Since November is Native American Heritage Month, we at Discover Books wanted to amplify Native American voices through stories. As with all heritage months, it is important to learn more about another culture’s traditions, histories, and contributions. In this blog, we hope to educate you about Native American culture, stories, voices, and book recommendations. We also hope that you want to learn about Native American traditions outside of this heritage month.
Characteristics of Native American Literature
Although not all Native American writing contains these features, many works come from the style of folktales. Some Native American literature incorporates repetition and patterns, making sure that readers remember crucial details or events. These details are sometimes rooted in mythology, especially of animal characters that have sacred meaning based on Native beliefs. If you want to learn more about Native American folktales, you may be interested in The Girl who Helped Thunder. Many folktales are written for younger audiences, so there are beautiful pictures and visualizations of Native stories!
Author Oscar Hokeah
To dive into more about Native American literature and culture, we spoke to Native American writer, Oscar Hokeah. He is a fiction author and citizen of the Cherokee Nation. His debut novel, Calling for a Blanket Dance, shows how Native communities heal and process their positions in America.
I don’t think readers need a history lesson to enjoy my debut novel, nor any Native novel. If a reader is curious enough to learn more, I’d consider that a win for Native allyship.Oscar Hokeah
Many non-Native Americans are deprived of Native American history within schools or art forms. Hokeah hopes to change that by writing about his own experiences and generational traumas that his family has encountered. He uses his writing for Natives “to find a deeper understanding of where we’re at now and where we’re headed.” It is important for members of Native communities to feel heard, so writing from experience is a very therapeutic activity. Hokeah believes that Native American work lets non-Natives look “into the Native world through our perspective.” By looking at Native culture through a Native lens, you will gain a more accurate understanding of how people live.
Another key point that Hokeah brings up is how he writes to provoke a variety of emotions in his readers. He enjoys making readers feel many emotions simultaneously so they have “access to the complexities of human emotion.” It’s important to remember how Native communities have felt throughout American history. So, for Hokeah, making readers feel similar emotions to how he has felt is crucial to capturing the Native experience.
I’d like for readers to see how much Natives love and how much we give to each other in an effort to survive sometimes brutal circumstances.Oscar Hokeah
While we never want to generalize, Hokeah expresses how important a sense of community is within Native American culture. He explains the role that decolonization — becoming independent from colonizers — has on Native traditions and rituals. When Native American writers discuss meaningful aspects of their culture, we should all pay attention. Hokeah’s novel, Calling for a Blanket Dance, even includes a Native ritual in its title. By sharing parts of Native American culture with others, Native writers provide a glimpse of how creative their culture can be regarding loving and healing.
As someone with an educational background in Native American studies and with life experience as a Native American, Hokeah shared some Native writers and literature that inspired him. He suggests readers look into work by Cherokee author Robert J. Conley, specifically a book called Mountain Windsong. “It’s the quintessential book on the Cherokee removal for those of us inside the Cherokee reservation… it was a big influence on my writing,” Hokeah said. Conley using both Cherokee and English words inspired him to use this technique in his own novel. N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn, also motivated Hokeah, which showed him how to show “the movement between reservation life and urban life.” By relating to these authors as a Native American individual, Hokeah was able to learn how to best tell his personal experiences as part of an oppressed culture.
More Native American Voices
In addition to Hokeah and the authors he recommended, there are more Native American voices and stories that we want to mention. If you want to learn more about Native American culture through essays, check out We Are the Middle of Forever. Jamail and Rushworth’s collection captures Native American perspectives about environmental issues, mainly climate change and its impacts on Native culture. On a similar path, you may enjoy Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which provides Native American wisdom through viewing nature.
Some authors or titles may even be familiar to you without further research. Joy Harjo, former United States Poet Laureate, incorporates Navajo songs and traditions into her poetry in her newest book, Weaving Sundown in a Scarlet Light. Harjo’s also advocates for feminism within Native American communities as well. Young adult readers may enjoy Goodreads’s Winner for Best Young Adult Fiction in 2021, Firekeeper’s Daughter. Boulley’s mystery, set in the Ojibwe reservation, focuses on a resilient woman. If you are a fan of horror or want to learn more about the genre, you should read The Only Good Indians. Filled with drama and suspense as four Native American men have to face the vengeance of some cultural traditions that they wanted to keep in the past.
Regardless of if you decide to read fiction or non-fiction by Native American writers, allow yourself to read Native stories with an open mind and heart. November has officially been Native American Heritage Month for just over three decades while these communities have had ancestors in America for thousands of years. This is why we suggest you read as many Native American stories, poems, memoirs, and novels as possible. By reading about other traditions and beliefs, we expand our perspectives.