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Top American Indian Writers


If there’s a group that best counteracts the stereotype that American Indians are a stoic people of few words, it’s Native American writers such as Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich. With the tens of thousands of words American Indian novelists, essayists, short fiction writers and poets use to tell their stories, they have provided the public with a complex and poignant portrayal of Native American life. To label these American Indian writers as “good” at their craft would be an understatement. They’ve not only racked up countless literary honors between them but have also forever reshaped the ongoing narrative about indigenous peoples of North America. Learn more about their contributions with this list of top American Indian writers.

N. Scott Momaday

Navarre Scott Momaday was born Feb. 27, 1934. Of Kiowa and Cherokee heritage, Momaday lived among the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo Indians in childhood. His parents worked as teachers at an American Indian day school for 25 years. His father and mother were also creative types, pursuing painting and writing as crafts. “I was interested in reading and writing early on,” Momaday told PBS. After graduating from the University of New Mexico, Momaday received a master’s degree and doctorate from Stanford University, establishing himself as an expert on the writings of Emily Dickinson and Frederick Goddard Tuckerman in addition to the American Indian oral tradition. He created what is said to be the first class on the Native American oral tradition in 1969 at the University of California, Berkeley. For his first novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), Momaday received the Pulitzer Prize. Momaday has authored 13 books in total, including poetry, literary criticism and fiction. He told PBS that his favorite works are The Ancient Child (1989) and The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969) because respectively they’re imaginative and capture the Kiowa culture at its best. Momaday has won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, and Italy’s most distinguished literary award.

Leslie Marmon Silko

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Leslie Marmon Silko was born March 5, 1948, to Leland Howard Marmon and Mary Virgina Leslie. Raised in Albuquerque, N.M., Silko’s racial background includes Laguna Pueblo, Mexican and European heritage. Marmon’s class status (her father was a noted photographer) and mixed heritage alienated her to a degree from her fellow Pueblo Indians, but Silko used writing as a way to connect to the Laguna Pueblo. Knowledgeable about Laguna folklore, thanks to the stories she learned from her grandmother and aunt, Silko began writing creatively as a student at the University of New Mexico, from which she graduated in 1969. She received the National Endowment for the Humanities Discovery Grant for the short story “The Man to Send Rain Clouds.” She would follow that feat by publishing the 1974 poetry collection Laguna Woman and the 1977 novel Ceremony, which follows the healing effects indigenous ceremonies have on a mixed-race World War II veteran. Silko’s other notable works include Storyteller, Almanac of the Dead, and Yellow Woman + the Beauty of Spirit. Kiowa-Cherokee writer N. Scott Momaday has http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/leslie-marmon-silko praised Silko for having “a sharp sense of the way in which the profound and the mundane often run together.” Silko has won the Pushcart Prize for Poetry and the MacArthur “Genius” Award.

Joy Harjo

Poet Joy Harjo was born May 9, 1951, in Tulsa, Okla. She belongs to the Creek Nation and writes about her racial heritage as well as women’s issues and social justice in her work. She published her first poetry chapbook, The Last Song, in 1975. Five years later, she penned her first full-length poetry volume, What Moon Drove Me to This? In 1983, Harjo published She Had Some Horses, which contains a poem of the same name that has been widely anthologized. Arguably Harjo’s most well known book of verse is In Mad Love and War (1990), winner of the American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award. The volume of poetry addresses political concerns and the challenges contemporary Native Americans face. Other notable works from Harjo include Secrets from the Center of the World (1989), The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994), A Map to the Next World: Poetry and Tales (2000) and How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2001 (2002). Acclaimed poet Adrienne Rich said of Harjo, “I turn and return to Harjo’s poetry for her breathtaking complex witness and for her world-remaking language: precise, unsentimental, miraculous.” Harjo is not only a poet but teacher and saxophonist as well. She has a band aptly named Poetic Justice.

Louise Erdrich

Karen Louise Erdrich, was born June 7, 1954, to Ralph and Rita Erdrich in Little Falls, Minn. Raised in Wahpeton, N.D., with her six younger siblings, Erdrich is of mixed racial ancestry. Her father is German American, and her mother is half-French and half-Ojibwe Indian. A graduate of Dartmouth College with a Master of Fine Arts degree from John Hopkins University, Erdrich’s won a 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award for her first novel, Love Medicine. After that, Erdrich went on to write three works of poetry and nonfiction apiece, several short stories, a handful of children’s books and a dozen novels, including 2001’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse—a National Book Award finalist—and The Plague of Doves—Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Erdrich has called her father “my biggest literary influence,” as he wrote letters to her as a child when he was away on National Guard business. Erdrich also describes her maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, former Chippewa tribal chairman, as “a fascinating storyteller.” Michael Dorris, Erdrich’s late ex-husband, was a longtime collaborator of hers. The two wrote 1991’s The Crown of Columbus together but divorced in 1995. Two years later Dorris killed himself amid sex abuse allegations made by the couple’s children. Today Erdrich owns independent bookstore Birchbark Books and lives in Minnesota.

Sherman Alexie

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Sherman Alexie was born Oct. 7, 1966. He is of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene heritage and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash. Alexie suffered from hydrocephalus when he was born, a condition that causes water to back up around the brain. Because of the condition, Alexie endured seizures in childhood but turned to reading for comfort. This would help shape his future literary career, which he embarked on as a student at Washington State University in 1987, writing both poetry and fiction. Nine years later Alexie appeared in Granta literary magazine’s Best of Young American Novelists list. Editor Ian Jack said that Alexie made the cut in part because his work “had something to tell us. Native American life, life on the reservation, is a pretty under-described experience.” Today, Alexie has authored more than 20 books, including The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, War Dances, winner of the 2010 PEN Faulkner Award, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a PEN Hemingway Special Citation winner, according to his website. Film lovers may also be acquainted with Alexie through the 1998 movie "Smoke Signals," based on Alexie’s short story “This Is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” Alexie wrote and co-produced “Smoke Signals,” winner of the Audience Award and Filmmakers’ Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Today, he lives with his wife and sons in Seattle.
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