20 Best Books by Native American Authors to Read Right Now
This diverse array of compelling reads will stick with you long after you've put the books back on your shelf.
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If you’re an avid reader, it’s easy to get lost in the lists of best books of all time, books by Black authors, books by Latinx authors, and even books about race relations in America. But you’d be missing out if you neglected to focus on the rich cultural history and perspective of a literary collection that has been historically ignored or even silenced: Native American books.
Of course, the terms “Native American authors” or “Native American literature” can be a bit too simplistic. Native Americans are not a monolith. With more than 500 recognized Indian Nations in the United States, it’s important to remember that one Native experience or tradition doesn’t always look like the other. But by reading Native American books, you can better understand the stories of those who have too often been erased from American history and literary tradition.
To save you time, we’ve gathered 20 of the best Native American books from a variety of authors and locations. From modern memoirs to historical nonfiction accounts, these titles have all earned the attention and accolades of readers and critics alike. Some titles came from a list of the most highly rated Native American–authored books on Goodreads. Others landed on the list because they’re classics or contributed to the way readers understand Native American heritage. And then there are a few fun fictional page-turners to round it out.
1. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
The Night Watchman is based on the life of the author’s grandfather, who made his living as a night watchman while fighting fervently for Native American rights to land and identity. The 2020 novel snagged Louise Erdrich the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, along with a shower of critical acclaim from the New York Times, Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, and more. With beautiful prose and themes of love, death, and cultural identity, this book is a notable pick for readers everywhere.
2. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer
Long-listed for the 2020 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, this history of Native American life takes readers on a journey from the tragic 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee to the present day. Published in 2019, this counternarrative to European settler-centric histories offers a glimpse of how several Native American tribes have dealt with the unfolding of modern politics, current events, and scandals like the forced assimilation of Native American children into government-run boarding schools. Though the reporting and personal stories can be troubling to read, this nonfiction book is important for its representation and amplification of Native American authors’ voices.
3. Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
Also one of the best teen books of all time, Firekeeper’s Daughter was Angeline Boulley’s firecracker 2021 debut. The book has been so wildly popular that an accompanying Netflix series is already in the works. The book dives deep into themes of identity, addiction, and loyalty. Heroine Daunis Fontaine is an unenrolled tribal member who lives just outside the Ojibwe reservation. But after witnessing a murder, she must plunge headfirst into the community to uncover the real story of what happened. Readers of all backgrounds will learn more about Native American culture as they race toward a startling revelation with Daunis.
4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
Darcie Little Badger’s delightfully hair-raising 2020 novel immerses readers in a world of myth and monster, ghosts, and spells. But running parallel to the supernatural is Elatsoe, a Lipan Apache teen who must also attend school and keep her family’s secrets. After a tragic death, Elatsoe and her family travel to the deeply remote town of Willowbee to comfort loved ones, find the truth, and—just maybe—commune with the dead. With themes of family and justice, this is a fantastic children’s book about diversity and a must-read for teens and adults alike.
5. Poet Warrior: A Memoir by Joy Harjo
In this 2021 masterpiece, Joy Harjo, the first Native American designated as U.S. poet laureate, presents a glimpse of her own “poet-warrior” journey. This stunning memoir is as lyrical as Harjo’s poetry. In the book, she wades deep into the heartache of losing her mother. But she also uplifts with detailed celebrations of her influences—as varied as Walt Whitman and Navajo horse songs. Whether you’re a fan of poetry or memoir, this is one of the Native American books that definitely belong on your shelf.
6. Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Winter Counts is David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut novel. First published in the tumultuous summer of 2020, the thriller crackles with themes of inequality, drug abuse, and the criminal justice system. The unflinching story follows Virgil Wounded Horse, a vigilante defender on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. When a flood of heroin supplies reaches his family, he decides that enough is enough. The resulting hunt for the responsible drug cartels leads him to question his community and identity.
7. There There by Tommy Orange
This 2018 National Book Award nominee was written by an accomplished member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. The book is one of those tapestry-like stories of multiple characters (in this case 12) who finally converge in one place. Readers will come to intimately know these dozen heroes and heroines—and the beauty and pain of their stories—as they gather for the Big Oakland Powwow. As Goodreads reviewer Emily May wrote, “There There is much-needed and important, but I kind of hate saying that. There seems to be some underlying implication in those words that the book has been hyped due to its sociopolitical importance, and that’s just not the case.” Love hearing other readers’ opinions on the books you’re reading? Join one of these great online book clubs.
8. The Seed Keeper by Diane Wilson
If you love sinking your teeth into meaty historical fiction that spans several generations, characters, and themes of identity and history, Diane Wilson’s 2021 tome is for you. Kirkus Reviews called it “a thoughtful, moving meditation on connections to the past and the land that humans abandon at their peril.” The story opens with Rosalie Iron Wing, who is placed in white foster care as a teen and then marries a white farmer. The metaphorical seeds she keeps planting despite being uprooted from her community create a trail that links the past, present, and future. If you’re hoping to read more Native American authors in 2022, add The Seed Keeper to your stack. Its sweeping story encompasses so many tales of Native women in the 20th century.
9. Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
Are you a fan of fantasy fiction? What about books with queer characters? Rebecca Roanhorse’s first installment of the Between Earth and Sky series checks those boxes and so much more. In Black Sun (2020), you’ll enter a world built from fragments of civilizations from the pre-Columbian Americas. Within this world of magic and celestial collisions, you’ll voyage with Xiala, a ship captain with magical powers over water, and her passenger, Serapio, who she suspects is much more than he seems. To reveal more of the plot would give away too much, but suffice it to say that reviewers are clamoring for more Native American books from this author.
10. My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones
Sharp-witted title aside, Stephen Graham Jones’ 2021 thriller is part fever dream, part horror story, part heartbreaking coming-of-age tale. Readers will meet Jade Daniels, an emotionally wounded teen who finds peace by watching slasher flicks. But when the story seems to spill into her own life, readers will find themselves scrambling to pinpoint what’s real and what’s confused fantasy. With themes of violence and a hunt for true identity, this thriller won’t resonate with everyone. But for fans of heart-pounding fiction, it’s a triumph. For anyone averse to gore, it might be best saved for another time. As Goodreads reviewer Nilufer Ozmekik wrote, “Gory. Raw. Disturbing. Bleak. Challenging. Just let out your scream and get ready to expect the unexpected!”
11. Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
Heart Berries (2018) is a lyrical, impactful memoir that might be one of the best books for women in the past decade. After post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II disorder landed the author in the hospital, she wrote her way out. The result is this book. It twists and turns through stories of Mailhot’s activist mother, her murdered father, and the ways her parents’ lives shaped her own identity, her connections to other First Nations people, and her place in the world.
12. Dog Flowers: A Memoir by Danielle Geller
Reviewers describe Danielle Geller’s 2021 memoir as gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching, and heartbreaking. But while Dog Flowers does plumb the depths of themes such as alcoholism, homelessness, and fractured families, it also leads readers to hope in the power of identity and community despite the dark seasons of life. After Geller’s mother dies, the author journeys back to her mother’s Navajo reservation to piece together what she knew of her family. The result is a Native American book that honors the past while refusing to forget that the future is now.
13. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
This 2015 New York Times and Washington Post best seller was also named a “Best Essay Collection of the Decade” by Literary Hub. In short, it has left an indelible imprint on Native American literature. This collection of essays is born from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s role as an indigenous scientist. As she delivers knowledge on the plants outside your window, she gently reveals life lessons about what the planet gives us—and how we can return the favor.
14. House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday
This 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a true modern classic. In the book, protagonist Abel returns from war and realizes that he is torn between two lives: the traditional society of his father and father’s father, and the modern world of American urban society. In the push and pull between both identities, Abel loses his sense of self. The result is an iconic, moving tale of modern Native American struggles (at least at the time of publication). If you haven’t devoured this book yet, now is a perfect time.
15. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
First published on the heels of the Vietnam War in 1977, this novel captured readers’ attention with its dark, slippery depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. The story opens when Tayo, a World War II veteran, returns home to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. Despite his traumatic experiences as a prisoner of war, his community doesn’t seek to understand him. He feels alone and rejected by his people. To heal, he dives deep into his past and takes up some of the rituals of Native Americans who fought and survived before him. With themes of war, multiculturalism, and storytelling, Ceremony is a classic in the library of Native American and war literature.
16. The Book of Medicines by Linda Hogan
Linda Hogan’s The Book of Medicines was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist when it was published in 1993. The collection of poetry, which melds themes of femininity, Native heritage, and spirituality, landed Hogan at the top of many lists of great Native American authors.
17. Feed by Tommy Pico
Tommy Pico has become a force to be reckoned with in the literary world. The award-winning poet, podcaster, and TV writer has earned a top spot on lists of both LGBTQ+ writers and Native American writers. His 2019 collection, Feed, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Goodreads reviewer Michael sums up Feed like this: “A dizzying long poem scrolling through what it means to be young, queer, indigenous, and newly single in springtime New York, on the Highline Park.”
18. Bearheart by Gerald Vizenor
In Bearheart (1990), Gerald Vizenor imagines a dystopian world in which fossil fuels are running critically low and the environment has been poisoned by chemicals. The unique tale centers on Proude Cedarfair and his wife, Rosina, as they escape toward a reservation in New Mexico that still has life-giving oil supplies. Like an ancient epic, the pair collects a ragtag crew of passengers along the way. The fantastical pilgrimage covers themes of consumption versus preservation, darkness and light, and Native American heritage.
19. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria Jr.
When author Vine Deloria Jr. died in 2005, his New York Times obituary called him a “champion” of Native American rights. Truly, the 1969 Custer Died for Your Sins became a foundational work for Native literature as well as activism in the 1970s. This nonfiction work covers everything from American Christianity to race relations—all from the keen perspective of Deloria as a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Regardless of your stance on politics, this nonfiction book belongs on your shelf.
20. When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
Fierce and unflinching, Natalie Diaz, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, first staked her claim with the 2012 poetry collection When My Brother Was an Aztec, one of the best poetry books around. In the punchy lines, she dissects her brother’s battle with addiction to meth while laying bare her own life and struggles as a modern Mojave woman. Amazon reviewer Mona Alvarado Frazier writes in her five-star review, “The poems either knocked me out, had me on the verge of tears, or had me nodding in solidarity.”
- National Congress of American Indians: “Tribal Nations & the United States: An Introduction”
- Goodreads: “Emily May’s review: There There“
- Kirkus Reviews: “The Seed Keeper”
- Goodreads: “Nilufer Ozmekik’s review: My Heart Is a Chainsaw“
- Goodreads: “Michael’s Review: Feed“
- The New York Times: “Vine Deloria Jr., Champion of Indian Rights, Dies at 72”