Author and writing instructor Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer helps authors confidently write Native American characters through her amazing course Fiction Writing: American Indians. Below, she shares 6 novels that portrayed Native Americans authentically and why these are her picks.
Here’s Sarah with her guest post.
If you want to learn how to write about Native Americans, one of the best ways to start is by reading good books. As a tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and author of 15 historical fiction books that feature Native main characters, I’ve compiled a list of 6 books which I feel accurately and authentically portray Native people and cultures.
First, I want to mention that we too often think of American Indians as being a novelty of the old West in the 1800s, or Squanto and Pocahontas and first contact. Though the books on this list are historical fiction (my favorite genre), Native people are alive and well today. Many of these books were written by those very much alive Native people.
I hope these stories inspire you to dig deep when you’re working to create genuine, non-stereotypical American Indian characters.
The Star That Always Stays
Shelved as a young adult novel, this coming of age story follows the true life story of Norvia. She’s a gentle soul with heartbreaking moments at a tender age—her father’s dislike of her Ojibwe blood, and her mother’s remarriage and her request of Norvia—to tell no one of her heritage.
I appreciate so many things in this story. It shows a young girl living in two worlds and embracing both without losing either in the end. I especially loved the character of the Native grandfather, and how authentic he was in action and speech. While I typically steer authors away from falling into the stereotype of the “wise guide” role for Natives, in this story, it’s a natural fit.
We should look to our elders for wisdom and guidance. The beautiful thing about this book is, a “wise guide” is not the only reason for the character.
The main character is on a journey of her own, one removed from the mystical stereotype we often see when Native characters are featured. She’s a regular girl with regular hopes, dreams, mistakes, and heartache. And she’s strongly Ojibwe.
The Star that Always Stays was written by Anna Rose Johnson (Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribe). This novel is directly based on her great-grandmother.
House of Purple Cedar
I have certain pages of this book that I come back to again and again. One is a scene in a kitchen where a cluster of Choctaw women chatter about the men in the other room. There’s something about the dialogue that rings so true, I feel I’m in the kitchen, chuckling along with them.
There is another scene where a pastor contemplates violent revenge. I’ve read it over and over.
This book influenced my first novel (The Executions, Choctaw Tribune Historical Fiction Series Book 1), set in the same years (1890s), a tumultuous time for the old Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory. It’s a hard time of injustice, tragedy, and hope.
Strong oral storyteller traditions comes through on the written pages of House of Purple Cedar, blending Native humor and thought-provoking questions for today.
I agree with Joseph Bruchac, who said of the book, “There is nothing else quite like it in its loving, clear-eyed description of a people, a time, and a place that are little-known to most.”
House of Purple Cedar was written by Tim Tingle (Choctaw).
The Healing of Natalie Curtis
I deeply appreciate how this author wrote an accurate and respectful story of Native history and culture. Based on the true story of Natalie Curtis, it ventures from the east coast in New York to humble dwellings of the Yuma people, and on to several tribes as Natalie finds her place and purpose in the West. She begins to sympathize with the tragic history of Native people in the early 1900s, and sets out to preserve beauty from their culture that is being stripped, song by song.
There were many whites in this time period who knew Native culture was being erased from history. In fact, Indian people were labeled the “vanishing race.” Whites like Natalie fought against the erasure, while knowing much was inevitable. Natalie saved what she could.
This book asks the hard question we still ask today: Should non-Natives write Native stories?
I talk about this topic a great deal, and created a digital course, Fiction Writing: American Indians, to equip authors of any ethnic background how to write about Native Americans accurately and respectfully.
I feel this book achieves that.
The Healing of Natalie Curtis was written by Jane Kirkpatrick.
When writing my own novel Anumpa Warrior: Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I, I came back to this book again and again. Code Talker tells the story of the Navajo Code Talkers in WWII from the perspective of Ned Begay, a youth who was among those young Marines off to fight a war on foreign soil.
This young adult novel shows challenges for the multiple races in the United States Military beyond the horrors of war. We learn the true background of many of the Diné (Navajo) who went to fight—what their growing up years were like, and what hardships they faced during them.
Drawing inspiration and facts from interviews with code talker veterans, the author gives an entertaining, enlightening account of the true Navajo Code Talkers of WWII.
Code Talker was written by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki).
Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery
This is a tragic yet gentle story of a little girl who is torn from her home and her family during the Choctaw Removal period of the 1830s.
Though shelved as a children’s book, I hold on to the words of the author who believes that Native stories should be told the same for an eight year old as an 80-year-old.
You feel that in the pages of Rising Fawn as you experience the depth of a family’s love, the great loss of homelands, and the hope of a kind white couple who gives Rising Fawn a new chance at life.
This is a quiet read that can touch your soul in a few words with striking depth and rhythm.
I included Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery in my anthology of Choctaw Removal stories: Touch My Tears: Tales from the Trail of Tears.
Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery was written by Marilou Awiakta (Cherokee).
Reading this book makes you wonder how much personal tragedy one woman can endure. We explore that through Little Bird—Esther McLish—as she overcomes life’s tragedies one at a time.
This is another story set in the 1890s when justice and fairness was at a minimum. Esther has few places and people to turn to as she fights to get her son enrolled on the final Chickasaw Nation rolls.
Based on true events and written by a descendent of the main character, it masterfully weaves the history together in a way that keeps the story moving while peeling back layers of tribal histories, customs, and truths.
Little Bird was written by Mary Ruth Barnes (Chickasaw).
Learn How to Write about Native Americans
Hopefully, this brief list of books will help you on your journey to writing American Indian characters. If you want next level learning, I invite you to check out my digital course, Fiction Writing: American Indians.
Fiction authors who want to write about Native Americans face a challenging minefield riddled with dos and don’ts. That’s why I created this course.
Through it, authors are equipped to write authentic stories that honor First Americans history and culture. Discover more at FictionCourses.com/AmericanIndians.
There, you can also download a free copy of my ebook, “5 Stereotypes to Avoid When Writing about Native Americans.”
Chi pisa la chike, my fellow author. I will see you again soon.
About the Author
Fiction authors who want to write about Native Americans face a challenging minefield riddled with dos and don’ts, and no clear answers. That is why author and writing instructor Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer created the Fiction Writing: American Indians digital course.
As a tribal member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, she has written and published 15 historical fiction books with Native main characters, and over 275 non-fiction articles on Native artists and organizations with representatives from dozens of North American tribes.The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian honored her as a literary artist through their Artist Leadership Program for her work in preserving Choctaw Trail of Tears stories, and she is a First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership alumni.
Through her in-depth, honest course, authors are equipped to write authentic stories that honor First American’s history and culture. Discover more at FictionCourses.com/AmericanIndians.
Affiliate links were included in this post, however, I only promote products that I recommend.
Hi there! I’m Stacy Juba, an author, freelance editor, and the founder of Shortcuts for Writers. I’d love to connect. If you’re a writer, here are a few ways we can work together: