Honoring the First Nations: Literature written by and about Native Americans

November, the month for many Americans which signifies the great celebratory day of Thanksgiving, has been designated the National Native American Heritage month since the early to mid-90s. Given the history of the United States and the history of the land upon which it calls it’s home, dedicating a month to the celebration of the cultures of the first people to live in this varied landscape is more than a whim, it’s our obligation. The tradition of Thanksgiving Day comes from a nearly mythological and often idealized perception of a shared feast between the first (British) settlers in the northeastern territories of the colonies of the United States and those native peoples who so harmoniously welcomed the colonists to partake of their land and their food. All cynicism aside, the idea of a welcoming shared meal has brought many American families close together since the tradition initiated. It is important that we not only take this day to be thankful for the people who make up our families and friends, but that we recognize the enormous sacrifice of civilization and culture that was forced upon those people who lived and worked the lands we claimed. This is all the more important given the events occurring now in Nebraska, where once again the history of a people and their culture is being ignored in the name of progress for someone with more power.

So, let’s take some time to appreciate the diverse offering of literature, both by and about the predecessors of the nation we built atop the bones of their own.

 

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Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko

A woman of mixed American blood, Silko grew up on both sides of the reservation fence. Her novel Ceremony explores the identity of a man both American Indian and Mexican, living in and searching for approval from a white government for whom he fought a war and to which he lost the guiding figures of his life. The novel deftly explores the disillusion and dissolution of a wavering sense of identity.


The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie

Another heavyweight in the modern literature of the Native American experience, Alexie uses imagery and prose poetry techniques to illustrate the lives of reservation born Americans struggling to align themselves with the greater world.


Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown

A classic exploration of the westward expansion of the early United States, this exhaustively researched document details the tragedies of violent loss of life, of history and of culture of the many nations of indigenous peoples of North America.


A Sorrow in Our Heart, the Life of Tecumseh, Allan W. Eckert

A Sorrow in Our Heart, the Life of Tecumseh, Allan W. Eckert

This tome explores the life of one of the strongest and most fascinating leaders of the many tribes of North America. Tecumseh, a Shawnee, worked to unite disparate peoples, wanting a stronger force of all indigenous regional groups to stand up against the tide of change represented by the European colonists. His intelligence and strength made him a great statesman and strategist.


Always Coming Home, Ursula LeGuin

Always Coming Home, Ursula LeGuin

In her fascinating novel of speculation, LeGuin imagines a people in a future California hauntingly similar to the cultures of pre-Hispanic, pre-colonial times. The novel is an anthropological study of oral histories, songs, recipes and tales of a people that may yet exist (or may have already).


Scott O'Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins

Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins

Anyone who grew up in Southern California may have had this popular title on their “book report” reading lists. The story of a girl from the island of San Nicolas, the most remote of all the islands in the channel, Island of the Blue Dolphins is a classic tale of life in indigenous California.


Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife

Louise Erdrich, The Antelope Wife

Another classic in the field of Native American Literature, Erdrich’s novel The Antelope Wife explores in rich, haunting language the way that cultural history resonates through our modern lives.


Tom Spanbauer, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon

Tom Spanbauer, The Man Who Fell in Love With the Moon

An unconventional tale of the marriage of cultures and the way we relate to our environments and selves, Spanbauer’s novel tells its story through the eyes of a Native American boy searching for his place in a sometimes violently changing world.

 

 

Michael Barnett is a writer and editor with associative ties to Alibris as strong as heartstrings.

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