Last year I wrote an essay on the Native American Cinderella story. In its most recent rendition, it was published as a children’s picture book called “The Rough Faced Girl” by Rafe Martin. In the introduction to the book, Martin claims that he’s simply retelling a true native tale. But, throughout my ridiculously long paper, I was able to prove he indeed wasn’t and that the story having any similarities to “Cinderella” was largely due to missionary and colonizer influence. This should be at the core of nearly every conversation we have about Indigenous stories. If you’re looking for true Native American stories, you should always only be looking for books written by Native American authors.
One great source for this is Debbie Reese, Ph. D. Though the importance of members of a group telling their own story, and diversity in children’s literature has now gotten into the mainstream, Reese has been operating her website “American Indians in Children’s Literature” since 2006. As a Nambé Pueblo, she critically reads young adult and children’s literature books and releases a list of the best books each year. So I’ll be using her as a source for this list, as well as many of the author’s websites.
With that introduction, I want to get in to my list. So without further ado, here is my list of must-read books by Native American authors, just in time for Native American heritage month
Even though this is a children’s book, it’s just incredibly cute, so it gets a spot on the list. And, since it’s told by Cynthia Leitich, a Muscogee (Creek) author, we know it’s an accurate retelling of the Jingle Dancer tradition.
The book follows Jenna, who sees a video of her grandmother performing in a jingle dress, which is a dress with metal cones that jingle when the wearer dances. Jenna desperately wants these metal cones for her dress and goes and asks the women in her life to borrow a few here and there. She doesn’t ask for too many from each, as she doesn’t want to stop their dress from jingling. Along the way she hears some Creek stories and the story shows how contemporary Creek people live, and how important it is for the next generation to carry on the traditions that were silenced for so long.
“There, There” by Tommy Orange:
Tommy Orange opens his novel with a letter to the reader. He states how the book came to him, and how hard it was to figure out how to get all the characters to the end of the novel. He notes that he had to figure out how to carry the reader through the book through all the interconnected stories. It’s the interconnectedness that makes “There, There” stand out. Orange, a Cheyenne and Arapaho author, tells the story of 12 characters from Native American communities traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. The first section of the novel is an essay from Orange, highlighting the brutal and horrific treatment of the Native American people throughout history. He highlights how days of thanks, or Thanksgivings were often held in honor of a “successful massacre” of Native Americans. The rest of the novel follows 12 interwoven and separate stories about people discovering what being Native American is, what it means to be human and the impact generational trauma and culture has on us as people.
It’s just an unbelievably fantastic novel. I’m someone who annotates, highlights and writes all over books I love, so this book is completely covered with my thoughts and feelings about the writing and how Orange unveils a story to us. I can not recommend it enough!
“The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee” By David Treuer
I’m going to be honest, I haven’t finished this book. But, I was looking for something to continue my research into Native American history after my reading of “The People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. I do recommend Zinn’s book as well, despite some of the controversy surrounding it. Critics say it paints history as too black and white, that there’s always a villian and a victim in Zinn’s retelling, but I liked it just because it highlighted so much of history missing from my education.
The same can be said about “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,” as it tells the true history of the Native American people, after the massacre in 1890 at Wounded Knee. There’s a tentative belief in history that Native American history largely stopped at this point until we get into the contemporary people. Treuer, who grew up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, trained as an anthropologist and spent his career researching Native American life in the past and present proves that this was in no way the case. Treuer highlights the struggle of the different groups to preserve their language, culture and way of life in an attempt to pass it on to future generations. Throughout all of it, he proves how resilient the Native American groups were in their effort against those who wanted to take their land, their children and even their lives. It’s a phenomenal book that teaches us all the true history that has been hidden for so long.
Honestly, there’s not really a wrong choice when it comes to reading a book from a Native American author regarding their histories, their stories and their experiences. If there’s anything you do this month, instead of counting down the days until Thanksgiving, make sure you not only educate yourself on the true history of what the Indigenous people went through during the centuries of American history but also keep in mind what they continue to go through, the fight is not yet through.