Seven books (and a TV show) to celebrate Native American Heritage Month

By Molly Minturn | November 4, 2022

Guest post from Haley Gillilan (Undergraduate Student Success Librarian) and Keith Weimer (Librarian for History and Religious Studies).

November is Native American Heritage Month! It’s a wonderful opportunity to honor Indigenous traditions, cultures, and histories. At the University of Virginia Library, we’re highlighting work created by and about Native Americans; take a look at staff book and television recommendations below.

Recommended by Leigh Rockey, Video Collections Librarian

“The Removed” by Brandon Hobson (Ecco, 2021)

Right from the start in “The Removed,” we know that Ray-Ray, the eldest son of the Echota family, will be killed unjustly by the police. Just a few pages later, we feel like we know him and already mourn the loss of such an endearing character. We work through the grief and anger along with the rest of the family as they each tell their story 15 years after Ray-Ray’s brutal death. Sometimes an ancestor, Tsala, who perished on the Trail of Tears, breaks into the narrative and expands our range of view to encompass Cherokee legends. While the narrative of “The Removed” isn’t bright and sunny, there is a penetrating warmth that leaves the reader full of hope.

Recommended by Meg Kennedy, Curator of Material Culture

“Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes: Nine Indian Writers on the Legacy of the Expedition” edited by Alvin M. Josephy Jr. (Knopf, 2006)

Inspired by the bicentennial events of the Corps of Discovery, this edited volume of nine essays gives voice to the largely overlooked experiences of the many and distinct Native American sovereign nations affected by the 1803-1806 cross-continent journeys of Lewis and Clark. Readers will be familiar with the colonial stories of exploration: first points of contact, experiences of discovery, the naming of waterways and vast lands, and the emergence of democratic society in a lawless land. The varied essays, though, reframe the narrative, bringing to life long-standing and long-distance trade networks that crossed the continent, long-inhabited lands, long-ago named rivers and places, long-established democratic systems. The authors —leaders and scholars representing diverse tribal communities — use different techniques to address the impacts of the Corps of Discovery, challenging accepted historiographies through their inclusion of oral and shared community records, reconsidered political and economic histories and literary examinations of Manifest Destiny. As author Mark H. Trahant notes, “Eventually other stories surface, too. These alternative histories serve as reminders that the journey continues.”

Recommended by Erin Pappas, Librarian for the Humanities

“There There” by Tommy Orange (Knopf, 2018)

Publisher’s summary: A wondrous and shattering novel that follows 12 characters from Native communities, all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize.

Among them are Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind; Dene Oxendene, pulling his life together after his uncle’s death and working at the powwow to honor his memory; and 14-year-old Orvil, traveling to perform traditional dance for the very first time. Together, this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American — grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, and with communion and sacrifice and heroism.

Hailed as an instant classic, “There There” is at once poignant and unflinching, utterly contemporary and truly unforgettable.

Recommended by Keith Weimer, Librarian for History and Religious Studies

“Path Lit By Lightning” by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, 2022) and “Mixed Bloods and Tribal Dissolution” by William Unrau (University Press of Kansas, 1989)

For this year’s Native American Heritage month readings, I chose books about two of the most “successful” Native Americans of the 20th century — “Path Lit By Lightning,” David Maraniss’ 2022 biography of Jim Thorpe (a member of the Sac and Fox tribe), often hailed as the greatest athlete of all time; and “Mixed Bloods and Tribal Dissolution: Charles Curtis and the Quest for Indian Identity,” William Unrau’s 1989 biography of Herbert Hoover’s vice president, who was a member of the Kaw Nation. (Despite its cringeworthy title, Unrau’s book remains the only biography of Curtis available.)

Although both men were biracial, Curtis was much more grounded in the world of his white relatives and had a base of capital in the tribal land inherited from his mother’s family, which he used to launch and sustain his political career. He was a strong proponent of assimilation, sponsoring the Curtis Act of 1898, which abolished the authority of tribal courts and tribal law, and strengthened the privatization of tribal land, much of which became prey for white land developers.

Thorpe, a descendant of the iconic warrior Black Hawk, who had led some of the last resistance to white settlement east of the Mississippi, grew up among the Sac and Fox tribe in Oklahoma and attended boarding schools based on a concept of forced assimilation into white culture — most famously Carlisle Academy, where he excelled at football, baseball, and track and field. He won gold at the 1912 Olympics, then had his medals taken away after revelations that he had played two summers of minor league baseball (a humiliation during which he received no support from either Carlisle or his mentor, Coach “Pop” Warner). His remaining life seemed like a decline from early promise, although it still included some remarkable triumphs, as well as activism on behalf of Native Americans. While some of Thorpe’s difficulties stemmed from his personality, they also resulted from a lack of the kind of starting capital and firm connections possessed by Curtis.

Recommended by Cecelia Parks, Undergraduate Student Success Librarian

“Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands” by Juliana Barr (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

Publisher’s summary: Revising the standard narrative of European-Native American relations in America, Juliana Barr reconstructs a world in which Native Americans were the dominant power and Europeans were the ones forced to accommodate, resist, and persevere. She demonstrates that between the 1690s and 1780s, Indigenous peoples, including Caddos, Apaches, Payayas, Karankawas, Wichitas, and Comanches, formed relationships with Spaniards in Texas that refuted European claims of imperial control.

Barr argues that Native Americans not only retained control over their territories but also imposed control over Spaniards. Instead of being defined in racial terms, as was often the case with European constructions of power, diplomatic relations between Native Americans and Spaniards in the region were dictated by Native American expressions of power, grounded in gendered terms of kinship. By examining six realms of encounter — first contact, settlement and intermarriage, mission life, warfare, diplomacy, and captivity — Barr shows that Native American categories of gender provided the political structure of Native American-Spanish relations by defining people’s identity, status, and obligations vis-à-vis others. Because Native systems of kin-based social and political order predominated, argues Barr, Native American concepts of gender cut across European perceptions of racial difference.

Recommended by Haley Gillilan, Undergraduate Student Success Librarian

“Reservation Dogs” on FX Hulu

“Reservation Dogs” is a slice-of-life comedy about four Native American teenagers living on a reservation in Oklahoma. In its short, two-season run, it’s broken barriers for Indigenous filmmaking and representation, with an almost entirely Indigenous cast and crew. While at first it seems that the show is simply about four teens hanging out and having normal high school problems, the plot slowly reveals deep interpersonal and internal conflicts. Bear, Elora, Willie Jack, and Cheese are trying to make their way to California, but will their different values and ways of dealing with grief tear them apart before they get there? “Reservation Dogs” is filled with slow, spiritual, and meaningful moments while also doling out huge laughs and brilliant comedic performances. It’s been renewed for a Season Three, so I highly recommend catching up on the first two seasons and diving into this beautiful TV show!

“Firekeeper’s Daughter” by Angeline Boulley (Henry Holt, 2021)

Angeline Boulley has described the main character of her book as an Indigenous Nancy Drew, and the comparison feels apt! Eighteen-year-old Daunis Fontaine is trying to find her way in her Ojibwe community, but for several reasons is struggling to fit in. When tragedy strikes, she is thrust into a police investigation dealing with some corruption in her town. But as she gets deeper into the mystery, it gets harder and harder to know whom to trust. The stakes for Daunis and her family are high, and she’s going to have to rely on her instincts more than ever. This YA novel is perfect for those seeking a thriller with a true crime vibe, featuring a smart protagonist and a community that’s often underrepresented. Some of subject matter can be heavy and hard to read, but Boulley handles these moments with care and nuance.

Is your favorite piece of Native American literature or media missing from this list? Find us on Twitter @UVALibrary and let us know!

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