Nine Book Recs to Read on National Native American Heritage Day
A Guest Blog by Lynda Andrews
There are 574 American Indian Tribes and Alaska Natives that are federally recognized by the U.S. government, not including those in the whole of North America. The tribes have been referred to as Indigenous People, Native Americans, American Indians, The First Peoples, First Nations, and by themselves, as The People and NDN. I will be sharing my favorite books concerning the beautiful, rich, varied and tragic tapestry of the history of Indians in our country.
"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West" is exactly that, a history of the westward U.S. expansion and colonization of the continent between 1830 and 1890 written from a Native American point of view. Written by American novelist, historian, and librarian Dee Brown, it is a poignant look at the devastation and crimes perpetrated on Indigenous populations during those years. A NY Times review called it “Original, remarkable, and finally heartbreaking. It is impossible to put down.” It is all the above and haunting as well. Crazy Horse figures hugely in this history; the title is attributed to him as being a request at his death.
"Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in History" was written by Times journalist S.C. Gwynne and details the Comanche nation, their power and fighting ability in trying to keep possession of their lands. Comanches were so fierce and successful that the American frontier was actually rolled backwards! The Texas Rangers were created as a special unit to fight against the Comanches and the six-gun was designed specifically to use against this tribe. Quanah Parker was the mixed blood son of Cynthia Ann Parker and he became the last and greatest Comanche chief. Oklahoma was Indian Territory before it became a state, and Parker had lands and built a huge historic house near my home in southwest Oklahoma so reading this history and seeing the areas covered in the book brought it home to me in a very real way.
“Lakota Noon: the Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat” was gifted to me by my sister and brother-in-law after a clearing out of a relative’s shelves. Written by Gregory F. Michno, this is an extremely detailed and painstaking retelling of what is known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand. It is compiled from letters, oral histories, official documents and interviews of those present and from the Indian perspective, in 10 minute increments! Each person, what they were doing, where they were, what they said, and detailed maps including coded positions and directions each participant took. It can be slow going, but it is very thorough and I am very glad I took the time to read it.
“Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors” is a very readable and engrossing novel of these two leaders by the wonderful Stephen E. Ambrose (“Undaunted Courage”; “Band of Brothers”). In taking facts about both men and writing the story in such a way I came away feeling as if I really knew each of them. The way the story builds and leads each leader to the culmination at their bittersweet and tragic meeting is fascinating, especially when it appears the battle need not have happened as it did, after all. Having visited the Little Bighorn National Monument twice, it was really meaningful having read this before I went.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is the true story by former FBI agent David Grann covering a series of murders of Osage tribal members in Osage County, OK. (Pioneer Woman fans will recognize Pawhuska as being a principal location in the book.) When oil was discovered on Osage land, the tribe and individual members became very rich. The U.S.government decided the Osage were too childlike to manage their money and appointed “guardians” to oversee this wealth; this led to schemes to steal and commit murder in order to “inherit” the headrights or ownership of the bank accounts. The crimes were so numerous and heinous that Texas Rangers were sent to investigate and the FBI was actually formed to begin investigations of the murders. I was shocked so many times while reading this book- I would wish that every American read this.
The five books I have reviewed above are all fact-based histories; I have included a short list here of books that are fictional stories but which make extensive use of the spiritual beliefs of Indigenous people. The natural world and the spiritual world are very closely aligned in their beliefs and a very present part of their customs in everyday life.
Cork O’Connor series by William Kent Krueger
-a mixed blood Anishannabe/Irish, Corcoran O’Connor is a sheriff in modern day Northern Minnesota. It is a series, but each makes a wonderful stand-alone as well.
Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny
-a French-Canadian Officer named Armand Gamache solves crimes throughout Canada, mostly in Quebec. Not all of the books are about Indigenous people but there are several that do and you’ll enjoy them all, I promise.
“The Night Watchman” by Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Erdrich explores early 20th century Native Americans trying to hold on to the old ways while the young adults strike out to the cities and discover that the old ways and family may be best, after all.
Larry McMurtry wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning “Lonesome Dove” and the other books in that series with an obvious respect for the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache tribes. The cruelty and torture sometimes described contrasts widely with the deeply held spiritual beliefs and reverence for ancestors and the natural world around them. McMurtry also wrote “Oh What a Slaughter” and “Custer”, books of a more factual, historical style and told in the no-nonsense and straightforward style he is known for.
I cannot emphasize enough how strongly I feel that people should read at least one of these recommendations to see our nation’s development from a different perspective than what most of us learned in school. Even today, there are those in power actively working to rewrite our history books and that is a disservice to those who lived it, those who work to change perceptions of racism and those who may not have history as it really happened to learn from in the future.