Native American Heritage Month- Books By and About Native Americans

Crazy Horse Memorial under construction in Black Hills, Custer County, South Dakota. Taken by pedrik and shared via CC by 2.0 Attribution License
Crazy Horse Memorial (under construction) in Black Hills, Custer County, South Dakota, image by pedrik, shared courtesy of CC by 2.0 Generic Attribution License

 

We are celebrating National Native American Heritage Month in November.  Please check out our November Newsletter (page 40 or events calendar for our programs for all ages. Following are a few mostly recent titles for adults, both fiction and nonfiction that we recommend. If you want to search for your own titles with Native American topics, use “Indians of North America” and “fiction” or “history” or “treatment.” You can also search by the names of particular tribes, such as “Osage” or “Cherokee.”

Fiction

horizontal stripes of purple, blue and green--book cover imageThe Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Patrice, 19, supports her family by laboring at the jewel bearing plant and splitting logs to heat their humble home on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota, and it is Patrice who journeys to Minneapolis to search for Vera, her missing older sister. Thomas is the plant’s night watchman and the guiding conscience in this spellbinding, reverent, and resplendent drama by the paramount storyteller of the northern plains. In her sixteenth novel, a work of distinct luminosity, Erdrich based soulful, disciplined, and witty Thomas on her grandfather. Accordingly, Thomas is a member of the Chippewa council, and deeply concerned about a 1953 bill pending in the U.S. Congress that threatens to terminate the legal status of their Chippewa band. As Patrice ventures into the horrific underworld she fears has claimed Vera, Thomas writes perfectly penned letters to federal officials, and marshals the community—destitute but for their cherished land and culture—for a trip to Washington, DC, to ensure that their voices are heard. Each risky mission to confront insidious forces endangering Chippewa lives and heritage generates a stream of involving, concurrent stories of longing and love. Through the personalities and predicaments of her many charismatic characters, and through rapturous descriptions of winter landscapes and steaming meals, sustaining humor and spiritual visitations, Erdrich traces the indelible traumas of racism and sexual violence and celebrates the vitality and depth of Chippewa life.

The Night Watchman is a nominee for the 2021 One City, One Story selection. Selections for spring and summer editions will be announced in December 2020. Stay tuned!

black background with soilhousette image of two young women walking hand in hand silhouette filled with sunset landscape--book cover imageCrooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

Ford, a Plimpton Prize–winning author and member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, tells a blistering Own Voices tale that spans generations. The novel reads like a set of interlinked short stories, yet there is a narrative thread that runs through each of them, connecting the reader to the heart of a family of Cherokee women. At its start, in 1974, 15-year-old Justine is coping with the pressures of her mother Lula’s strict Christian church. She wants to reconnect with her father and to live like her friends do. But when Justine becomes pregnant through an act of assault, daughter Reney enters the picture, and the reader follows their journey as Reney grows. The sections cover different decades and are told from different perspectives, leading up to an electrifying conclusion. Ford’s lyrical writing emphasizes both the hardships and the deeply connected relationships of the characters. The theme of the weather as villain illustrates the unopposable forces Cherokee women must contend with, including the tyranny of society and of men. A riveting and important read.

deep blue background with lighter blue teardrop shapes --book cover imageIn the Night of Memory by Linda LeGarde Grover

Grover, an award-winning author and professor of American Indian Studies, here returns to the fictional northern Minnesota reservation on which her previous moving and thought-provoking novels and stories are set. Loretta Gallette, single, poor, and alcoholic, is finally forced to surrender her two young daughters, Rainfall Dawn and Azure Sky, to the county. The first half of Grover’s multigenerational story follows the girls from one loveless foster home to another as they struggle to remember their mother. The larger story is that of the reservation Loretta left behind, and those who remain there after her disappearance as one of the many Indian women who “dropped off the face of the earth without anyone even noticing for the longest time.” Eventually, distant family members come together and request the return of the girls to the tribe under the terms of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. There the girls grow up in a safe and loving cocoon unlike anything they had experienced. The tragic legacy of Indian boarding schools, including Rainy’s fetal alcohol syndrome, hovers over Grover’s sad but ultimately uplifting tale.

sunset over a river in blues and pinks with a young boy seen from behind sitting at the edge of a river pier looking out--book cover imageThis Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

Minnesota, 1932. Twelve-year-old orphan Odie and his 16-year-old brother, Albert, are the only white students at the Lincoln Indian Training School. When Odie accidentally kills a fiendish school employee, he, his brother, their Sioux friend Mose, and a bereft little girl, Emmy, whose single-parent mother has been killed by a tornado, must flee by canoe down the nearby Gilead River. And so their adventure begins, narrated by Odie, who is a born storyteller who often entertains his companions with tales. The way to their planned destination, St. Louis, is a checkered one: a one-eyed, troubled man named Jack holds them captive; a bounty hunter nearly captures them; they find respite with a revival tent show; Odie falls in love; and more. Theirs is more than a simple journey; it is a deeply satisfying odyssey, a quest in search of self and home. Richly imagined and exceptionally well plotted and written, the novel is, most of all, a compelling, often haunting story that will captivate both adult and young adult readers.

orange background with two sketched or watercolored feathers, pointing left and right--book cover imageThere There by Tommy Orange

The at-first disconnected characters from whose perspectives Orange voices his symphonic debut are united by the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow. Some have been working on the event for months; some will sneak in with only good intentions, while others are plotting to steal the sizable cash prizes. Creative interludes from an omniscient narrator describe, for example, the names of First Nations people or what it means to be an Urban Indian: “We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.” Opal recalls occupying Alcatraz as a child with her family; today she raises her sister’s grandchildren as her own after their unspeakable loss. With grant support, Dene endeavors to complete the oral-history project his deceased uncle couldn’t, recording the stories of Indians living in Oakland. In his thirties, with his white mother’s blessing, Edwin reaches out to the Native father he never met. While anticipation of the powwow provides a baseline of suspense, the path Orange lights through these and his novel’s many other stories thrills on its own. Engrossing at its most granular, in characters’ thoughts and fleeting moments, There There introduces an exciting voice.

Image of mountain peak with snow in the background, a city in the middle ground, and a line of Native Americans in traditional clothing and headdresses on horseback in foreground --book cover imageThe Beadworkers: Stories by Beth Piatote

Piatote is Nez Perce, and a Native American Studies professor at UC Berkeley. In this eloquent and elucidating debut story collection she brings the Native experience to life—from the long line of broken treaties and the tragic effect on Native tribes from coast to coast to contemporary repercussions from forced attendance at Indian boarding schools. In one tale, a young widow lives and works in a camp of Native laborers: “migrant workers in their own land, a fact they accepted by day but questioned in their sleep.” Another touching story portrays an auntie who is teaching her niece how to do beadwork, which has gotten her through some hard times. It’s a theme Piatote explores repeatedly, the way aunts, uncles, and grandparents strive to keep their culture alive by passing it on to the next generation. Beading, fishing, drumming, shawl dancing, each is a part of their lives they don’t want forgotten, even as depression or alcoholism threatens to eradicate them. Piatote draws the reader in with spare and perceptive language and resonate empathy for each struggling yet resilient character.

flat image of blue sky with clouds over yellow and brown flat landscape with small scrub and two oil derricks--book cover imageYellow Earth by John Sayles

Once again the vicious cycle of invasion, conquest, exploitation, and decimation is enacted in the West as shale oil deposits are detected around the nearly moribund town of Yellow Earth, North Dakota, and the nearby Three Nations reservation. As in his previous exceptional historical saga, A Moment in the Sun (2011), filmmaker and writer Sayles animates a vibrant and complex cast of diverse individuals caught in an extraction boom driven by greed and hope. Harleigh, the Three Nations council chairman, claims to be securing oil profits for the reservation, but his alliance with a highly dubious front man suggests otherwise. As a swarm of men, trucks, and heavy equipment assault the earth, threaten the aquifer, pollute the air, and precipitate mayhem, local lives are upended, from the sheriff to intrepid teen girls, a savvy stripper, a bouncer, a casino dealer, a Mexican refugee, and wildlife biologist Leia, who is studying a now imperiled prairie dog colony. Sayles’ alternating narrators propel a busy, engrossing, and purposeful plot steered by both suspenseful action and intricate emotion. Aligned with T. C. Boyle in his penetrating perception of our place in nature and Tom Wolfe in his rambunctious satire, Sayles is adept at vital detail, guided by a keen historical perspective, centered by an edgy sense of humor, and inspired by empathy.

Deep and light blue image of blurred landscape and its mirror image, with mirror image of red and green drip shape imposed over title--book cover imageThis Town Sleeps by Dennis E. Staples

In small-town Geshig, in northern Minnesota, the center of reservation life for a number of Ojibwe, Marion Lafournier is a young gay man who once planned to leave town, but is drawn back, haunted by the community as are so many of his relatives. He hooks up with white former high school friend Shannon, who won’t admit he’s gay. That relationship draws Marion, as much as the stories of the town. In one, the murder of Kaydan Kelliher, an Ojibwe basketball star, comes alive when Marion discovers a ghost dog, a revenant that contains Kaydan’s soul. This dreamlike debut reveals the memories and stories of Marion, Kaydan, and a number of women with legendary tales of losing the men in their lives. Those generational influences turn women into alcoholics and addicts who abandon their children in a haunted town. With its multiple narrators and stories of ghosts, this debut will find its audience in those searching for #ownvoices authors with an authentic view of reservation life and the tragedies that haunt the communities.

Red background with image of buffalo (American Bison) in black --book cover imageWinter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Virgil Wounded Horse wants to do right by his Lakota reservation, but is vigilante violence really the way? He’s been earning a meager living as an enforcer, taking charge when the legally shackled tribal police can’t act and the feds won’t. He’s also raising his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan. Virgil was bullied for his mixed- blood heritage, and so is Nathan. Enter wealthy tribal councilman Ben Short Bear, who was none too fond of Virgil while he was seeing his daughter, Marie, but who now wants Virgil to take care of a guy Ben says is dealing heroin. Virgil is skeptical, but then Nathan nearly dies from an overdose, and Marie reenters his life. Weiden’s cantering, engrossing, and culturally revelatory debut crime novel is propelled by vital and affecting Native American characters facing the endless repercussions of the genocidal past, ongoing racism and injustice, and cruel betrayals within their besieged community. Suspenseful, gritty, gruffly endearing, and resonant, Weiden’s thriller, with its illumination of Lakota spiritual traditions and hopes raised for Virgil’s evolution from thug to sleuth, launches a promising and meaningful series.

 

Nonfiction

photograph of young Alexie and his mother in black and white surrounded by beat up broken up pieces of picture frame--book cover imageYou Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie

Alexie is a consummate, unnerving, and funny storyteller, no matter what form his tales take. From his 13 poetry collections, including What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned (2014), to his many works of fiction, among them the children’s book, Thunder Boy Jr. (2016), and Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories (2012), Alexie’s writings are veined with autobiography and Native American life and history. He now presents his first all-out memoir, a profoundly candid union of prose and poetry catalyzed by the recent death of his Spokane Indian mother, Lillian, one of the last to speak their tribal language, a legendary quilter, and a fighter to the end. Alexie’s deeply delving remembrance expresses a snarl of conflicting emotions, ranging from anger to awe, and reveals many tragic dangers and traumas of reservation life, from the uranium dust generated by nearby mines, which caused Lillian’s lung cancer, to the malignant legacy of genocide: identity crises, poverty, alcoholism, and violence, especially rape, in which the “epically wounded . . . turned their rage” on each other. Alexie chronicles his own suffering as a boy born hydrocephalic and an adult diagnosed as bipolar, and tracks his flight from the rez and his life as a writer, pouring himself into every molten word. Courageous, anguished, grateful, and hilarious, this is an enlightening and resounding eulogy and self-portrait.

sepia and lavendar photo image of native americans in traditional dress on horseback in prairie landscape--book cover imageThe Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens

The settlement or “conquest” of the trans-Mississippi West is embedded in our national consciousness, and the military defeat and confinement of the various Indian tribes is an integral part of that epic story. Cozzens, who has written extensively on the various Indian wars, offers a magnificent single-volume account of the post–Civil War conflicts that shaped our history and the mythology of the frontier, spanning four decades and ranging from the Great Plains to the Pacific and from Canada to Mexico. In examining the various Indian tribes and subgroupings within them, Cozzens does an admirable job of conveying their complexity and political divisions. We learn, for example, about the disdain many Apaches held for Geronimo as well as the conflict between “progressive” and “traditional” Lakotas as they coped with reservation life. Icons like Custer, Cochise, and Crazy Horse are given their due, but Cozzens also covers less well-known figures and conflicts, including Captain Jack (Kintpuash) and the Modoc War, and the particularly tragic defeat and displacement of the Utes in Colorado. American military leaders, especially generals Crook and Miles, are viewed honestly and sometimes sympathetically, and Indian leaders are treated with equal balance and fairness. This is a beautifully written work of understanding and compassion that will be a treasure for both general readers and specialists. This book was awarded the Gilder Lehrman Prize and the  Bancroft Prize.

Painted portraits of Tecumseha and his brother Tenskawatawa--book cover imageTecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation by Peter Cozzens

Historian Cozzens (The Earth Is Weeping) delivers an enthralling, deeply researched dual biography of Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his younger brother, Lalawethika. Born in 1768 in modern-day Ohio, Tecumseh honed his warrior skills in a series of violent encounters with white settlers. Following the Northwestern Confederacy’s defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, the Shawnee lost their homeland, but Tecumseh remained in the region and consolidated his political power as a village chief. Meanwhile, Lalawethika, who lost his right eye in a childhood accident, was a heavy drinker until a series of visions in 1805 inspired him to start a spiritual and cultural revival movement aimed at building a pan-Indian alliance “capable of resisting the onrushing white frontier.” Adopting the new name Tenskwatawa, he and Tecumseh built the Prophetstown settlement as their movement’s headquarters and clashed with territorial governor (and future president) William Henry Harrison. Siding with England in the War of 1812, Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames. Tenskwatawa, his power eroded and his planned confederation shattered, died in 1835 on a reservation in Kansas. Cozzens’s cinematic narrative is steeped in Native American culture and laced with vivid battle scenes and character sketches. American history buffs will gain a new appreciation for what these resistance leaders accomplished.

photograph of Native American stone building--book cover imageNative American Landmarks and Festivals: A Traveler’s Guide to Indigenous United States and Canada by Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Arlene Hirschfelder

Authors of the well-received Native American Almanac, Dennis (educational director, Children’s Cultural Ctr. of Native America) and Hirschfelder (formerly with the Association of American Indian Affairs; Native Americans: A History in Pictures; The Extraordinary Book of Native American Lists) provide copious data on 729 Native American sites, describing rituals and celebrations (including powwows and roundups), artifacts, history, and visitors’ activities. They offer thorough background information on parks, pageants, monuments, and landmarks as well as detailed coverage of the holdings of museums and heritage or cultural centers. A thoughtful introduction explains the absence of most battlefields. There are brief evocations of regions (plains, mountains), with the authors noting the number of Indigenous nations and Native citizens in each state. Phone numbers, websites, and abundant black-and-white photos help with trip planning, but there are no maps or ranking of attractions. General resources and a short list of mostly recent further reading extend the book’s reach. As the authors mention, this title covers only Canada and the United States, not Indigenous sites in the other 21 North American countries and nine dependent territories. Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Marianas are discussed, however. This authoritative, information-packed volume will be invaluable for tourists but also useful to others researching Indian history, heritage, and current cultural production.

photograph of older native american man in traditional dress--book cover image“All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker

This book will be a wake-up call to those who are confident that they understand the Native American experience. Dunbar-Ortiz (An Indigenous People’s History of the United States) and journalist Gilio-Whitaker (Indian Country Today Media Network) present a no-holds barred, confrontational discussion of historical misrepresentations, cultural misunderstandings, and racial myths faced by today’s Native Americans. Among the presumptions addressed and dissected are that modern tribal peoples are wards of the state, all of whom take advantage of government welfare or are rich from casinos; that sports mascots honor them; that the U.S. government gave them reservations and did not have a policy of genocide; and that native peoples were killed or died a long time ago. This work in many ways updates Devon Mihesuah’s American Indians: Stereotypes & Realities, which, though less strident, argues against several of the same illusions. The authors forcefully present their views and maintain that it is time for indigenous narratives to be recognized and heard. Highly recommended and essential reading for better understanding native voices in contemporary America.

photograph of prairie- or plains-like landscape under blue sky with American flag superimposed--book cover imageAn Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Dunbar-Ortiz, Native American studies scholar and longtime American Indian Movement member, offers a radical rewrite of traditional U.S. history up to and including the five wars waged since WWII, a history, she explains, based on settler colonialism, or the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft. As part of the long-­established Columbus myth, colonial settlers saw themselves as part of a worldwide system of colonization, while, simultaneously, land in this country went from being sacred—as it was for the indigenous—to being a commodity to be bought and sold. Dunbar-Ortiz doesn’t end her litany of violence against the indigenous as part of this land grab with the Sand Creek Massacre or Wounded Knee, as do some postmodern surveys of U.S. history. Instead, she argues that the same strategies employed with the indigenous peoples on this continent were mirrored abroad in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq in 1991, Afghanistan, and Iraq again in 2003. Meticulously documented, this thought-provoking treatise is sure to generate discussion.

Painting of Native american woman and child outside a tipi--book cover imageAs Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Gilio-Whitaker (American Indian studies, California State Univ. San Marcos; coauthor, All the Real Indians Died Off) aims for this work to serve as a primer for Native American rights activists dealing with environmental protection, pursuing the complex intersections of environmentalism and Native rights. The 2015–17 protests on Standing Rock tribal lands against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) provide a dramatic touchstone for discussion of key aspects of environmental justice theory as applied against a historical backdrop of American Indian nations. Long-standing conflicts between environmental groups wanting pristine wilderness without humans, and Native claims to historic land and water uses are examined. Among the first books to analyze the DAPL Standing Rock protests, contrasting Madelon L. Finkel’s Pipeline Politics: Assessing the Benefits and Harms of Energy Policy, Gilio-Whitaker’s review should go a long way toward finding common ground in the modern political arena. Highly recommended for American Indian studies and environmental justice students and scholars.

White background with hanging folk-art style tapestry or blanket of the American flag--book cover imageThis Indian Country: American Indian Political Activists and the Place They Made by Frederick E. Hoxie

Hoxie—author, professor, and trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian—focuses on Native American figures who, for the last 200 years, have sought to define a place for Native communities within the institutions of the U.S. He begins with James McDonald, the first Indian lawyer, who, in the 1820s, was the first Native activist to make the case for Indian rights directly to American political leaders. One of his successors, William Potter Ross, testified before Congress and was an active defender of American Indian nationalism until his death, in 1891. Sarah Winnemucca was a Paiute author and activist who wrote forcefully about the western expansion into her homeland. Hoxie examines in meticulous detail the successful 20-year Ojibwe struggle to stay on their land at Mille Lac, Minnesota, and the 1911 formation of the Society of American Indians, whose founders focused on the extension of American citizenship to all Native peoples. He concludes this enlightening volume, the latest in the Penguin History of American Life, with Vine Deloria, who encouraged “re-tribalization”—the return of young educated Indians from cities back to their tribes.

Two black and white photos of Native Americans ca 1950s--book cover imageIndians on the Move: Native American Mobility and Urbanization in the Twentieth Century by Douglas K Miller

In 1952, the Bureau of Indian Affairs inaugurated the Volunteer Relocation Program (VRP), which was intended to encourage Native Americans to move from rural reservations to cities. Approximately 100,000 Natives were relocated over the program’s 25-year existence. Although the author acknowledges that the VRP was a failure and caused harm to many who participated in the initiative, Miller (history, Oklahoma State Univ.) argues that some of its impacts were transformative. Rather than succumbing to the problems they encountered in urban areas, many Natives utilized their ingenuity and determination to chart their own futures. Some used educational opportunities to become academics, doctors, lawyers, or politicians. Others returned to their home communities to assume leadership roles, such as Wilma Mankiller, who rose to principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. It is not coincidental that Pan-Indian organizations, including the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the National Congress of American Indians, emerged from the urban milieu. VERDICT Miller’s narrative expands significantly beyond the VRP in order to contextualize it within the broader scope of Native American migration over the course of the 20th century. In doing so, he has created a fascinating monograph highly recommended for anyone interested in Native American studies or American history.

image of map in background with 3 images of Native Americans overlaid--book cover imageNative Americans State by State by Rick Sapp

The 2010 census identified 5.2 million people in the United States as American Indian or Alaskan Natives: less than 2% of the overall population of nearly 309 million. In Canada, the percentage is 4%: 1.1 million of a total population of around 34 million. Most of these people live on reservations or in areas set aside for them in the nineteenth century.

The numbers are very different from those in the sixteenth century, when European colonists brought disease and a rapacious desire for land and wealth with them from the Old World. While estimates vary considerably, it seems safe to estimate the native population as being at least 10 million. Ravaged by smallpox, chicken pox, measles, and what effectively amounted to genocide, this number had fallen to 600,000 in 1800 and 250,000 in the 1890s. Those who were left often had been moved many miles away from their original tribal lands.

Native Americans State by State is a superb reference work that covers the history of the tribes, from earliest times till today, examining the early pre-Columbian civilizations, the movements of the tribes after the arrival of European colonists and their expansion westwards, and the reanimation of Indian culture and political power in recent years. It covers the area from the Canadian Arctic to the Rio Grande, and the wide range of cultural differences and diverse lifestyles that exist. Illustrated with regional maps and a dazzling portfolio of paintings, photographs, and artwork, it provides a dramatic introduction not only to the history of the 400 main tribes, but to the huge range of American Indian material culture.

color photo of prairie/plains landscape with blue and pink (twilight) sky overhead--book cover imageThe Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer

Treuer—acclaimed author (Prudence, 2015), professor, and Ojibwe from the Leech Lake reservation in northern Minnesota—here offers his own very personal “counternarrative” to the depressing story of defeated, hopeless Native Americans depicted in Dee Brown’s 1970 classic, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Treuer methodically guides the reader along the path of Native history since that 1890 massacre, highlighting not just the ways in which treaties were ignored, or how the disastrous policy of assimilation was aimed at wiping out centuries of culture and language, or the drastic reduction of Indian landholdings resulting from the Dawes Act of 1877, but focusing instead on how each of these assaults on everything indigenous people held dear actually led to their strong resolve not only to survive but to emerge reenergized. Native participation in World Wars I and II, the termination policy and subsequent Relocation Act, the migration to cities, the rise and fall of the American Indian Movement, the growth of tribal capitalism engendered by tribal sovereignty—each of these phenomena is embellished not only by Treuer’s extensive documentation but also by anecdotes populated by members of his own family and longtime friends from Leech Lake. His scholarly reportage of these 125 years of Native history thus comes to vivid life for every reader.

 

Poetry

Evening/Sunset landscpe with group of Native Americans standing together --book cover imageAmerican Sunrise by Joy Harjo

Harjo, a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and Wallace Stevens Award, is now the first Native American U.S. Poet Paureate. This momentous appointment will steer readers to her previous collections; her memoir, Crazy Brave (2012); and to this resplendent and reverberating new volume deeply rooted in tribal and family experiences, nature, land, and tradition. Harjo places swatches of history between her entrancing lyrics like specimens of poisonous plants in a naturalist’s log, beginning with President Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of Native Americans, including Harjo’s ancestors; she then follows the subsequent Trail of Tears back to the White House where the current occupant has hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office. Harjo’s bracing political perspective is matched by timeless wisdom as she reflects on her life and lessons learned, and celebrates her time-bending grandfather, saxophone-playing grandmother (Harjo does the same), Earth’s bounty, and the transcendent power of song and love. In clarion, incantatory poems that recalibrate heart and mind, Harjo conveys both the endless ripples of loss and the brightening beauty and hope of the sunrise.

Photo of Native American woman sitting in tall prairie grass under blue sky--book cover imageWhereas by Layli Long Soldier

In 2009, President Obama signed a Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, which could have proven historically monumental, but the resolution was never read aloud, no tribal leaders received it, and the apology was subsumed in a Defense Appropriations Act. For this searingly intelligent, masterfully crafted, and unarguably important debut book of poetry, Long Soldier takes the Resolution of Apology as a bulwark against which to orient a poetic response. Blending prose and verse, writing in heritage language and foster tongue, playing with white space and marginalia, Long Soldier articulates an argument against the conventional framing of Native space surrounded and dominated by federal lands, hijacking legalese to resist this ongoing colonization. In the process, she generates singular and ineffable imagery: “I’m chewing at a funeral and. I’m nibbling my pulp knuckles.” Elsewhere, “A tick head burrows in the skin of a question.” A wickedly smart, necessarily solemn, and unmistakably urgent addition to a continually burgeoning canon of Native poetry, alongside such authors as Natalie Diaz, dg okpik, and Jennifer Foerster.

Night sky with crescent moon and large red sun (?) with railing and raven or crow standing on railing--book cover image Corpse Whale  by Dg Nanouk Okpik

A self-proclaimed “vessel in which stories are told from time immemorial,” poet Dg Nanouk Okpik seamlessly melds both traditional and contemporary narrative, setting her apart from her peers. The result is a collection of poems that are steeped in the perspective of an Inuit of the twenty-first century: a perspective that is fresh, vibrant, and rarely seen in contemporary poetics.

Fearless in her craft, Okpik brings an experimental, yet poignant, hybrid aesthetic to her first book, making it truly one of a kind. “It takes all of us seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling to be one,” she says, embodying these words in her work. Every sense is amplified as the poems, carefully arranged, pull the reader into their worlds. While each poem stands on its own, they flow together throughout the collection into a single cohesive body.

The book quickly sets up its own rhythms, moving the reader through interior and exterior landscapes, dark and light, and other spaces both ecological and spiritual. These narrative, and often visionary, poems let the lives of animal species and the power of natural processes weave into the human psyche, and vice versa.

Okpik’s descriptive rhythms ground the reader in movement and music that transcend everyday logic and open up our hearts to the richness of meaning available in the interior and exterior worlds.

 

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