. Needless to say, it’s an immensely engaging read.
A History of Kindness by Linda Hogan
Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan has been publishing since the late 1970s. Although she’s primarily a poet, Hogan has also written essays, novels, and a memoir. Her latest poetry collection, A History of Kindness, was released this June and centers the global environmental crisis of the contemporary moment. There’s something calm and steadying about Hogan’s poetry. In other words, her writing is accessible and complex all at once. With that in mind, if you prefer prose, try her novel People of the Whale. It’s a captivating story of trauma, war, and survival. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with anything Hogan’s written.
Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir by Deborah Miranda
Deborah Miranda’s (Chumash/Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen) mixed-genre book Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir takes on colonial histories in California. Miranda locates Native women’s voices in the archives, exhuming them from anthropological documents and newspapers so their words can accompany hers in this robust rejection of dominant narratives of Native absence. The book includes poems, photographs, and other archival documents. At times playful, at other times tender, Bad Indians is a powerful read.
Whereas by Layli Long Soldier
Whereas, the first collection by Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier, is a brilliant and thought-provoking work that takes on legislative legacies governing Native Americans. The book takes its title from the language of treaties and other government proclamations. As such, Long Soldier deconstructs language and policy alike, turning them inside out in this formally innovative and critically important book. This one will give your brain a workout—and it’s totally worth it!
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Mojave poet Natalie Diaz made a big splash with her first poetry collection in 2012. She published her second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, earlier this year. Intense and poignant, Diaz’s collection overwrites narratives of erasure in powerful ways. She incorporates everything from statistics to hip hop lyrics into her poetry. Consequently, her style is easy to connect with even as she wrestles with everything from the personal to the political.
Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot
Terese Marie Mailhot’s (Seabird Island First Nation) memoir, Heart Berries, attracted a lot of attention two years ago. In fact, critics lauded it as not only a blazingly raw depiction of mental health issues, but also one book in a movement that signaled the beginning of a New Native American Renaissance. Deeply personal, Heart Berries is rendered with a sense of urgency. Mailhot’s essays explore her early years alongside her adult struggles with PTSD and bipolar disorder. This book might break your heart a little bit, but you’ll feel stronger because of it.
Savage Conversations by LeAnne Howe
Choctaw writer and scholar LeAnne Howe has published poetry, novels, stories, essays, and scholarship. Her most recent work, Savage Conversations, is a fascinating play that brings together two historical events: Mary Todd Lincoln’s 1875 institutionalization and Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 order that resulted in the largest mass execution in the U.S. In this slim volume, Mary Todd Lincoln experiences a recurring haunting that forces readers to face the skeletons in the U.S.’s closet.
This Accident of Being Lost: Songs and Stories by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
First Nations (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) writer, artist, and scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson writes groundbreaking and thought-provoking works. Her second short story collection, This Accident of Being Lost, is my personal favorite. Both beautiful and unconventional, this book doesn’t pull any punches. Indeed, it’s sharp where both wit and commentary are concerned. As a result, it’ll leave you with a lot to think about. Incidentally, Simpson released her latest book, Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies, in September.
Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline
Métis writer and activist Cherie Dimaline has a new book, Empire of Wild, that I’d loosely characterize as part monster story and part myth. It’s about love and loss and fighting for what’s yours. This book is a wild ride, that’s for sure! Of course, I’m a huge sci-fi fan so I also have to mention her 2017 book The Marrow Thieves, a chilling YA dystopia in which most humans have lost their ability to dream but find a “cure” in the marrow of Indigenous peoples’ bones. Whichever book you pick up, Dimaline doesn’t disappoint.