November is Native American Heritage Month, as declared by President George H. W. Bush on August 3, 1990. We join in paying tribute to the rich ancestry and traditions of Native Americans. The national events began with a YouTube presentation by Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. poet laureate, who joined Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, in a conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden on November 1.
We are highlighting some of the many great Native American authors. Whether you’re looking for fiction, biography or nonfiction; poetry, essay or graphic novel; mystery, historical fiction or science fiction, here are some recently published titles for your consideration during this month of reflection.
“A Minor Chorus” is Billy-Ray Belcourt’s debut novel about a queer indigenous doctoral student who takes time off from his studies to write a novel and wrestle with major questions from his own life and circumstances. It’s a slim novel that deals with big topics, such as life on the fringes, pressures placed on marginalized scholars, cycles of violence, drugs and survival. Belcourt is a wonderful poet and he brings that same language craft to his prose. I’ll leave you with a word from the author. “I’ve made all this racket about ideas and literature and art, but really what I wanted most was to be loved.”
For biography, you might want to try Joy Harjo’s “Catching the Light.” As mentioned above, Harjo served as the nation’s 23rd poet laureate from 2019 to 2020. This is another thin, poetic book. It takes the form of biographical essays, but it is packed full of wisdom and love. Her Muscogee (Creek) Nation Indigenous heritage and her compassion toward the Earth and all its creatures shine through.
How about a bit of history? Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz examines the idea that we are a “nation of immigrants” in her newest book “Not ‘a Nation of Immigrants’: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion.” Her central thesis is, “The nation of immigrants myth erases the fact that the United States was founded as a settler state from its inception and spent the next hundred years at war against Native Nations in conquering the continent.” She makes the case that if we had been a nation of immigrants, the Europeans coming to the continent would have assimilated with the cultures already here. It might not be a comfortable topic, but perhaps a necessary one.
In Joshua Whitehead’s “Making Love With the Land,” every single sentence leaves a sense of awe as the author offers deeply personal and powerful observations with breathtaking prose. Whitehead writes in such an intimate, poetic and vulnerable way that his work is truly like nothing else.
Maybe you want to try a graphic novel. “The Witch King” by H.E. Edgmon is the first book in a dark fantasy series complete with shocking plot twists, a unique fantasy world, a beautiful love story, monsters and a dragon or two.
Do you love to read a good mystery? Angeline Boulley’s debut book, “Firekeeper’s Daughter” is an intriguing, but heartbreaking mystery set in Sault Ste. Marie, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, among the Native American Ojibwe community. Boulley uses language, traditions and culture to create a rich world with a sense of community that is real and visceral. The central character, Daunis, belongs to and is committed to her community. She tries to protect their interests and future while the FBI, who are trying to pull her into their investigation, might not.
In “O America: Discovery in a New Land,” local author William Least Heat-Moon pens a historical fiction beginning in 1848 as a young English physician makes his way to America. Told through the lens of Dr. Tennet’s journals, we get a geography lesson as he travels the Atlantic Ocean, the Erie Canal, the Allegheny, Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Along the way, he encounters all that is America in the characters of slave and owner, wealthy and poor, immigrant and Native American. The book begs: can this American experiment succeed?
“Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse is the first book in the Between Earth and Sky series. This craftily built, lush epic fantasy world is loosely based on the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas. It is filled with gods, magic, prophecy, intrigue and tradition. Roanhorse seamlessly transitions from one point of view to the next as the Crow gods rise to subvert the Sun gods.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving and a month of reflection and reading!