What is “Urban Indian Literature,” Anyway?

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Anne Mai Yee Jansen


Anne Mai Yee Jansen is a literature and ethnic studies professor and a lifelong story addict. She exists on a steady diet of books and hot chocolate, with a heaping side of travel whenever possible. Originally hailing from the sun and sandstone of southern California, she currently resides with her partner, offspring, and feline companion in the sleepy mountains of western North Carolina.

Urban Indian literature: if you don’t know what it is, you’re missing out. If you do, here’s some background for you (and a couple of recommendations, too).

What is it?

Simply, urban Indian literature is literature by Native American writers set in an urban setting. Put another way, it’s literature by Native American writers that isn’t set on a reservation.

As an important note, the label “urban Indian literature” is a critical term coming out of Native American literary studies. However, the word “Indian” on its own as a descriptor for Native North Americans is steeped in violent and racist histories. So while this is a critical term used to describe a large body of literature, the word “Indian” remains one that, generally speaking, should really only be employed by Indigenous peoples.

Why does it exist?

That might seem like a strange distinction to make. For instance, there isn’t really a corresponding body of literature referred to as “urban Asian American literature” or “urban Black literature.” So why does this distinction exist where Native American literature is concerned?

Because: stereotypes.

As many Indigenous writers and scholars have discussed, there is a pervasive idea of what American Indians look like in the national imaginary. It’s a stuck-in-time image that usually involves buckskins and feathers and some sort of weapon (men) or sexual availability (women). Several years ago, Indigenous sketch comedy group The 1491s used satire to criticize this insidious image (and the attendant issue of cultural appropriation) in their comedic music video “I’m an Indian, Too.”

An important book that delves into the historical (mis)uses of stereotypical images about Native Americans is Philip J. Deloria’s Playing Indian. Deloria looks at the ways white Americans have employed their own concept of Native Americans in pursuit of developing U.S. American national identity. He touches on everything from the Boston Tea Party to the Cold War, looking at the ways white American national identity has been constructed through and against its own perception of Native American identity.

With a stronger focus on contemporary life, in The Truth About Stories Thomas King shares his personal experiences with trying to make himself fit into the slightly more updated version of the stereotype (involving braided hair and bone chokers). It was a painful learning experience for him, and one that forced him to negotiate his own identity as a Cherokee and Greek man.

Similarly, in Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., Paul Chaat Smith contends with the flatness of popular images of American Indians in art and film. In the process, he also shares some of the impactful work contemporary Native American artists are doing.

Why should I read it?

The simple answer to this question is that there’s a lot of great work being written that falls into the broad category of “urban Indian literature.” But, of course, there’ s a more complicated answer to this question, too.

Laura Furlan’s scholarly monograph Indigenous Cities: Urban Indian Fictions and the Histories of Relocation advances the perspective that depictions of Native Americans and the urban experience are crucial for understanding Indigenous peoples in the U.S. today. She points out the problems with the reservation as the dominant space in defining Native Americans in literature (and beyond), especially given that the majority of Native peoples in the U.S. do not live on reservations. She also traces the histories of major metropolitan spaces in the U.S., reminding readers that these spaces are both situated on historically Native lands and also grew out of existing Indigenous centers of commerce and culture.

With those ideas in mind, urban Indian literature is an important body of work that updates images of Indigenous peoples in the popular imaginary even as it redefines urban experiences in terms of resistance.

Some “Urban Indian Literature” To Get You Started

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich book cover

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is prolific. Where to start? Well, I might as well start with her most recent release, The Sentence. It’s set in Minneapolis — in an indie bookstore, of all places! The store is being haunted by its most annoying customer, Flora. It takes place over the course of one year as Tookie, a bookseller recently released after years of incarceration, tries to figure out the cause of Flora’s haunting. Like all of Erdrich’s work, it’s a beautifully written novel that raises interesting questions.

There There by Tommy Orange book cover

There There by Tommy Orange

Hailed as one of a handful of books signaling a “New” Native American literary renaissance (building on ideas of a Native American renaissance in the 1970s and 1980s), There There is a fast-paced novel set in present-day Oakland, California. It follows a large cast of characters in the days leading up to the Big Oakland Powwow. They run the gamut in terms of age and how they engage with their own indigeneity. The intro on its own is a sort of statement on urban indigeneity, and the rest of the book is a compelling story that will leave you thinking deeply about what you just read.

The Removed by Brandon Hobson book cover

The Removed by Brandon Hobson

This is an interesting book for thinking about urban Indian literature because it’s set in both urban and rural spaces. The Echota family was shattered when 15-year-old Ray-Ray was shot and killed by police. They have come together as a family every year for a bonfire that celebrates the Cherokee National Holiday and marks Ray-Ray’s murder. The novel tracks each member of the family in the weeks leading up to this important annual event as each of them dangles on their own precipice — of memory loss, drug use, or damaging relationships. It’s a darkly thoughtful exploration of contemporary indigeneity.

Suggestions for Further Reading

If you want more Native American literature that breaks from tired tropes, check out this post on “Contemporary Native Literature: Looking Beyond the ‘Indian du jour.'” Another way to look beyond the ordinary could be to read some of the suggestions on the list “9 of the Best Books by Native Alaskans and Hawaiians.” Whatever you decide to read, consider supporting Indigenous booksellers. You can support a local business if there’s one near you, or order from one of the businesses featured in the post Indigenous Owned Bookstores You Need to Visit.