How many indigenous authors have you read?
How do you choose what to read? Do you look for authors you like new topics you’re not familiar with, through recommendations from friends or classics everybody says you must read before you die? I bet your answer is all of them and many more. As for me, I recently realized that I wasn’t as open-minded as I thought when it came to my reading choices. I remembered one my college professors, who told us to throw away our literature anthology, considered to hold the most important literature in the English language (you probably know which one I’m talking about), in other words, the canon of literature. Her reason was simple and logical: the canon is all white, male authors. No one's denying their importance and value for our culture. I mean, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, and others included in the anthology are definitely some of literature's pillars, but what about other authors from different backgrounds who have also contributed to literature?
Ground Cover by Inuit artist Heather Campbell (@hcampbellart)
I’m guessing that if you’re here, it’s because you’re interested in learning about and exploring other stories and realities far away from what that closed and elitist canon has to offer. And let me tell you, you won’t regret it. So, without further ado, take a look at these indigenous female authors we all should be reading right now.
Debra Magpie Earling
Magpie is a renowned Native American author who has won several awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the American Book Award. As a member of the Bitterroot Salish group, she has dedicated her life to challenging stereotypes and false narratives about Native Americans. Her work also deals with the cultural clashes between her own culture and the mainstream one that she had to learn how to navigate (spoiler alert: it hasn’t been easy).
Recommended reading: Her most popular books are the award-winning Perma Red (2002) and The Lost Journals of Sacajewea (2011). The first one is a fictional retelling of the tragic life of Louise White Elk (Earling’s aunt), the daughter of a Native American woman who dies while looking for her husband. The novel explores the identity and struggle of this beautiful woman so eager to belong somewhere, that she ends up falling in the jaws of really dangerous people. The second novel was inspired by the story of Sacajawea and the mythification of her life throughout history. Here, Magpie imagines what this young woman’s life was like when she met and joined Lewis and Clark in their journey.
Collage work by Melanie Rivers (@melanie2_rivers)
Born in Ekuanitshit, an indigenous Inny reserve in Québec, Mestokosho is one of the most prominent indigenous Canadian activists and writers. With a bachelor's degree in Political Science, she's dedicated to preserving and sharing the Innu language with the world. For this reason, she’s collaborated in the creation of an Innu cultural center and has been an avid participant in international literary festivals.
Recommended reading: Her poetry collection, Eshi Uapataman Nukum (How I See Life, Grandmother), with poems in French and Innu (later translated into English for a trilingual edition), talk about the marginalization and poverty that affect life in indigenous reserves. However, the poems also explore the sense of community and belonging shared by everyone in the group.
Angélica Ortiz López
As a member of the Huichol indigenous group in Mexico, Ortiz López (or as her community calls her, Aitsarika) is a professor and researcher focusing on the study of indigenous languages. Apart from her academic career, she’s written several poetry collections in her native language.
Recommended reading: Many of her poetry collections, which include Ne Werika Xika Nehikitinike (If I were an Eagle), Iki mi’akwie (This is Your Land), and Wixarika Niawarieya (Huichol Poetry) are homages to Huichol traditions and myths. They also show how their views of the world are very much relevant in today’s world, and how the diffusion of indigenous languages allows us to understand and know more about our origins.
Shattered but not Broken by Oneida artist Aura (@auralast)
We can’t talk about indigenous authors without mentioning Quintasket, considered to be the first Native American woman to publish a novel in the early twentieth century. Best known by her pen name, Mourning Dove, Quintasket, lived in the Colville reservation in Washington. After learning English by reading dime novels, she became interested in literature and decided she wanted to write. In 1912, she started writing her first novel, which was published after World War I. In the 1930s, she became very active in indigenous reservation politics to the point that she was elected for the Colville Tribal Council.
Recommended reading: Merging a classic narrative style and stories of romantic novels with a very serious exploration of the Native American experience, Cogewea: The Half-Blood (her first novel) tells the story of a mixed-race woman living between cultures: in a love triangle with a Native man and a white rancher, her own culture versus that of white Americans, and even the type of education and life she should lead.
Born in Alberta, Dumont is a poet of Cree and Métis descent. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Alberta, but also devotes some of her time to poetry. She’s one of the most anthologized indigenous Canadian writers, and her poetry has won many awards. Besides representing the immemorial traditions of her indigenous groups, her work shows how colonialism still affects their everyday lives, and how their identity is shaped by how they face and challenge this experience.
Recommended reading: A Really Good Brown Girl is her first poetry collection. In these poems, Dumont explores how society tends to force ideas about people without really caring for the diverse circumstances that everyone faces. What makes this collection something really worth reading is the relatable and even humorous way in which she exposes this mainstream marginalization of indigenous identity in modern times, based on ignorance, condescension, and stereotypes.
Reverence for Life by Métis artist Christi Belcourt (@christi_belcourt)
Reading is definitely the best way to understand the world and the role we play in it. And precisely because of that, it’s so important that we are open to the new narratives and experiences books have to offer. Naturally, these are only a handful of examples of indigenous female writing, but I really hope it inspires you to look for other authors, just like I was when I discovered them.
You should really take a look at these:
Cover image by @auralast