14 Contemporary Books By Indigenous Writers You Need To Read

These novels are more than necessary or “important” — they are books you’ll love reading.

From the Hilltop by Toni Jensen (University of Nebraska Press; out now)

This set of stories is one of the few — by a Native author or by any author — that seems to be able to pull off that cool-kid experimental thing and make it seem sharp and compelling. There are some great stories in the collection by Métis author Jensen, but my personal favorite is the title story.

Cheyenne Madonna by Eddie Chuculate (Black Sparrow Press; out now)

This collection packs a punch and a half with sharply written, voice-driven stories about being members of the Cherokee and Muscogee (Creek) nations in Oklahoma, which the author has in common with his characters. Some will make you squirm in that good way: “Under the Red Star of Mars” is about a woman who gets away from her abusive boyfriend — enlisting her new man to do so — but you’re left wondering who the good guy in all of this is supposed to be. Then there’s “Yo Yo,” a brutal coming-of-age tale that illustrates the sometimes deeply anti-black feeling that some Native people have, especially in Oklahoma — a state with a complex history surrounding the relationship between Native folks and black people. Chuculate is a guy with some impressive cred: He attended the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was granted a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. This collection is a winner.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (Vintage; out now)

This is not Wilson’s first time at the robot rodeo — but it’s a crowd favorite because Robopocalypse is just that damn good. Set in the not-too-distant future, this novel (similar to many of his others) asks what kind of role we want technology to play in our lives. In the novel, technology is destroying humankind — through a master computer called Archos that’s gained not only sentience but quick control over most other computers across the world. The one relatively safe place as the planet starts to burn down? The Osage Nation in Oklahoma. Yet another Cherokee citizen who can’t help but be that good, Wilson writes Native characters — like all his characters — who feel so realistic, it’s as if they’ve popped right out of Oklahoma and onto the page. To call this a page-turner is to minimize how brilliant this action-packed, tightly written, and incredibly smart (especially in terms of social commentary) this book is. And who blurbed this book? Stephen King. That’s who.

The Road Back to Sweetgrass by Linda LeGarde Grover (University of Minnesota Press; out now)

Grover is a quietly revolutionary (and prolific) Anishinaabe writer. She beautifully and uncompromisingly weaves in Native language, and she also writes about darker aspects of Native history, such as the much-reviled boarding schools of the 19th and 20th century without cutting corners when it comes to story. Native boarding schools were nothing like Holden Caulfield’s; they were places Native children were forced to go, where teachers stripped them of their traditional clothing, quite literally beat them when they spoke their languages, and often much, much worse happened. Sweetgrass takes us into the world of three different women, Dale Ann, Theresa, and Margie — all from the Mozhay Point Reservation, all of whom leave home for college or work, but are always drawn back.

Murder on the Red River by Marcie Rendon (Cinco Puntos Press; out now)

Part of the Anishinaabe writer Rendon’s Cash Blackbear series, Murder on the Red River is a novel about sugar beet truck driver, pool hustler, and all-around cool AF bad girl Cash. While enmeshed in an affair with a married man she knows is going nowhere, and worried that her life, too, might be going nowhere, she realizes that she has a strong instinct and nearly preternatural ability when it comes to solving crimes. Funny, unflinching, and almost noir in tone, this book is a winner for those with a taste for classic detective fiction with a deeply modern flair.

Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death by Chip Livingston (Tincture Press; out now)

Livingston has quietly produced a number of lovely but gut-wrenching books about being Creek and gay — and, boy, is the Native book world more than overdue for a queer writer with such talent. Owls is about Peter Strongbow, a young man who is just beginning to learn how to contend with his heritage and, even more heartbreakingly, the fact that the love of his life is living with HIV. Another prolific writer, and one who also writes poetry and nonfiction, Livingston has written a book that will get you good. Or, as Natives might say, goot.

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga Press/Simon & Schuster; out now)

Roanhorse, a Pueblo author and the first and only Native American to win a Hugo Award, takes Diné stories to a new, vibrant level with her novel about Maggie Hoskie, a monster slayer whose skills are needed after the Big Water (read: climate change), when old gods come back to help, and hurt, the living. Her love, Neizgháni, who saved her from death, has abandoned her, but she must face him — and her own inner demons — on a quest to find out more about a witch behind a series of killings, all while trying to figure out if she can trust the man who has been sent along with her.

Sacred Smokes by Theodore C. Van Alst Jr. (University of New Mexico Press; out now)

Tommy Orange is the culture’s go-to guy about the urban Indian landscape these days, but there are a number of urban Indian writers, like Van Alst, whose characters also live in cities. Set in Chicago, which has a surprisingly large Native population, in part because of government-supported relocation programs, these short stories focus on young people growing up with gangs, hanging out in clubs, and in general living sharp, difficult lives. Though driven more by language and character than plot, these stories will take you on a journey with their narrator, Teddy, his father, and friends, like Gooch, who is paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a gang shooting.

Cherokee America by Margaret Verble (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; out now)

Cherokee citizens are kicking butt and taking names in the fiction world, and Verble, a Pulitzer finalist, is no exception, with her sweeping historical drama set in Cherokee territory before the removal (google: Trail of Tears). Check, in many ways the central character, has a fascinating personal history: Her father is both a slave owner and a well-known soldier; her husband is an abolitionist. Check determines to solve, and avenge, a series of crimes all while history marches forward, threatening to tear her nation — and her family, apart. Refreshingly honest about slave ownership in Cherokee territory, this novel takes us through the Civil War and shows us the consequences that this part of American history has had on a people — and their right to self-determination.

There There by Tommy Orange (Knopf; out now)

With an introduction and interlude that speak to Native American history in this country in beautiful lyric essay form and a culminating shootout at a powwow in Oakland, it’s clear why Orange’s novel delivered a one-two punch in the literary landscape. The novel features 12 Native characters. Some of them have intertwined histories that meet in the past, with the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, and some of them only have Oakland, and a tragic outcome, in common.

Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson (SoHo; out now)

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Awards, this searing novel by Hobson, about a Cherokee teenager caught in the social work system after his mother ends up in prison, will linger in your mind. Sequoyah is a troubled, quiet kid who ends up in the home of a well-meaning but largely naive white couple. When he meets Rosemary — also Native (Ponca), he can’t figure out whether he loves her or wants to be her, culminating in the kind of climax that leaves you breathless.

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press/Simon & Schuster; May 19)

Jones, the prolific Blackfeet master of horror and winner of a Bram Stoker Award, wants to scare you good, if you like that kind of thing. Trigger warning: There is gore. But the blood is in service of a greater good: a story about four young men who go hunting somewhere reserved only for elders — for good reason, it turns out. That ground has power, and when they hunt one particular elk down, the animal bides its time until it can hunt them back. Subtly funny and wry at turns, this novel will give you nightmares. The good kind, of course.

Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford (Grove Atlantic; July 14)

Ford’s Crooked Hallelujah is more than just a really great title; it’s the book that’s going to be taught in creative writing programs for decades to come. Centering on teenage Justine, but covering three generations of Cherokee women, this novel-in-stories follows Justine’s life in Oklahoma, as she deals with being abandoned by her father and the toughness, and tenderness, of her mother and grandmother. And finally, an act of violence that changes everything. What else can you say about a writer who won the prestigious Plimpton Prize and was published in the Paris Review right out of the gate? Nothing beyond "Take my money."

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (Ecco/HarperCollins; Aug. 25)

This literary crime novel by a Sicangu Lakota author is about Virgil the vigilante, who waives his fees when he's been assigned people who sexually abuse children. Groundbreaking in its scope and gritty-pretty when it comes to language, this visceral page-turner will have you rooting for Virgil as he chases down the drug dealers causing so much pain on the Rosebud Reservation. He’s joined by his ex, Marie, as they venture down into Denver, and back up to the rez again, only to uncover secrets that have the power to destroy them both. ●

Erika T. Wurth’s publications include two novels (Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and You Who Enter Here), two collections of poetry, and a collection of short stories (Buckskin Cocaine). A writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Boulevard, the Writer’s Chronicle, Waxwing, and the Kenyon Review. She will be a faculty member at Breadloaf in 2020, is a Kenyon Review Writers Workshop scholar, attended the Tin House Summer Workshop, and has been chosen as a narrative artist for the Meow Wolf installation in Denver. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside Denver.

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