You’ve probably heard about Native American literature. But you may have wondered, what actually makes it so, aside from the obvious?

Well, Native American literature features a combination of oral tradition, tribal mythology, and colorfully imaginative narratives rooted in symbolic archetypes. Recurring motifs include heroic acts, divine circumstances, and daring feats that sweep the reader to another world.

Native American books are gifts that need to be shared and explored by other cultures. Native literature should be taught in schools — especially since we were not able to tell our stories for so long. As the author of our own stories, we share our own point of view, political and social stances, and indigenous conscience that is vital to the representation of native people. Stories are healing and speaking about different indigenous experiences helps us navigate a world that often still has a hard time seeing us as part of society.


The term Native American literature is an extremely broad one, given that there are 574 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States alone, which each have countless, unique stories to share. Thus, the perspective or approach to storytelling will vary by tribe. Writers from marginalized groups have a greater sense of responsibility to the written word, the community, and how others perceive us. 

For instance, folktales have always been part of indigenous social culture. That means everyone in the tribe gathers and listens to stories. The novelty was not in the story itself, but storytellers were extremely important to the tribe. Stories often shared cultural knowledge, lessons, songs, and more that were pertinent to tribal survival. Furthermore, storytellers had a high standing in most tribes due to their creative gifts and cultural ties.

Landmarks, inanimate objects, and animals are often assigned human characteristics in order to teach a lesson, which can help the reader better identify with the struggle of the character. Many new authors love to explore themes of love and death and the possible consequences therein, which sometimes drive a story to use dark humor and elegant prose to balance out the story.

Storytelling in Native American literature has always had a certain rhythm and repetition. For instance, certain incidents in a story in European culture were repeated three times, which is consistent with the Christian concept of trinity (the father, son and holy spirit). In indigenous culture, incidents or repetition occurs in four (the cardinal directions, all the creatures on earth – those that walk, those that fly, those that swim and those that crawl etc.) This pattern, actually helps those who are listening remember the details better. It add a dramatic flair and aesthetic value. Although Native American literature has changed to include other cultures, worldview, ethics, and sociocultural settings, literature remains vastly important for indigenous people to have a voice not just within the tribe but outside mainstream culture.

Furthermore, the themes in Native American literature have often been very closely related between those of indigenous nations — and you can still see these parallels to this day. For instance, the Lakota people have recurring themes with a cast of characters, a hero, a lesson, and good/bad characters — which is very similar to Australian aboriginal stories. The Taino and Kichwa stories resembled the complicated mythologies of ancient Greece. The mythology and importance of the storyteller coincided with the ceremonies and relationships with nature, people, and objects. The stories were synonymous with the central beliefs of the tribes, thus providing a glimpse into tribal history.


Right now, there’s an explosion of talent that needs to be celebrated, heard, and shared. Authors have a certain sense of freedom to not just include parts of their tribal culture, but include parts of themselves in a more accepting world.

The new generation of writers confront many social, political, class, and gender issues and its resounding rejection of whitewashed stereotypes. Indigenous authors shed light on culture, history, activism, and struggles that although are unique to indigenous culture, it resonates with people from other ethnicities and yet remain strictly indigenous. Many authors draw from their own experiences growing up in reservations, addressing issues with violence, alcoholism, or poverty, etc. The impact of both fiction, non-fiction and poetry can only enhance the reader’s understanding of these issues.

Furthermore, more and more women are telling stories that focus on the indigenous female experience without the input and misinterpretation of European patriarchal culture. Native writers create characters that feel real in today’s world. There’s no pseudo-romanticization of characters that resemble European culture, but rather real, flawed characters who suffer and triumph like the rest of us. 

Writer Chip Livingston’s book “Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death” examines a world where the main character learns about his heritage while the love of his life fights against HIV. Similarly, a lot of new Native American literature weaves the past with the present, incorporating elements of history, language, and culture with modern Native struggles and dreams. Some writers effortlessly combine the two. For instance, Anishinaabe writer Linda LeGarde Grover does this beautifully in “The Road Back to Sweetgrass.”

Some of the current top books include: “Everything Here is Beautiful” by Mira T Lee, “Trail of Lightning” by Rebecca Roanhorse, “Sacred Smokes” by Theodore C.Van Last Jr., “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, “There There” by Tommy Orange, and “13 Original Clan Mothers” by Jamie Sams.