Indigenous Peoples' Day is October 10, and in honor of the holiday, we’re highlighting a few notable Indigenous authors. These individuals have written novels, poetry, essays, and more about their lived experiences as members of their ancestral cultural groups; writing about the plight they and others like them have faced and continue to face. There are many more like them, and these choices were not based on any sort of system or ranking.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, an independent consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning, and a Colville Confederated Tribes tribesperson (Oliver et al., n.d.). In addition to her scholarly pursuits, using a framework she calls “indigenized environmental justice,” or considering environmentalism in the context of “the history of colonization as a historical process of dispossession of native peoples and their lands in order to understand the way native people are still fighting these battles" (Horn, 2019), she has written two books.
The first, "All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, co-authored with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and published in 2016, is an enlightening work about the lives and identities of modern Native Americans, examining both the lived experiences of Indigenous Americans and the stereotypes and other myths invented by the dominant non-Native culture. Her 2019 solo work, As Long as Grass Grows, is a history of Native Americans in the United States from the beginnings of European colonization to the modern day with a focus on the environment, the environmental movement, and the ways in which Indigenous peoples have been included (and excluded) from it and why.
Layli Long Soldier is a poet and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Having earned a Masters in Fine Arts with honors from Bard College, she went on to contribute to numerous collections, had a participatory installation featured on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and was awarded a National Artist Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Whiting Writer’s Award for her poetry.
Her full-length collection of poems, Whereas (2017), won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award (Gershoff & Long, 2017). While her work often focuses on personal experiences, it also touches on the history and present reality of oppression faced by Indigenous peoples around the world. She is also an outspoken activist and advocate against such oppression.
Scott Momaday is a Kiowa novelist, poet, painter, photographer, playwright, and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose work celebrates the art and oral traditions of Native Americans. He is also a tenured professor of English and a Senior Scholar at the School for Advanced Research, the 16th Poet Laureate for the State of Oklahoma, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds 15 honorary degrees and numerous awards. He founded the Buffalo Trust, which works to preserve and restore Native American culture, and is a founder of both the National Museum of the American Indian and the Stewardship Council of the Autry Center for the American West (Stewart, 2007).
While his works are too numerous to fully list, he is notable for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his first novel, House Made of Dawn (1969), which grew from a collection of poems into a full-length novel based on Momaday’s firsthand knowledge of life at Jemez Pueblo (Murphy, n.d.).
Vine Deloria Jr., a tribesperson of the Standing Rock Sioux, was an author, theologian, historian and activist for Native American rights. He served as the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), revitalizing the organization and paving the way for its renewed prominence. He wrote over 20 books about history, contemporary life, and theology using his unique perspective and sardonic wit to celebrate and inspire Native Americans.
His most famous novel is also that which propelled him to the national stage: Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (1969), which is considered one of the most prominent works ever written about American Indian affairs. The book made tribal struggles a matter of national interest, helping to introduce and cement the movement for tribal self-determination, which has since become a principle recognized in tribal, federal and international law (University of Colorado Boulder, n.d.). His other works continued with this theme, also touching on theology and spirituality and urging for an embrace of the natural world in our culture and lives.
Ambelin Kwaymullina is a senior lecturer at the University of Western Australia as well as a celebrated and award-winning children’s book author and young adult novelist. She describes herself as “an Aboriginal law academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia” (Kwaymullina, 2022) and her academic research profile is extensive and impressive.
She has written several picture books and young adult novels, including The Things She's Seen, that span several genres, each infused with Aboriginal lore and culture. She and her brother Ezekiel co-authored Catching Teller Crow in 2018, winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Young Adult Writing in 2019, which examines racism, violence, historic injustices, and corrupt police while telling a captivating supernatural tale (Gruschow, 2018).
Kwaymullina's latest book, Living on Stolen Land (2020) is a critically acclaimed work that the author states is her “reflection on what it means to be born on and to live on the stolen land of Ancestors.” She examines the past and present realities of what she calls “settler-colonialism,” wherein indigenous peoples are not only exploited and disrupted, but displaced long-term by settlers from other, more powerful nations (Leane, 2020). Like the author’s academic and legal work, the book is focused on the ongoing struggle of her people and their culture.
Gershoff, G., & Long, L. (2017). Layli Long Soldier. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/layli-long-soldier
Gruschow, K. (2018, August 29). Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina, Ezekiel Kwaymullina · Readings.com.au. Readings. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.readings.com.au/products/25760183/catching-teller-crow
Horn, S. (2019, May 2). CSUSM professor probes environmental impacts on Native Americans in new book. The Coast News. https://thecoastnews.com/csusm-professor-probes-environmental-impacts-on-native-americans-in-new-book/
Kwaymullina, A. (2022). Ambelin Kwaymullina — the UWA Profiles and Research Repository. the UWA Profiles and Research Repository. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://research-repository.uwa.edu.au/en/persons/ambelin-kwaymullina
Kwaymullina, A., & Leane, J. (2020, November 6). Living on Stolen Country by Ambelin Kwaymullina | Jeanine Leane. Sydney Review of Books. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/kwaymullina-living-on-stolen-land/
Leane, J. (2020, November 6). Living on Stolen Country by Ambelin Kwaymullina | Jeanine Leane. Sydney Review of Books. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/kwaymullina-living-on-stolen-land/
Murphy, S. (n.d.). "Wonder and Exhilaration": N. Scott Momaday's 'House Made of Dawn'. The Pulitzer Prizes. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.pulitzer.org/article/wonder-and-exhilaration-n-scott-momadays-house-made-dawn
Oliver, M., Dunbar, R., Gilio, D., & Beacon Press. (n.d.). Dina Gilio-Whitaker. Beacon Press. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from http://www.beacon.org/cw_contributorinfo.aspx?ContribID=1450&Name=Dina+Gilio-Whitaker
Stewart, M. (2007). N. Scott Momaday. National Endowment for the Arts. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.arts.gov/honors/medals/n-scott-momaday
University of Colorado Boulder. (n.d.). Vine Deloria, Jr. | Colorado Law. University of Colorado Boulder. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://www.colorado.edu/law/vine-deloria-jr