Seven Books by Native Women to Read During National Native American Heritage Month
November is National Native American Heritage Month in the US, and also the month in which a lot of Americans wheel out a disturbing revision of history related to Native communities on one of the culture’s biggest holidays, so I thought it would be a good time to highlight work from the women of those communities. This has been an interesting list to put together for me, because I have admittedly not made much of an effort to seek out work from Native women before.
It’s been an important step forward in relearning the history of the country I’m from, and in some ways, a little more about who I am and my own broken ancestral lines. My family tree is a mess of snapped and undocumented branches, but one theme I have been able to trace consistently is that of Native women ancestors who married white men, and who, thereafter, had their own ancestral ties swallowed up whole and assimilated into white American culture.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the books on this list deal with that kind of subject matter — on maternal lines, on daughterhood, on motherhood, on in-betweenness and systematic erasure, and how womanhood and nativeness can often intersect to subsume the individual, and thereby the culture the individual is from.
In short, it has been a delight, a sorrowful endeavor, an eye-opening experience, making my way through this list, and I hope it can be the same for some of you.
The Seed Keeper
The Seed Keeper follows several generations of a Dakota family’s struggle to keep their culture alive, told primarily through the story of Rosalie Iron Wing. After both of her parents pass, Rosalie is told by the state that she has no more living relatives and is placed in foster care. Looking to escape her foster family, she marries a white farmer as a teenager, and spends the next two decades living among a white farming community that is all but openly hostile toward her nativeness.
As the community grapples with the creeping effects of capitalism-driven farming practices, Rosalie faces more personal struggles with raising a half-white son who is isolated from his Native roots, with a husband who doesn’t always understand her or where she comes from. She takes refuge in her garden and the practice of keeping heirloom seeds, and when her husband passes away, in a rapidly descending cloud of so many unmourned griefs, she returns to her ancestral home, where she begins to retrace the broken lines of her family tree and piece together the narrative of her shattered identity.
Future Home of the Living God
This book is like a mashup of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but also its own glorious thing. Cedar Hawk Songmaker is born to Ojibwe parents and adopted by a liberal white couple at birth. She is four months pregnant when she finally decides to make a pilgrimage to the reservation where she was born to meet her birth mother. The world is in turmoil when Cedar heads north, as news begins to spread that there’s something wrong with the babies being born in recent months. Reports are scattered and unreliable, but it seems that something has caused human evolution to reverse.
The novel unfolds against a dystopian backdrop, where pregnant women are being rounded up and locked in facilities, while propaganda and disinformation replace all reliable news sources. Governments break down, religiously motivated vigilantes run amok, and Cedar is forced into hiding while she waits for her baby to be born.
A Mind Spread Out on the Ground
This is one of those amazing works that have become more common in recent years, as more members of marginalized groups are prying their way through the gatekeeping of the publishing world. Elliott, a Tuscarora writer who moved to the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve as a young teen, deftly weaves together bits of memoir with current events, historical and cultural research and social commentary to tackle the inherited and ongoing effects of colonization on Native communities.
She tackles a variety of issues, including mental health, poverty, gentrification, identity, representation in media, parenthood, food stability and sexual assault with a wide lens that zooms in and out to show how the macro and micro — the political and the personal — are inextricably linked. It’s a book that’s impossible to summarize, and therefore crucial to just read.
Empire of Wild
Joan is a Métis woman who is swimming in heartbreak. Her husband, Victor, has been missing for almost a year. After a fight, he just walked off into the woods and never returned. One evening, she pulls into a Walmart parking lot to find a big tent revival, and wanders over out of curiosity, only to be greeted by a jarring sight — it’s Victor, hair cut short, tattoos covered, in a suit and preaching the gospel. Hysterical with relief and confusion, Joan approaches her husband only to find that he seems not to recognize her.
In this novel, Dimaline weaves together Native supernatural lore with the larger background narrative of colonization in what is, at heart, a love story. Joan won’t give up on Victor, and continues to chase the big tent from town to town as she tries to uncover what dark forces may have their fangs in her husband.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
I’ve written more extensively about this book before, but I can’t leave it off this list. Kimmerer is a Potawatomi professor and botanist who combines her Native knowledge of plants and nature with her Westernized education to promote a more compassionate relationship between human beings and the rest of the natural world. This book outlines many of the problems with a purely capitalistic, secular approach to living in the world, which is already causing dire, measurable consequences to not only our mental health and wellbeing, but also our physical and practical immediate future.
While the book is ostensibly about plants (and animals), and I learned a lot about them by reading it, it is also a kind of manual for life, as it attempts to fold the human animal back into its natural place as one of many, and not a species apart.
Terese Marie Mailhot
Mailhot grew up on the Seabird Island First Nation reservation, and Heart Berries centers around a period in her life when she enters a mental hospital for about a week following a breakdown that leads to a dual diagnosis of PTSD and bipolar II. She writes through her breakdown and her stay at the hospital, reflecting on her broken relationship with her father, her experience of being a mother, her own mother’s struggles with mental illness, and the mental strain that comes from being a Native woman who loves a white man.
With a fragmented, poetic style, Mailhot fits together and parses through the complicated relationships between all of these parts, and how all of these personal relationships have been strained and shaped by the bigger forces of racism and colonialism.
The Break is a women’s story, through and through. When a mysterious crime takes place in an impoverished community on a dark, snowy night in an open field between rundown houses, four generations of Métis women find their way back to each other, as they close ranks to cope with a new round of the kind of gendered, generational trauma that many women unfortunately know so well.
Woven into the story are the men on the periphery, often transitory figures who drift in and out of the women’s lives with varying degrees of impact and damage, but it is the women who hold the family and community together, as imperfect as they may be.