My Top 21 Indigenous History Book Recommendations

By Carl McRoy

It’s Native American Heritage Month and I just want to do two things in this post to honor this occasion.

First, I want to help us resist the temptation of minimizing the size and diversity of the Indigenous population of North America prior to European colonization. The 2020 U.S. Census reports a total of 9.7 million Native Americans and there are currently 574 federally recognized Indian Nations within the U.S. borders. Additionally, “There are more than 630 First Nation communities in Canada,” with a population of 1.8 million people. Although many Native languages are at risk of dying out with the older generations, there are still approximately 200 different Indigenous languages spoken in North America. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Natives in California have “more linguistic variety than all of Europe.” What’s even more amazing is imagining the number of people and languages that existed before they declined from disease and war, along with policies of removal, relocation, ecological and economic degradation, and forced assimilation.

As I conclude this section, I’d like to challenge all readers to list the states and provinces of the U.S. and Canada that bear Indigenous names. Then, as you travel from one place to another, pay attention to the names of counties, cities, streets, rivers, lakes, and other sites for Indigenous words. What’s the history of the peoples whose languages label our landmarks? Do they still live in that area? If not, why not?

Second, I want to recommend a list of titles that I have read or am in the process of reading. The contents of this library will move you. To do what? That’s not for me to answer. How can I dictate the direction of the Spirit (John 3:8)?

This list is not in order of importance or publication date. They each are valuable in their own way, no matter when they were written. Neither does this list mean I endorse all views of all authors or that they and their publishers endorse mine. It just means I found something in them insightful and inspiring. Feel free to add to this list in the comments section, so we can all grow as a community. There are so many more titles that could and should be on this list, but I have a word count and a day job;)

  1. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah document the development of the Doctrine of Discovery and explore it’s contemporary legal, theological, and cultural implications in Unsettling Truths.

2. In Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, Richard Twiss wrestles with the meaning of the Christian faith from a Native American point of view. He believes in the gospel of Jesus, but not a version that glorifies the cowboys at the expense of ‘Indians.’

3. Native and Christian is a collection of essays from Native American Christians of various denominations and tribal nations discussing the tension between their culture and practicing a faith that has been used to marginalize them.

4. In Pagans in the Promised Land, Steven T. Newcomb uses insights from George Lakoff’s work on how metaphors shape our lives to examine the legal and theological rationale behind the Doctrine of Discovery and it’s lingering effect on Indian land law in the U.S.

5. Native American theologian, George E. Tinker, tells how seemingly well-intentioned missionaries brought lethal results to Indigenous peoples in Missionary Conquest.

6. Native American theologian, Vine Deloria, Jr., has a sarcastic humor that doesn’t stop with the title, Custer Died for Your Sins. It permeates the book. There’s probably not an Native American History scholar who doesn’t cite his work. However, it’s written in a style accessible for everyday people. They say not to judge a book by it’s cover, but sometimes ‘they’ are wrong. The cover grabbed my attention and the content kept it.

7. In 1491, Charles C. Mann opens the imagination to what the Americas were like B.C. – Before Columbus. It’s a thick book, but reader friendly.

8. Kyle T. Mays provides comparisons and contrasts between the histories and cultures of Native Americans and African Americans and shares some of the struggles and blessings of belonging to both groups. He uses unvarnished language at times and voices some strong political opinions that may offend some people. Whether you agree with him or not in those areas, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States is a valuable resource from a rather unique perspective.

9. How can we have a well-rounded understanding of U.S. History without details of the dates, people, and places that are significant from the Indigenous people’s perspective? Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States is a good starting place. I just learned that there’s a “For Young People” version of the book and look forward to reading that, too!

10. Spirit and Resistance is another one from George E. Tinker. Him again? Yes, he’s the first Native American theologian I came across for one thing – and I like his style.

11. Kaitlin B. Curtice invites the readers of Native on her thoughtful and emotive journey towards reconciling her Christian background and Indigenous roots as she raises a young family. She’s not necessarily trying to persuade anyone to her embrace her beliefs and she keeps the option open for herself to have a change of mind. One thing that seems clear is the desire for freedom of exploration and expression. Most of us long for that even as we disagree with each other.

12. The famous Geronimo telling his own story? Are you kidding? The audiobook was a must listen for me and it didn’t disappoint!

13. The Other Slavery by Andrés Reséndez is an award winning book about a slave trade many either underestimate or don’t know about. I may need to get the audio version to expedite this reading, but it’s worth it.

14. American Holocaust by David E. Stannard is long enough to be a novel, but not written like one. It’s filled with lots of destructive details about the history of European incursions into “the New World” from the 1490s to 1890s.

15. Great Speeches of Native Americans is an inexpensive yet invaluable treasure!

16. An American Genocide by Benjamin Madley chronicles the policies pursued to alternately erase and enslave the Indigenous peoples of California. The survival of the linguistic diversity mentioned above seems nothing short of miraculous after reading this.

17. Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is a historical book that reads like a story. It aroused a lot of people’s consciousness to America’s broken treaties with and bloodshed of Indigenous peoples.

18. David Treuer wrote The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee as a counternarrative to Dee Brown’s book. As I read/listen, what Treuer seems to mean is that Bury My Heart reflects a mood of finality, as if Native Americans died off at that point. Heartbeat shows how Native life has continued to adjust, struggle, and even flourish. So far I see them as complimentary works, but still reading.

19. I like how the meaning of names in the First Nations Version of the New Testament are written out, rather than just transliterated like we normally do in English. This can slow down the reading sometimes, which isn’t always bad, because reflection is good. Names carried a significance to people in the biblical world that’s more akin to Native culture than Americans typically attach to them. To merely gloss over those names without considering their meaning can lead to missing significant insights of the stories being told.

20. Why haven’t I heard of William Apess for most of my life?! He was a War of 1812 veteran, author (first Native American to publish an autobiography), activist, and orator, with some witty and withering critiques of Christianity – although an ordained minister himself. On Our Own Ground brings all of his published writings together in one volume.

21. Do you want to better understand the health disparities experienced by Native Americans and learn some possible ways to help? Are you concerned about environmental justice? In As Long as Grass Grows, Dina Gilio-Whitaker shares a lot of the history needed to understand some of the root problems we’re facing and suggests ways of seeking solutions by listening to and following the lead of Indigenous people.

By Carl McRoy

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