As a teacher, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to read and discuss with students some excellent books by incredible authors. Living in New Mexico and next to the Navajo Nation, I tried to find novels that would appeal to my Native students. Here are a few selections to get young people started on the path of reading and learning about the many cultures in the U.S.
Native American Novels
Written by Chester Nez of the Navajo/Diné Nation, this book goes into great detail about the discrimination he faced as a young Navajo boy attending a boarding school to his time as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific. If you’re at all unfamiliar with the story of code talkers, this book will enlighten you to the incredible journey Mr. Nez had and how the code created by these courageous Navajo men helped the U.S. win the war in the Pacific. I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Chester Nez, Samuel F. Sandoval, and Thomas H. Begay speak about their time in the Marines. Bravery, honor, and nobility only begin to describe these heroes. Several lied about their age so they could join the military and service this nation at a very desperate time. For more information please read the Navajo Times article, “Remaining Code Talkers Honored.”
My first exposure to Sherman Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American, came in 2003 when I read his darkly humorous short story “Indian Education.” The piece is filled with nods to reservation life as well as Junior’s desire to assimilate but also hold onto his Native heritage. These themes are developed much deeper in his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. “Indian Education” PDF is available online and can be found with a simple Google search. Give it a read and you will get the general premise of Alexie’s novel. For another of Mr. Alexie’s books, check out his The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This contains other short stories relating to life on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
A more modern take on Native life and from a young woman’s perspective, Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith is a poignant look into young love and the unforeseen hurdles a person of color may face, especially in a school where the thread of prejudice has been woven through the community over generations. This novel is currently available on Kindle for only 99 cents. Ms. Smith is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and has another novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name coming out in February 2021.
Tim Tingle, a member of the Oklahoma Choctaw Nation, takes a more historical look at the prejudice and racism Native Americans faced in the 1830s with Trail of Tears. Although only 160 pages, this novel is powerful and heartbreaking. How I Became a Ghost will be/is part of a series written by Mr. Tingle. Like the previous authors, he has other great contributions to Native American Literature for young people.