October 12 officially became a federal holiday in the United States in 1937. It had been celebrated far before it was federally recognized as the day that Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ what would become the America we all know today. In recent years, the celebration of colonization and the subsequent mass genocide of the indigenous people that already inhabited this continent has finally come under public scrutiny. Today, many cities and states have made the progressive move forward to instead celebrate this holiday as “Indigenous People’s Day” to honor those native to this land rather than to celebrate an individual who set into motion centuries of oppression for Native Americans.
In light of this, we approach another critical holiday in American history. No doubt many of us remember the story of the Native Americans and the pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts sitting down to a grand feast of unity that gave rise to Thanksgiving Day. It’s an important and touching image of peace that serves as a starting point in grade school for teaching acceptance and thankfulness, and in no way should our idea of a moment of unity or peace be broken (rather, we need it now more than ever)—but we should never favor only the positive aspects of our history since the truth is so important in moving forward. For this reason, the month of November in which we celebrate Thanksgiving is also Native American Heritage month, in support of further education and awareness of the people who originally loved and lived off this land and who have suffered greatly throughout history. When America was colonized, there were hundreds of separate Native American tribes across the country, each practicing their own religions, governments, and culture. Much of this was eradicated over time, along with many lives, languages, and customs. Native Americans were torn away from their lands, murdered, and indoctrinated. Many still struggle today to deal with poverty, persisting class divides, racism, misogyny, and injustice. This is the reality, and something that cannot be ignored over stereotypical imagery and concepts. In the wake of the BLM movement and the resulting uprise in racial sensitivity and revolution for equal treatment, the need for further education on Native American history and their similar systemic injustice is no less important.
One way to do this is to support indigenous authors and their work, which often shines a light on Native American heritage and hardships. In the same way that literature has taken on the task in today’s political climate to enlighten people and youth about racism in Black lives, we can seek out the following authors and their work to provide them the recognition they deserve—and educate ourselves in the process.
There There—Tommy Orange. Tommy Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and currently resides in Oakland, California. His breakout novel There There was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, and tells the story of several Native American characters dealing with personal demons and their own racial identity, converging together at a Pow Wow towards the end of the novel. This novel has made waves for its relevant themes and rich characterization, so it is definitely one to check out—and keep an eye out for Orange’s future hits.
Where the Dead Sit Talking—Brandon Hobson. A member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Brandon Hobson’s latest novel follows the story of a teen boy living in rural Oklahoma. In Where the Dead Sit Talking, Sequoyah deals with his mother’s substance abuse, life in the foster system, and meeting another teen girl dealing with much of the same trauma. It is set in the 1980s and is an authentic Native American coming-of-age story detailing the struggles present in many native communities.
The Only Good Indians—Stephen Graham Jones. Stephen Graham Jones is a Blackfoot Native American who has left his mark across multiple genres of fiction over the past 20 years, all met with great success. He has definitely made an imprint in the literary world for indigenous authors and he has done so with work that not only stands on great plot, but informative work that represents his culture. The Only Good Indians is his latest work that delves into the horror genre, following four Native American men returning from a hunting trip with a vengeful entity following close behind.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven—Sherman Alexie. I have a personal bias for Sherman Alexie—he is intelligent, witty, and a brilliant writer able to equally cater to the YA genre as he does adult readers. I chose The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven not for the long and entertaining name, but because this novel served as the inspiration for the movie that Alexie wrote and produced, Smoke Signals. Essentially, the novel conveys a compelling and darkly humorous story of growing up on reservations and coming to terms with broken families and self. I will also recommend Alexie’s equally compelling YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
#notyourprincess: Voices of Native American Women—Edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale. The editors of this compilation are both prominent names in indigenous publications, Lisa Charleyboy specifically serving as the editor for Urban Native Magazine. #notyourprincess is a collection of poems and prose by Native American women authors that highlight injustice and misogyny, as well and the inherent fears and defiance felt by native feminists. The works in this book confront stereotypes and celebrates heritage and strength in a modern world in which there are still additional hurdles if you are also a woman.
Winter in the Blood—James Welch. James Welch is considered by many a founding author in the Native American Renaissance, which is an uptake in indigenous authors and production of work in the 1960s. Winter in the Blood is a novel that follows a narrator haunted by the past and burdened with the weight of loss in the face of conflict between the reservation he resides on and the white settlement nearby. A slightly older novel in this lineup, the significance of James Welch and this haunting work still stands.
Savage Conversations—Leanne Howe. A member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Leanne Howe’s novel toes the line between fever dream and historical fiction. Mary Todd Lincoln is haunted by hallucinations, so much so that she is institutionalized, but could they be connected to the slaughter of Dakota Indians authorized by Abraham Lincoln himself? Strange Conversations is brilliant in its beauty and the uncomfortable re-evaluation we are forced to do over what little we may actually know of our country’s history.
How We Became Human—Joy Harjo. I’m ending this list with an individual I’ve admired all my life. Joy Harjo was born in Oklahoma and is a member of the Muscogee-Creek Nation. She is currently the Poet Laureate of the United States, the first Native American woman to hold that title in history. She is a musician, a painter, an author, and an educator in addition to being one of the greatest poets in the country. Her work represents her culture and her heritage, and tells the story of the past, present, and future of indigenous people. This anthology is a collection of her work through a large span of her career, and is a must-have to experience her talent and learn about Native Americans through the eyes of a woman who has represented her people with both grace and strength.
I was born and raised in Oklahoma, a state where Native American heritage and education is a priority in our curriculum. I started my college journey at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Cherokee capital. I married a man who is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and our children are registered members as well. His ancestors walked the Trail of Tears to settle in Oklahoma, and he grew up hearing the stories and tales from his grandmother, which were her effort to keep their traditions alive in him. We will continue to nurture this same knowledge and heritage in our children. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. Take notice of the plights of Native American communities across the country and get involved in spreading awareness for causes such as #MMIW or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. This Thanksgiving, keep those ideas of unity in your mind as we continue to reevaluate privilege and racism in America and confront those issues head on. If 2020 has done anything, it has created an opportunity for us to hold the less fortunate to a greater importance, whether they are individuals that are at higher risk for COVID-19, or those that have been victims of systemic racism throughout their lifetimes. Let’s have a safe holiday and remember to love one another.