Celebrating National American Indian Heritage Month: Memoir, Poetry, and Prose

King Island, Alaska (Credit: Ansgar Walk)

King Island, Alaska (Credit: Ansgar Walk)

In honor of National American Indian Heritage Month, we're highlighting seven incredible contemporary writers with recently-published poetry, essays, and short stories.

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Milk Black Carbon by Joan Naviyuk Kane
In this collection, Kane’s lyric poems ruminate on motherhood and marriage in the geographical context of the rapidly changing Arctic. Joan Naviyuk Kane grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and is an Inupiaq poet. In addition to Milk Black Carbon, Joan Naviyuk Kane is the author of The Straits, The Cormorant Hunter's Wife, and Hyperboreal. She has received a Whiting Writer's Award and the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, as well as many other awards. 

Kane also recently traveled to King Island, a small landmass between Russia and Alaska, where her mother and grandparents lived before the Bureau of Indian Affairs forced them to leave. During an interview with NPR, Kane explained how the trip would likely influence her writing: "I've been writing out of nostalgia or a way to recover [...] some of those memories that I've heard people talk about. I think everything that I see will certainly [...] inform my sense of self, will help me explain to my children who we are, who we will continue to be and make sure that although we have been removed from King Island, our identity and our culture, and particularly our language [...] remains intact for future generations." 

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When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz
In this poetry collection, Diaz examines memory’s role in human identity while experimenting with form—from couplets to parts, from lists to prose poems. Natalie Diaz was born and raised on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation in Needles, California. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian community.

Diaz also received a full athletic scholarship to Old Dominion University, and went on to play professional basketball in Europe and Asia before returning to Old Dominion to earn an MFA. In this YouTube video, she discusses the surprising parallels between basketball and poetry. 

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Of Cartography by Esther Belin
A Diné (Navajo) multimedia artist and writer, Esther Belin grew up in Los Angeles, California. Her parents were relocated from the Southwest in the 1950s as part of the federal Indian relocation policy, and her work reflects the experience of a Native American living in urban Los Angeles. In this long-anticipated collection, Belin depicts the personal and the political in an exploration of identity. Belin's artwork can be found on her website, along with links to artwork by her daughters and her husband. 

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You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
This recently-released best-selling memoir includes 156 confessional essays, vignettes and poems inspired by the death of his mother. Alexie, a celebrated novelist, young-adult author and poet, won a National Book Award for his novel, The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian, which drew from his experiences living on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. 

During an interview with NPR in June 2017, Alexie explains how his book's title came to be: "My mom sang a lot and she was always singing the songs on the radio. [...] So I looked at my birth year and I thought, "What songs would my mother have been singing in my birth year?" [..] I hit on Dusty Springfield's song ["You Don't Have to Say You Love Me"], which of course I've heard, everybody's heard, everybody knows. Somebody called that the most heartbreaking love song of all time, and I don't disagree [...]."

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Onigamiising: Seasons of An Ojibwe Year by Linda LeGarde Grover
In fifty short essays, Grover accompanies us through the cycle of seasons—landscape and weather, work and play, ceremony and tradition—in northern Minnesota. A member of the Bois Forte band of Ojibwe, Grover is also the author of The Road Back to Sweetgrass, a novel; The Sky Watched, a poetry collection; and The Dance Boots, a short story collection which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction as well as the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize in 2010.

In an interview on the Ploughshares blog, Grover explains why Thanksgiving is her favorite national holiday: "Thankfulness is one of the foundations of Ojibwe worldview. In our journey along the path of Bimaadiziiwin (the Good Life) we endeavor to practice this in our lives every day. I try to do that. To me, the meaning that I try to focus upon is the concept of thankfulness as a traditional Ojibwe value."

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Letterrs by Orlando White
In his poetry collection, White explores the origins and existence of letters, words, typography, the white space of the page, and their philosophical values to the writer/reader. Orlando White is from Tólikan, Arizona. He is Diné of the Naaneesht’ézhi Tábaahí and born for the Naakai Diné’e. In addition to Letterrs, White is the author of Bone Light (2009), which the poet Kazim Ali described as "smart, inventive, distressing, musical, disorienting, sublime."

In a Poetry Foundation blog post, White writes about the use of "white space" in poetry: "[...] as poetry writers, sometimes being aware of the white spaces, rather than concerning ourselves with punctuation and language, allows us to experience the silence personally. Perhaps text sometimes acts as a polarizing filter that darkens the paper and dims the brightness of the page. So it’s up to us, the poets, to write and un-write and interpret and re-interpret the page through space by making language and silence collaborate."

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This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila
In her debut short story collection, Kahakauwila explores the deep tensions between local and tourist, tradition and expectation, in the islands of Hawai’i. This Is Paradise was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and named a 2013 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. Kristiana, a hapa writer of kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian), German and Norwegian descent, is currently working on a multi-generational novel about water and native rights on the island of Maui. Her work has appeared in Off the Path Volume II: An Anthology of 21st Century American Indian and Indigenous Writers (Off the Pass Press, 2015).

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