New Books by American Indian Authors
By Mary Swabb, Learning & Information Services Supervisor
According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2019, 6.9 million Americans identify as American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) persons, and this year there are 574 federally- recognized American Indian tribes. Thirty-nine of these tribes call the state of Oklahoma home. I was born in Oklahoma, and while I only lived there for a few years, I’ve gone back frequently to visit family and have an affinity for the red-iron-rich staining dirt. Driving down I-35 from Manhattan to Oklahoma City, I’m always struck by the distinct change in the Earth’s hue, as well as the white-and-green highway signs featuring town names like Chickasha, Tonkawa, and Pawnee. These towns are named after American Indian tribes, and they call out to my curiosity as I drive down I-35. I wonder what stories and histories the peoples of these tribes have. I wonder how different or similar they are to my story. I wonder if they are just as taken with the vibrant red-iron-rich stained earth as I am, and if they have their own story to explain such a phenomenon. Being a librarian and avid bibliophile, I cannot help but find books to sate my curiosity about AIAN peoples and their stories. Here are some of the recently-published contemporary fiction novels I’ve discovered written by American Indian authors.
If you enjoy thrilling crime fiction novels, then check out “Winter Counts” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden (tribally enrolled Sicangu Lakota). This novel tells the story of a local enforcer, Virgil Wounded Horse, of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Virgil is hired to distribute justice that the American legal system or tribal council denies. He’s a vigilante who becomes obsessed with finding and stopping a drug dealer from bringing heroin into his community after he suffers a personal tragedy. Virgil’s quest for vengeance forces him to face his own fears and reclaim his identity as a Native American. “Winter Counts” takes a look at the broken criminal justice system on reservations and ponders Native identity. Weiden has also written a children’s book entitled “Spotted Tail,” which chronicles the life of the great Lakota leader, Spotted Tail.
Mothers and daughters have complex and powerful relationships, which Kelli Jo Ford (tribally enrolled Cherokee Nation) strongly illustrates in “Crooked Hallelujah,” her historical fiction novel that reads like a compilation of short stories. Ford’s novel is an intergenerational story about a family trying to survive poverty, illness, and natural disasters in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and the Red River region of Texas. The strong family of women in Ford’s novel mainly features Justine, who becomes pregnant at 15, and her daughter, Reney, who is struggling to navigate her desire to attend college with her deep-rooted family loyalty. “Crooked Hallelujah” depicts the limited choices women in poverty struggle with and the sacrifices mothers and daughters are willing to make for one another in the name of survival, love, and home.
“The Night Watchman” is the newest novel by Louise Erdrich (tribally enrolled Chippewa). It’s a historical fiction novel that tells the story of Native American’s efforts to save their lands from being taken away by the U.S. government in the early 1950s. The novel weaves together a tapestry of personalities living on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Erdrich’s own grandfather inspired her main protagonist, Thomas Wazhushk, a night watchman, at a jewel bearing factory who’s a hard worker that’s passionate about helping his tribe. The novel also follows Thomas’s niece, Patrice Paranteau, as she seeks to escape her challenging home life with her alcoholic father by joining her sister, Vera, in Minneapolis. As Patrice learns to navigate the city streets, Thomas organizes a letter-writing campaign to oppose the politicians trying to terminate their reservation. Erdrich’s novel showcases the struggle of people trying to hold onto their personalities and traditions in an ever-changing world.