My plan, for today, was to write about resistance to Christóbal Colón and his crew of marauders; unfortunately, when one has a headache, one is not in the mood to re-read those old diaries—or even de las Casas’ Brevíssima Relación, which always makes me angry1—one is not quite in the right frame of mind to write anything engaging. However, thanks to my librarian superpowers, I can literally always churn out a booklist.2 So here are some books for, you know, Indigenous Peoples Day, and Alt Columbus Day.
You’ve probably already guessed it: I’ve had a lot of experience with primary texts in the Siglo de Oro and Colonial periods. They aren’t necessarily nice, but they explain a lot.
Los cuatro viajes/Testamento, translated as The Four Voyages, is Christopher Columbus’s own record of his travels and his campaign of terror. I have no idea what the translations are like; I’ve only ever read it in Spanish, where it is poorly written and horrifying. It is profoundly disturbing, on a very fundamental level, to see anyone comment, almost in passing, that those nice people who gave you such a nice welcome are going to be super handy and so you’re totes going to go on land and enslave a bunch of them because #yolo!
The Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, generally translated as A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and written by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, is another important primary source document. It’s what lies behind the Leyenda Negra, that myth of Spanish exceptionalism in the horrific department. It provides us with a lot of good information. It also drives me nuts.3 Your mileage may vary, but it’s definitely an important text.
Visión de los Vencidos: Relaciones indígenas de la conquista, generally translated into English as The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, edited by Miguel León-Portilla and translated (into Spanish) from the Nahua by Ángel María Garibay K. and León-Portilla, is an incredible work. It is one of two works4 I happened to read on the train while commuting to college that were so graphic, and so terrifying, I just about jumped out of my skin when the conductor came through collecting tickets. (I am so not kidding.) Did you ever wonder what the Aztec had to say about Hernán Cortés, or about his allies, the Tlaxcala? Did you ever wonder who got pride of place in illustrations of Cortés and his interpreter? (Hint: it was a woman.) Visión de los vencidos/ Broken Spears will have something for you, indeed. (It may also lead you to question whether Cortés ever really won.) If you’re really interested, you can move on from these selections to translated codices; I know that both the Florentine Codex and the Aubin Codex have been translated, though, to be honest, I’ve only ever seen either in its Spanish iteration.
So I actually have less experience with these, as ironic as that may seem, than I have with the primary texts; nonetheless, all offer good information.
Black Elk Speaks is actually a primary source; the medicine man and holy man Black Elk tells his own story. I’ve got it here because I am pairing it with Joe Jackson’s multiple-award-winning Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary, a contemporary biography (it was published in 2016).
The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend, by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, is a biography of the Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud, who defeated the US Army and forced the US to sue for peace. He’s an all-around amazing figure, and a man whose name, and life, should be much better known.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Thomas C. Mann, delves deeply into the complex worlds and societies of the pre-Columbian Americas. I also happen to know for a fact that this is available both as a physical (or e-)book as well as an audiobook, so you can choose your favorite format!
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, also by Thomas C. Mann, plunges into another world: that of the Columbian Exchange.
Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall, is, as I recall, a rather workmanlike piece of scholarship, a good, albeit dry, introduction to the Spanish Conquest. There are a lot of myths, and a lot of us learned a lot of them. This is a pretty good mythbuster. (And it’s short!)
Sitting Bull, by Bill Yenne, delves into the life of the great Hunkpapa holy man and war leader. If you’re looking for a biography suitable for young folks, S.D. Nelson’s Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People was a 2016 American Indian Youth Literature Award Honor Book.
Novelists, Poets, & Books for Young(er) Folks
Sherman Alexie is a poet, a short story writer, a novelist, a writer of picture books and of (a) book(s) for teens, and, sometimes, a screenwriter. Looking for poems about basketball and fancydancing and men’s bathrooms? He’s got you covered!
Joseph Bruchac has written extensively for young folks; he’s also written a good deal for teens, with books ranging from fantasy to historical fiction. His son, James Bruchac, is also a writer to check out.
Louise Erdrich, award-winning novelist, poet, children’s writer, and indie bookstore owner, is prolific (Future Home of the Living God is coming out this year, guys!), and you should definitely check her out.
Joy Harjo is a musician, poet, and novelist—she’s written for adults, little folks, middle-grade folks, and teens. She even has a picture book about a cat!
Linda Hogan, the Chickasaw Nation’s writer in residence, is a novelist, poet, and essayist.
Leslie Marmon Silko is a poet, short story writer, and novelist.
Cynthia Leitich Smith is an award-winning, New York Times-bestselling, author of books for kids and for teens.
Monique Gray Smith writes for both little folks and adults.
Tim Tingle writes for little folks, middle grade folks, and teens; he is also a (several times over) American Indian Youth Literature Award winner.
David Treuer is a novelist and a critic.
Richard Van Camp writes absolutely charming (and award-winning!) books for very little people.
The late James Welch was a novelist, novelist, and nonfiction writer; one of his novels—Winter in the Blood—has been adapted into a movie. (Sherman Alexie was, incidentally, involved in the adaption!)
And the best thing? These are the books and authors I could think of with a pulsing migraine! There are so many more—and they are so very much worth checking out.
1 How dare he repeatedly infantilize native people?!
2 I’m not sure this is a good thing. ¯(ツ)/¯
3 The infantilization really, really bothers me.
4 The other was Esteban Echeverría’s “El matadero,” or “The Slaughteryard,” which I remember as being rather gleefully horrifying. I remember liking it, and also being horrified. I also like Visión de los vencidos. This was perhaps the precursor to watching Wynonna Earp on repeat.
Very Selected Resources
- American Indians in Children’s Literature
- “Best Books” from American Indians in Children’s Literature
- American Indian Youth Literature Award
- “Native American Poetry and Culture” from the Poetry Foundation.
- “Updated booklist for Indigenous Peoples Day” from Horn Book
- We Need Diverse Books, because this should always be suggested.