Indigenous civilizations flourished in North America centuries before Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492. Pueblo villages dotted the canyon country in the Southwest, the spectacular remnants still visible today at places such as Mesa Verde in Colorado and New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. A powerful confederacy of Iroquois held sway over the Mohawk Valley in New York State. A giant pyramid, built 1,000 years ago, sits near present-day St. Louis, the vestige of the prosperous city of Cahokia.
Native civilizations transformed the world economy. The cultivation of corn agriculture in Mexico and its spread across the continent is one of the most important events in history. Other North American staples, such as potatoes, tomatoes, beans, squash, pumpkins, and sunflower seeds, transformed the world’s food system. In other words, before 1492, no European had ever seen an ear of corn, Italian entrées had no tomatoes, and there was not one potato in Ireland.
Sadly, it is impossible to discuss Native American life and history without recognizing the scourge of European colonization. History and science have revealed that an astonishing 90 percent of populations native to the continent died owing to previously unknown diseases in the centuries following 1492, the most notorious culprit being the deadly virus smallpox, which wiped out entire societies. Then the white man’s armies came, followed by broken promises.
Considering that vast legacy, it can still be difficult to find accessible and appropriate books on Native culture. Good writers don’t propagate stereotypes, and good books don’t gloss over complicated issues. Histories that glamorize westward expansion or justify colonization have neither consulted nor attempted to understand Native perspectives. While some older archaeological works include photographs of burials, there were tribes that found it disrespectful to have images of their ancestors’ skeletons and burials published.
Although indigenous societies exist in North, Central, and South America, this article focuses on the lives and histories of peoples in the United States and Canada. These titles include new releases as well as classics. Some discuss ancient societies, while others explore the modern experience. Several are written by Native writers with an established and acclaimed literary tradition from which to draw. An attempt has been made to incorporate as many Native societies as possible, but no list can cover them all. Libraries should make an effort to seek out materials about their region’s indigenous peoples.
Starred titles () are essential purchases for most collections.
Alexie, Sherman. Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. Grove Atlantic. 2012. 480p. ISBN 9780802120397. $27; pap. ISBN 9780802121752. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780802194060.
This short story collection from award-winning Alexie (The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven) casts light onto life’s unsettling and challenging experiences, including broken relationships, drugs, parental loss, and prison. These stories are often set among the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest. Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene author. (LJ 8/12)
Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. Harper. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9780062065247. $27.99; pap. ISBN 9780062065254. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062065261.
Erdrich (LaRose) has won many awards for her novels, including the National Book Award. This is the story of an Ojibwe woman who has been attacked on a reservation in North Dakota, and her subsequent pursuit of justice and meaning. Erdrich is a Turtle Mountain Chippewa author. (LJ 8/12)
Momaday, N. Scott. House Made of Dawn. Harper. 2010. 185p. ISBN 9780061859977. pap. $13.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062121530.
Winner of the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this novel, set in the Southwest during the late 1940s and early 1950s, weaves images of canyons and the city, churches and kivas, transcendence and fleshly passion. Momaday is a Kiowa author.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Penguin. 2006. 272p. ISBN 9780143104919. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781440621826.
Silko’s classic novel, first published in 1977, captures the saga of Tayo, a man from the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. Throughout his life, Tayo remains haunted by his World War II experiences. Silko is from the Laguna Pueblo people.
Bellecourt, Clyde & John Lurie. The Thunder Before the Storm: The Autobiography of Clyde Bellecourt. Minnesota Historical Soc. 2016. 320p. photos. index. ISBN 9781681340197. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681340203.
The life experience of American Indian Movement leader Bellecourt recounts many key events and struggles of contemporary Native peoples, including abusive boarding schools, the effort to reclaim native culture, the 1973 standoff at Wounded Knee, and the fight for religious freedom. Bellecourt is from the Ojibwe nation. (LJ 11/1/16)
Bunnell, David Hugh. Good Friday on the Rez: A Pine Ridge Odyssey. St. Martin’s. Apr. 2017. 288p. maps. bibliog. ISBN 9781250112538. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250112545.
Bunnell integrates the contemporary reservation experience with a history of the Lakota, reflections of his years teaching on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and his memories of the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee. (LJ 1/17)
Crow Dog, Mary with Richard Erdoes. Lakota Woman. Grove Atlantic. 2011. 272p. photos. ISBN 9780802145420. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780802191557.
Crow Dog, also known as Mary Brave Bird, offers a raw, stark perspective of South Dakota’s reservations and the struggle for Native rights in the 20th century. The author gave birth to her son, Pedro, while besieged at Wounded Knee in 1973. Crow Dog, who died in 2013, was a Sicangu Lakota author. (LJ 2/15/90)
Treuer, David. Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life. Grove Atlantic. 2013. 352p. photos. maps. bibliog. ISBN 9780802120823. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780802194893.
Novelist Treuer (The Hiawatha) here turns his attention to nonfiction, a candid look at life on the reservation. Topics include reservation history, law enforcement, and biographical portraits. Treuer is an Ojibwe author. (LJ 3/1/13)
Lekson, Stephen H. The Chaco Meridian: One Thousand Years of Political and Religious Power in the Ancient Southwest. 2d ed. Rowman & Littlefield. 2015. 284p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781442246454. pap. $34.
Archaeologist Lekson has made significant historical contributions to the ancient Southwest. His thesis states that several archaeological sites (including Chaco Canyon in New Mexico) once formed a social, political, and economic meridian of Pueblo power.
Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Knopf. 2005. 480p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781400040063. $37.50; pap. ISBN 9781400032051. $17; ebk. ISBN 9780307278180.
Mann writes an excellent and long-overdue history of the Americas prior to European colonization. He synthesizes archaeological and historical findings that not only illuminate the pre-Columbian Native past but overturn long-standing popular assumptions. His follow-up is 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. (LJ 8/05)
Pauketat, Timothy R. Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi. Penguin. 2010. 208p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780143117476. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101105177.
Archaeologist Pauketat introduces readers to Cahokia, a populous city of the 11th century. The city’s great pyramid is a wonder of the world, located in Illinois just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
Brooks, James F. Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre. Norton. 2016. 288p. photos. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780393061253. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393292534.
Brooks recounts the destruction in 1700 of Awat’ovi, a Hopi village attacked by a neighboring community, while providing insight into the complicated and often ambiguous past of the Hopi in Arizona and the greater Pueblo world at large. (LJ 11/15/15)
Greer, Allan. The Jesuit Relations: Natives and Missionaries in Seventeenth-Century North America. Bedford. 2000. 226p. illus. maps. ISBN 9780312167073. pap. $22.75.
With this collection of primary documents, Greer provides important glimpses into Iroquois and Algonquian villages in the 17th century.
Hämäläinen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. Yale Univ. 2009. 512p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780300151176. pap. $26.
This scholarly yet highly readable account of the Comanche people details the strong, powerful empire that resisted Spanish, French, and American aggression. (LJ 5/15/08)
Kelsay, Isabel Thompson. Joseph Brant, 1743–1807: Man of Two Worlds. Syracuse Univ. 1984. 775p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780815602088. pap. $24.95.
In this voluminous and detailed biography of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, Kelsay offers significant information about the Iroquois peoples.
McDonnell, Michael A. Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America. Farrar. 2015. 416p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780809029532. $35; pap. ISBN 9780809068005. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780374714185.
McDonnell provides a rich history of the economic, diplomatic, and political actions of the Great Lakes tribes (including the Anishinaabeg, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Mississauga) in the 17th and 18th centuries. (LJ 10/15/15)
Basic Ojibwe. 5 CDs. 5 hrs. Pimsleur. 2006. ISBN 9780743561525. $24.95.
Pimsleur’s audio programs allow learners to hear Native speakers. The basic course includes ten 30-minute sessions, a total of five hours of spoken Ojibwe.
Crow Canyon Archaeological Center;
This museum in Cortez, CO, promotes responsible archaeological research and provides a gallery of artifacts and reconstructed villages from the Pueblo civilization.
National Park Svc.; nps.gov
The National Park Service protects many Native sites, such as Effigy Mounds in Iowa and Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. Websites for individual parks provide historical information, maps, and event schedules.
We Shall Remain: America Through Native Eyes. (American Experience). 450 min. PBS. 2009. UPC 0841887010276. $49.99.
This series covers pivotal episodes in history, from the New England Pilgrim settlements to the 1973 Wounded Knee protests.
RESISTANCE & HARDSHIP
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Holt. 2007. 512p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780805086843. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781453274149.
Originally published in 1970, Brown’s definitive work chronicles the conquest of the peoples west of the Mississippi River, including the Apache, Navajo, and Lakota. This classic history concludes with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. (LJ 4/15/01)
Drury, Bob & Tom Clavin. The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend. S. & S. 2014. 432p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781451654684. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781451654707.
The authors describe how Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud defended a substantial area of land from white expansion after the Civil War, successfully besting the U.S. Army along the Bozeman Trail in Wyoming and Montana. (LJ 9/1/13)
Eckert, Allan. A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh. Random. 1993. 1088p. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780553561746. pap. $9.99.
Although Eckert uses fictionalized dialog in his historical works, the people and events here are real. This is a voluminous and extensive biography of Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who died at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.
Ehle, John. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. Knopf. 1997. 432p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780385239547. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307793836.
In this detailed account of the removal of the Cherokee people from their homeland in present-day Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina and relocation to Oklahoma during the 1830s, Ehle describes the notorious “Trail of Tears.” (LJ 10/1/88)
Fenn, Elizabeth A. Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People. Farrar. 2014. 480p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780809042395. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780374711078.
Historian Fenn received the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in history for this narrative of the Mandan, who inhabited the plains in present-day North Dakota. Fenn’s engaging and informative account weaves primary documents, oral histories, and archaeology to illustrate how the Mandan thrived until the explosion of westward expansion and disease.
Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The Longest Trail: Writings on American Indian History, Culture, and Politics. Knopf. 2015. 544p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780345806918. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780345806925.
This collection includes several essays on critical people and events in Native history, including Tecumseh’s grand confederation and Chief Joseph’s resistance to the federal government. (LJ 9/15/15)
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition. Bison: Univ. of Nebraska. 2014. 424p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780803283916. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9780803283930.
“Is not the sky a father and the earth a mother, and are not all living things with feet or wings or roots their children?” In 1932, Black Elk of the Oglala Lakota shared with poet Neihardt a living memory of the Plains people and their struggles in the latter part of the 19th century.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Penguin. 2011. 496p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780143119609. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781101190111.
Philbrick offers a thorough and highly readable account of Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s shocking victory over George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry at Little Bighorn in 1876. (LJ 4/15/10)