Thirty-three years ago, November was declared Native American Heritage Month, celebrating the rich cultural, artistic, linguistic, and literary heritage of Indigenous Americans across the nation. To honor the voices and lives of Native American authors this November, we found three fiction titles that might help you engage with and understand the cultures and peoples to whom this month is dedicated.
It is as Joy Harjo writes in Crazy Brave: “We create legacy with our thoughts and dreams.” So, how better to celebrate the literary legacy of Native writers than by spending the month imbibing their thoughts and understanding their dreams?
Silko slips expertly through time, plying perspective against portrayal to examine five centuries of European settler colonialism in the Americas—and how this history has been obscured and overwritten. Through the lenses of different characters displaced across both space and time, Silko synthesizes the truth of Native lives across time. She drives toward a central thesis of Indigenous unity, arguing through a compendium of characters prepared to reclaim their lives, cultures, and lands that:
There was not, and there never had been, a legal government by Europeans anywhere in the Americas. Not by any definition, not even by the Europeans’ own definitions and laws. Because no legal government could be established on stolen land.
Almanac of the Dead is as complex as it is controversial; it is, as Silko calls it a “763-page indictment for five hundred years of theft, murder, pillage, and rape.” At once history, manifesto, sociological analysis, and anthropological text, Almanac of the Dead pulls no punches, dictating explicitly the centuries of harm Indigenous communities have weathered while imagining the future that might await them.
Detailing two murders set nearly 250 years apart, Howe tells the story of a family of Choctaw Shell Shakers—keepers of peace descended from the Grandmother of Birds, the first Shell Shaker. Focusing first on Shakbatina in 1738 and then turning to Auda Billy in 1991, Shell Shaker deals in experience, explaining what it is to navigate this world as both a woman and an indigenous woman. Early in the work, as Shakbatina offers herself in service of peace, willingly sacrificing her life to preserve order between tribes, she explains:
I am a Shell Shaker. I know when it is time to return to the earth. Today, I will tear myself from the arms of my family and stand in for my first daughter, Anoleta, who has been wrongly accused of the murder of a Chickasaw woman from the Red Fox village. I will sacrifice myself, knowing that peace will follow between our two tribes.
Howe explores agency across time, examining how Native American traditions and sense of place ebb and flow across two hundred years of history. What she finds is complex and circuitous, sourcing recursion in the shared stories of two women united by family ties, social expectation, and gendered violence despite the vast dissonance in their lives and contexts. Ultimately, Shell Shaker is an exploration of heritage and inheritance for both the Shell Shaker women of the Billy family but also for all Indigenous audiences.
Published in 1968 but focused on the life of Abel, a young soldier just returned to his home on a New Mexico reservation after serving in World War II, Momaday’s first novel is perhaps one of the most iconic works of twentieth-century literature produced by Native authors and thinkers. Abel’s is a story of dissonance and unease, flickering between the life he lives at home and the life he lives while in American society more generally. Abel’s internal discord is shared, Momaday explains; it is a function of a community that:
ha[s] assumed the names and gestures of their enemies, but ha[s] held on to their own, secret souls; and in this there is a resistance and an overcoming; a long outwaiting.
By examining the rifts Abel finds in himself and between the two arenas he navigates—one the product of inheritance, the other a product of assimilation and forced adaptation—Momaday explains the complex web of context that informs the lives of Native Americans across the US. His work is, in effect, an effort in translation, using a traditional European form (an extended novel written in English) to detail experiences that might not often find their home in long-form storytelling such as this. But, even still, House Made of Dawn rejects convention, unfolding first as poems before being revised into episodic sections, the novel defies chronology, prioritizing the honest weight of Abel’s experience over traditional temporal precision.
Honoring Native American Authors This Month
But these are only three of an incredibly rich literary tradition created and continued by Native American authors then and now. We suggest exploring the wealth of creative work each of these three authors created or, if that does not strike your fancy, dive into other Native American authors we’ve featured, such as Joy Harjo, Louise Erdrich, or Sherman Alexie. This November set aside some time to celebrate Native American Heritage Month alongside us. How better to celebrate than by appreciating the creative endeavors of authors sharing the beauty, tragedy, and complexity of their lives and the histories that have so shaped them?