One of the best ways is simply by reading. There are so many books out there about American Indians, but figuring out which ones can best inform us about Native American history and heritage is no small task. Many books about Indians are academic, written by college professors looking to get their doctorates, and appropriately dry as a result. Moreover they tend to focus on how Indians have fared under U.S. stewardship over the centuries rather than explore the rich heritage that existed on Turtle Island before the first settlers, and smallpox, arrived. Still more books have been published about various aspects of life since this country was created. But most Native history lies outside that narrow band of existence. The books listed here serve as a broad overview for Natives and non-Natives alike, giving a bit of ancient history, post-colonial history and a snapshot of modern-day life.
For a good overview of how all the nations, both in North America and South America, used to live, contrasted with how they fared after contact, one can start with Charles C. Mann’s twin volumes, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (Knopf, 2005) and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Knopf, 2011). American Indians, of course, do not need to be reminded of the rich heritage that greeted Christopher Columbus and his ilk when they first touched these shores. Likewise, the cultural devastation that followed isn’t news. But the two books serve to give the many nations that inhabit Turtle Island an overview of all the cultures that coexisted here, and their history, while providing new perspective for a wider audience as well, enabling understanding beyond Indian country.
“You wouldn’t think there was another revelatory, perspective-shifting book to be gotten out of the arrival of Columbus in the New World, but 1493 is just that,” Time magazine said in naming it the best nonfiction book of 2011. “With immense energy and curiosity, Mann chronicles what amounts to the birth of a truly global ecosphere struggling to find a new equilibrium. It was a bloody birth. These forces were hugely powerful historical actors, and every trade turned out to be a trade-off too.”
For a more detailed look at events shaping pre-contact Turtle Island, This Day in North American Indian History: Important Dates in the History of North America’s Native Peoples for Every Calendar Day (Da Capo Press, 2002) by Phil Konstantin also provides an overview, detailing more than 5,000 events important to North America’s Native peoples from 715 a.d. to the present.
Then there is the retooling, the books that remind us not of what was lost but of what survived, often in surprising ways. Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years (Rethinking Schools Ltd., 1998) by Bill Bigelow turns notions of life at Columbus’s arrival on their head. Bonus: It is also among the books banned in Arizona schools earlier this year after the Tucson Unified School District School Board voted to eliminate so-called ethnic education.
As overlooked and forgotten as the sophisticated history of American Indians often is, so too are the contributions that Indigenous Peoples made to the formation of what is today the United States, and beyond. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (Crown Publishers, 1988) by Jack Weatherford, is a key volume reminding us of all the things we take for granted that are actually Native inventions. Along political lines, Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy by Bruce Johansen (Harvard Common Press, 1982) details the Great Law of Peace and the role it played in forming the U.S. Constitution.
Putting the finishing touches on Heritage 101 are books dispelling the stereotypes that surprisingly persist to this day. One such title is Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask, by Anton Treuer (Borealis Books, 2012), a Q&A-style book that sets the record straight. Another myth buster is Do All Indians Live in Tipis? Questions and Answers from the National Museum of the American Indian(Harper Perennials, 2007), another straightforward Q&A.
The perfect juxtaposition of old and new can be found in modern-day accounts of how Indians are living in two worlds. A prime example is the standout memoir by David Treuer, Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) which speaks to what many modern-day Indians, Ojibwe like him or not, go through. (Read an excerpt here and a profile of the author here.) Taken together, these books form the perfect primer, putting readers on the road to understanding what Native American heritage is all about.