Telling Tales: Books by Native authors

Immersing myself in a good story is a favorite pastime of mine. It can also be a great way to shift perspectives and see the world from someone else’s eyes. For Native American Heritage Month, I am happy to share some wonderful books by Native authors. Storytelling is and has been an important practice in many Indigenous communities for passing down knowledge and culture. Cozy up with one of these excellent titles and enjoy!

Braiding Sweet Grass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

In 2021, I read a book that changed the way I look at the world: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer is a botanist and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Through personal reflections, Anishinaabe stories, and scientific inquiry, she invites readers to see the world as an interconnected web of living beings with whom we can be in reciprocal relationship.

Instead of only taking what we need from the earth, we are prompted to recognize the beings of the earth that make up all we know. Rather than viewing humans as solely having a negative impact on the earth, Kimmerer insists that we have the responsibility to offer our gifts in return – gifts of gratitude and care.

As I was reading, I was inspired to seek out RI’s local Indigenous communities. I happened to stumble upon The Tomaquag Museum’s virtual book club when they were in the middle of reading this very book!

Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko

After joining in on The Tomaquag Museum’s book club, I was introduced to more great books. One of these was Gardens in the Dunes by Leslie Marmon Silko. This sprawling historical fiction is set at the turn of the 20th century and follows Indigo, a young Native American girl of the Sand Lizard people in the deserts of Arizona. Indigo and her sister are torn from their home and family. Indigo is sent to a boarding school, from which she escapes and meets Hattie and Edward Palmer. The white couple takes her in, and they traverse Europe as they try to assimilate Indigo into their own culture.

This novel draws the reader in with rich, complex characters and lush descriptions of the world. The way different plants are regarded in the story illustrates parallels to white and Indigenous cultures: perfectly planned English gardens and exotic flowers cultivated and sold for profit draw a stark contrast with the gardens in the dunes, where Indigo and Sister Salt once grew and foraged for their food, keeping the sacred seeds of their culture with them.

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Thomas King’s magical realist novel Green Grass, Running Water is a very funny, surprising read. The trickster Coyote takes part in different versions of creation stories that run parallel to modern times, where Alberta, her two boyfriends, and others are returning to the Blackfoot reservation for this year’s Sun Dance. Meanwhile, four Indian elders have escaped from a mental asylum and are on their way to fix the world.

The multiple narrative structures in King’s book can be hard to follow at first, but it is worth the effort. His writing is wry and irreverent, as he satirizes Christian traditions, old American Western films, and brings you along in the struggles of the modern characters. The story is at once clever, heartbreaking, and vindicating.

Notable Native People by Adrienne Keene

Adrienne Keene, citizen of the Cherokee Nation and assistant professor at Brown University, published Notable Native People. This beautifully illustrated book features short profiles on the lives and legacies of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people of note. It is an enriching overview of the many different ways Native people have contributed to culture at large.

Picks for Young Adults:

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Elatsoe by Darcy Little Badger

Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson