1. N. Scott Momaday
A writer, teacher, artist, and storyteller, N. Scott Momaday is one of the most celebrated Native American writers of the past century. His novel, House Made of Dawn, is widely credited with helping Native American writers break into the mainstream and won Momaday the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. Since then, he has published several more novels, collections of short stories, plays, and poems and has been honored with numerous awards, including a National Medal of Arts and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. He was also made Poet Laureate of Oklahoma.
2. Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie is one of the best known Native American writers today. He has authored several novels and collections of poetry and short stories, a number of which have garnered him prestigious awards, including a National Book Award. In his work, Alexie draws on his experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation, addressing sometimes difficult themes like despair, poverty, alcoholism, and Native American identity with humor and compassion. As a result, no survey of Native American literature is complete without Alexie’s work.
3. Louise Erdrich
During her long literary career, Louise Erdrich has produced thirteen novels, as well as books of poetry, short stories, children's books, and a memoir. Her first novel Love Medicine won her the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984, and would set the stage for her later work, The Plague of Doves, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Erdrich’s work centers on Native American characters, but draws on the literary methods and narrative style pioneered by William Faulkner.
4. Leslie Marmon Silko
A key figure in the first wave of the “Native American Renaissance” (a term fraught with controversy, but that’s another discussion), Silko is an accomplished writer who has been the recipient of MacArthur Foundation Grants and a lifetime achievement award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. Her most well-known work is the novel Ceremony, in which she draws on her Laguna heritage to tell the story of a WWII veteran returning home from the war to his poverty-stricken reservation. She has written numerous novels, short stories, and poems in the years since, and remains a powerful figure in American literature.
5. James Welch
Considered one of the founding authors in the Native American Renaissance, Welch was one of the best-known and respected Native American authors during his lifetime. The author of five novels, his work Fools Crow won an American Book Award in 1986 and Winter in the Blood has been named as an inspirational work by many other authors. Welch also published works of non-fiction and poetry, and even won an Emmy for the documentary he penned with Paul Stekler called Last Stand at Little Bighorn.
6. Janet Campbell Hale
Growing up on reservations helped inspire some of the work of this writer and professor, and she honed her gift for the written word at UC Berkeley while earning her M.A. in English. Her novel The Jailing of Cecelia Capture was nominated for a Pulitzer and is perhaps her best-known work, though her Bloodlines: Odyssey of a Native Daughter is a close runner up, earning her the American Book Award. Both novels, one fiction and one non-fiction, are essential reads for anyone trying to understand the modern Native American experience.
7. Barney Bush
Bush is an author, creative writing professor, and musician. During the 1960s, Bush was a well-known activist in the American Indian Movement, protesting, organizing, and writing to bring attention to Indian issues. Yet Bush is best known for his poetry, much of which is musical and spoken. His poems touch on themes like identity, cultural conflict, social struggle, and the disintegration of traditional values, and can be found in both recorded and written forms.
8. Charles Eastman
This list wouldn’t be a complete list without including Eastman, whose early works on Native American history helped to redefine how Americans looked at the past. Eastman was the first author to address American history from a native point of view, writing a number of books that detailed his own past as well as Native American culture and history. Must-reads include Deep Woods to Civilization and The Indian Today: The Past and Future of the First American.
9. Qwo-Li Driskill
Cherokee poet, scholar, and activist Qwo-Li Driskill was raised in rural Colorado. Driskill earned a BA from the University of Northern Colorado, an MA from Antioch University Seattle, and a PhD from Michigan State University. Driskill’s poetry engages themes of inheritance and healing, and is rooted in personal Cherokee Two-Spirit, queer, and mixed-race experience. Walking with Ghosts (2005), Driskill’s first poetry collection, was named Book of the Month by Sable: The LitMag for New Writing and was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize.
10. Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Harjo draws on First Nation storytelling and histories, as well as feminist and social justice poetic traditions, and frequently incorporates indigenous myths, symbols, and values into her writing. Her poetry inhabits landscapes—the Southwest, Southeast, but also Alaska and Hawaii—and centers around the need for remembrance and transcendence. Her work is often autobiographical, informed by the natural world, and above all preoccupied with survival and the limitations of language.
11. Layli Long Soldier
Layli Long Soldier earned a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an MFA with honors from Bard College. She is the author of the chapbook Chromosomory (2010) and the full-length collection Whereas (2017), which is a finalist for the National Book Awards. She has been a contributing editor to Drunken Boat and is poetry editor at Kore Press; in 2012, her participatory installation, Whereas We Respond, was featured on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In 2015, Long Soldier was awarded a National Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry.