20 Native American Authors You Need to Read


November is Native American Heritage Month, a celebration meant to give recognition to the significant contribution the native peoples have made to the history, culture, and growth of the United States. One way to get into the spirit of things is by reading works by some of the greatest Native American authors from the past century. Some of their works will shed light on activism, culture, and history, some expose the challenges of living on reservations or establishing an identity in the modern world, and all are beautiful, well-written pieces of poetry, prose, and non-fiction that are excellent reads, regardless of the heritage of their authors. This list touches on just a few of the amazing Native American authors out there and can be a great starting point for those wanting to learn more throughout this month and the rest of the year.

  1. Sherman Alexie:

    Sherman Alexie is one of the best known Native American writers today. He has authored several novels and collections of poetry and short stories, a number of which have garnered him prestigious awards, including a National Book Award. In his work, Alexie draws on his experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation, addressing sometimes difficult themes like despair, poverty, alcoholism, and Native American identity with humor and compassion. As a result, no survey of Native American literature is complete without Alexie’s work.

  2. Leslie Marmon Silko:

    A key figure in the first wave of the “Native American Renaissance” (a term fraught with controversy, but that’s another discussion), Silko is an accomplished writer who has been the recipient of MacArthur Foundation Grants and a lifetime achievement award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. Her most well-known work is the novel Ceremony, in which she draws on her Laguna heritage to tell the story of a WWII veteran returning home from the war to his poverty-striken reservation. She has written numerous novels, short stories, and poems in the years since, and remains a powerful figure in American literature.

  3. Janet Campbell Hale:

    Growing up on reservations helped inspire some of the work of this writer and professor, and she honed her gift for the written word at UC Berkeley while earning her M.A. in English. Her novel The Jailing of Cecelia Capture was nominated for a Pulitzer and is perhaps her best-known work, though her Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter is a close runner up, earning her the American Book Award. Both novels, one fiction and one non-fiction, are essential reads for anyone trying to understand the modern Native American experience.

  4. Paula Gunn Allen:

    Paula Gunn Allen made an impact on both fiction and poetry, and on the anthropological understanding of Native American culture, making her a must-read for anyone exploring Native American literature. Among her fictional work, The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, her only novel, is a must-read, as is her collection of poems, Life Is a Fatal Disease. Both were inspired by Pueblo oral traditions and stories. Allen also produced impressive non-fiction work, perhaps most notably her book The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, a controversial work in which she argues that women played a much larger role in Native societies than was recorded by the largely patriarchal Europeans in their writings.

  5. Vine Deloria Jr.:

    One of the most outspoken voices in Indian affairs for decades, Vine Deloria’s writings helped to redefine Native activism in the 60s and 70s. He is perhaps best-known for his book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, which upon its publication in 1969 generated unprecedented attention to Indian issues. He would go on to write more than 20 books, addressing stereotypes, challenging accepted ideas of American history, and helping the American Indian Movement to gain momentum.

  6. N. Scott Momaday:

    A writer, teacher, artist, and storyteller, N. Scott Momaday is one of the most celebrated Native American writers of the past century. His novel, House Made of Dawn, is widely credited with helping Native American writers break into the mainstream and won Momaday the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. Since then, he has published several more novels, collections of short stories, plays, and poems and has been honored with numerous awards, including a National Medal of Arts and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. He was also made Poet Laureate of Oklahoma.

  7. Duane Niatum:

    Professor Duane Niatum has dabbled in everything from playwriting to essay writing, but he is best known for his poetry. His epic lyric poems draw on both the work of great Western poets and his native S’Klallam cultural heritage. Some of his best work can be found in his collections The Crooked Beak of Love and Song for the Harvester of Dreams (which won the American Book Award).

  8. Gerald Vizenor:

    Gerald Vizenor is one of the most prolific Native American writers, having published more than 30 books to date. In addition to teaching Native American Studies at UC Berkeley for several years, Vizenor has produced numerous screenplays, poems, novels, and essays. His novel Griever: An American Monkey King in China, a story that takes Native mythology overseas into a Chinese setting, won him the American Book Award in 1988. His latest novel, Shrouds of White Earth, also won him the same award, and he continues to be a leading figure in Native American literature today.

  9. Louise Erdrich:

    During her long literary career, Louise Erdrich has produced thirteen novels, as well as books of poetry, short stories, children books, and a memoir. Her first novel Love Medicine won her the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984, and would set the stage for her later work, The Plague of Doves, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Erdrich’s work centers on Native American characters, but draws on the literary methods and narrative style pioneered by William Faulkner.

  10. James Welch:

    Considered one of the founding authors in the Native American Renaissance, Welch was one of the best-known and respected Native American authors during his lifetime. The author of five novels, his work Fools Crow won an American Book Award in 1986 and Winter in the Blood has been named as an inspirational work by many other authors. Welch also published works of non-fiction and poetry, and even won an Emmy for the documentary he penned with Paul Stekler called Last Stand at Little Bighorn.

  11. Barney Bush:

    Bush is an author, creative writing professor, and musician. During the 1960s, Bush was a well-known activist in the American Indian Movement, protesting, organizing, and writing to bring attention to Indian issues. Yet Bush is best known for his poetry, much of which is musical and spoken. His poems touch on themes like identity, cultural conflict, social struggle, and the disintegration of traditional values, and can be found in both recorded and written forms.

  12. Joy Harjo:

    While Harjo has written memoirs, screenplays, and children’s books (as well as numerous musical works), she’s primarily known as a poet. She honed her poetic skills at Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop and is one of the most lauded Native American poets working today. Some of her best-known collections of poetry include In Mad Love and War, which won the American Book Award and the William Carlos Williams Award, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, and A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales. While Harjo’s work does address her native culture, she also explores her struggles as an individual and a woman, which makes her work accessible to readers from any background.

  13. Simon J. Ortiz:

    Another notable Native American poet working today is Simon J. Ortiz. Ortiz has published short fiction and non-fiction prose, but his poetry is perhaps his most evocative and well-known work. Much of Ortiz’s work focuses on modern man’s alienation, from others, himself, and his environment. His work From Sand Creek: Rising In This Heart Which Is Our America received the Pushcart Prize in poetry, though his 1992 book of prose and poetry, Woven Stone, is also among his more important publications.

  14. nila northSun:

    northSun is a celebrated Native American poet and activist who has won numerous accolades during her career. She has published five collections of poetry and one non-fiction book documenting tribal history. Her poetry can be characterized as both funny and brutally honest, focusing on native life both on and off the reservation. Those looking to learn more about her work should check out one of her most recent collections, love at gunpoint, as well as her earlier work Diet pepsi and nacho cheese.

  15. Charles Eastman:

    While thus far all of the writers featured on this list have been modern, it wouldn’t be a complete list without including Eastman, whose early works on Native American history helped to redefine how Americans looked at the past. Eastman was the first author to address American history from a native point of view, writing a number of books that detailed his own past as well as Native American culture and history. Must-reads include Deep Woods to Civilization and The Indian Today: The Past and Future of the First American.

  16. John Joseph Mathews:

    Another early standout among Native American authors is John Joseph Mathews. A historian and novelist, he would become an important voice for the Osage people. His first book, Wa’kon-tah: The Osage and The White Man’s Road would become an instant bestseller, but he is best known for Sundown, a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man who feels estranged from tribal life after returning from college and military service. Mathews also played a key role in helping to preserve the culture of the Osage people, documenting numerous stories and oral histories in his The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters.

  17. Diane Glancy:

    Diane Glancy is another Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad, today teaching Native American literature and creative writing as well as devoting much of her time to writing. She has penned a large number of poetry, plays, non-fiction, and novels over her career, several of which have won prestigious awards, including the American Book Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Capricorn Prize for Poetry. Glancy uses realistic language and vivid imagery in her work to address subjects such as spirituality, family ties and her identity as a person of mixed blood. Those who are new to Glancy’s work should start with Claiming Breath, Lone Dog’s Winter Count, Primer of the Obsolete, or Iron Woman.

  18. Winona LaDuke:

    Winona LaDuke is an author, speaker, economist, and activist who after graduating from Harvard has dedicated much of her life to protecting native culture. While she is perhaps best known for her activism and political involvement (LaDuke was the vice presidential candidate with Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000), she’s also an accomplished author. Among her works are one novel, Last Standing Woman, and two non-fiction books, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, an excellent primer on the movement to reclaim tribal lands, and Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming, which looks at traditional beliefs and practices.

  19. Wendy Rose:

    Wendy Rose is an artist, writer, and anthropologist, currently working as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Rose’s work tends to focus on her mixed heritage, which often made her feel both alienated from the Hopi people and whites, as well as issues of ecology, feminism, and politics. One of Rose’s best known and most analyzed poems is “Truganinny,” the tale of a young aboriginal woman who was the last of her kind. That poem can be read online, but fans of Rose would be remiss not to also explore her collection of poems Lost Copper, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.