25 books that highlight beauty of Indigenous literature: 'It is time to tell our own stories our way'
This list was curated by Tłı̨chǫ Dene writer Richard Van Camp
Richard Van Camp is a Tłı̨chǫ Dene writer from Fort Smith, N.W.T., who has written 26 books across multiple genres. His graphic novel A Blanket of Butterflies was nominated for an Eisner Award and his children's book Little You, illustrated by Julie Flett, was translated into Bush Cree, Plains Cree, South Slavey and Chipewyan.
Van Camp's seminal 1996 novel The Lesser Blessed was adapted into a film by First Generation Films. His other books include Angel Wing Splash Pattern, Night Moves and We Sang You Home.
On Sept. 30, Canada will mark its second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a time to commemorate children who died while being forced to attend residential schools, those who survived and made it home, their families and communities still affected by the lasting trauma.
In June 2022, Van Camp curated this list of books by Indigenous writers, highlighting the wide range and genre diversity of books by Indigenous authors.
Why Richard Van Camp curated this list
Like all awesome extroverts out there, I wake up starving for stories and connection. Luckily, one of the greatest joys in this sweet and blessed life of mine — to guarantee an overflow of my love cup — is to read and promote Indigenous literature. That's because it is our time to tell our own stories our way.
This means the slang, the protocols, the culture, the customs — they are all welcome and needed to both inspire and floor international, national and local readers.
I would gladly take these 25 books to a deserted desert island and I'd be just fine. In fact, I'd wake up in a handstand every single day just eager to dive back into the worlds each of these fine authors have created.
It is our time to tell our own stories our way.
Like most children of the '70s and '80s, I grew up reading Judy Blume, The Savage Sword of Conan and Stephen King — but I realized somewhere along the way that no one was telling our stories. Nobody was talking about the joy of being born and raised in Fort Smith, N.W.T, and being Tłı̨chǫ Dene and also being a pop-culture disciple.
I remember saying out loud one day, "I want to write something that I would like to read" — and I've used this mantra all these years in the 26 books I have out in the world, and I would also add "not to hold back."
Tell your story your way, and show us the beauty, the pain, the joy, the romance, the growing pains — and the pride of where you're from, and who you and your characters are and what they're aching for.
I always say that the story is the boss and it takes as long as it takes to hone your work. I often share in workshops that writing is like combing tangled hair. If you show up every day with an open mind and heart and really respect the spirit of the story, you will do just fine as a student of the craft of writing.
They say if you want to be a better writer, you have to become a better reader. So please read these books, and also read what other Indigenous authors have already done.
This is very much a craft that humbles and surprises daily — and that's the fun!
That's the dizzy dance of being a writer and that writer's high you feel after a great day of writing — whether it's the perfect line, a few paragraphs or pages, or even figuring out where to put your em dashes to enhance something surprising even to you — there's nothing like it.
They say if you want to be a better writer, you have to become a better reader. So please read these books, and also read what other Indigenous authors have already done. We are all walking in huge trails created by visionaries like Jeannette Armstrong, Beth Brant, Ruby Slipperjack, Chrystos, Mini Aodla Freeman, Marie Annharte Baker, Maria Campbell and Beatrice Mosionier.
Bring your own sweet voice to our circle, cousin. There's a lot of room and we are waiting for you so we can honour you when you are ready. We are counting on you to both humble and inspire us with your craft. We are already standing in awe of you.
Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq
Combining memoir with fiction, Tanya Tagaq writes about a young girl's coming of age in 1970s Nunavut. She is a witness to the mythic wonders of the Arctic world, which juxtapose harshly against the violence and alcoholism in her community.
Split Tooth was on the longlist for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. It also won the $2,000 Indigenous Voices Award for best published prose in English.
Split Tooth is the first book by Tagaq, a Polaris Prize and Juno-winning Inuk throat singer.
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
In Moon of the Crusted Snow, a northern Anishinaabe community loses power just as winter arrives, burying roads and creating panic as the food supply slowly runs out. Newcomers begin to arrive on the reserve, escaping a nearby crisis, and tension builds as disease begins taking lives. As chaos takes hold, a small group turns to the land and Anishinaabe tradition to start rebuilding and restoring harmony.
Why Waubgeshig Rice wrote a dystopian novel about the collapse of society from an Indigenous perspective
Waubgeshig Rice is an Anishinaabe author, journalist and radio host originally from Wasauksing First Nation. He is also the author of Legacy and Midnight Sweatlodge. He is the former host of CBC Radio's Up North.
Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
Son of a Trickster is a novel about Jared, a compassionate 16-year-old, maker of famous weed cookies, the caretaker of his elderly neighbours, the son of an unreliable father and unhinged, though loving in her way, mother. As Jared ably cares for those around him, in between getting blackout drunk, he shrugs off the magical and strange happenings that follow him around.
Son of a Trickster was on the shortlist for the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was adapted into a TV series and Kaniehtiio Horn championed Son of a Trickster on Canada Reads 2020.
Eden Robinson, a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, is an author from Kitamaat, B.C. She is also the author of the novels Monkey Beach and Trickster Drift. Son of a Trickster and Trickster Drift are the first two books of a planned Trickster trilogy.
The Night Wanderer by Drew Hayden Taylor
The Night Wanderer is a YA novel featuring vampires and a dark mystery. A girl named Tiffany lives on the Otter Lake reservation and one day crosses paths with Pierre L'Errant, a vampire returning home after spending hundreds of years abroad. The fateful meeting changes their lives forever.
Drew Hayden Taylor is an Ojibwe playwright, author and journalist from Curve Lake First Nations in Ontario. He has worked on over 17 documentaries examining Indigenous experiences. In 2007, Taylor released his debut YA novel The Night Wanderer. His other books include Motorcycles & Sweetgrass and Take Us to Your Chief, a collection of Indigenous science-fiction short stories. Taylor was a recipient of a 2021 Indspire Award in the arts category.
Will's Garden by Lee Maracle
Will's Garden is a 2002 book that was Lee Maracle's first YA novel. The coming-of-age tale is about Will, a young Sto:lo teen preparing for his "Becoming a Man" ceremony. It is during this time that Will comes to realize that growing up isn't always easy as he re-examines his thoughts around love, relationships and belonging.
Lee Maracle was a celebrated Sto:lo Nation poet, author and activist. She died in 2021 at the age of 71. Maracle's works include iconic books such as Celia's Song, I Am Woman, My Conversations with Canadians and Ravensong. Maracle was named to the Order of Canada in 2018.
Little Voice by Ruby Slipperjack
Little Voice is the story of a young Ojibwe girl named Ray who is having trouble coping with the death of her father and the fact that, due to her green eyes, she is bullied and ostracized in her community. After spending a summer in the bush with her grandmother, Ray comes to deal with her grief and gains a stronger understanding of her Indigenous culture, language and heritage.
Slipperjack is a member of the Eabametoong First Nation. She has written seven novels for middle-grade and teen readers. She lives in Thunder Bay, Ont., and recently retired as a professor in the Indigenous Learning department at Lakehead University. She won the 2017 Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People.
Dream Wheels by Richard Wagamese
Dream Wheels is a novel about Joe Willie, a successful rodeo cowboy who is injured and forced to permanently retire after a riding accident with a bull. Joe Willie becomes despondent but soon crosses paths with a Black single mother and her troubled son Aiden, who is of Black and Ojibwe-Sioux heritage. When Joe learns that Aiden shows potential as a bull rider, their journey takes them on a road of forgiveness, reawakening and acceptance.
Richard Wagamese was a novelist, short story writer and journalist who died in 2017. Through his stories, Wagamese often delved into the Indigenous experience within Canada and the legacy of the residential-school system. His book Indian Horse was a finalist on Canada Reads 2013, defended by Carol Huynh. His other works include, Medicine Walk, Ragged Company, Him Standing and the memoirs For Joshua, Embers and One Native Life.
Finding Izzy by Sheryl Doherty
Finding Izzy is a YA novel that revolves around Nehiyawewin and Nehiyaw teachings and a teen who wakes up in a hospital with no memory. Her features indicate she is Indigenous, possibly Cree. The teen is brought to a foster home and goes on a personal journey to learn more about her identity and where she truly belongs.
Sheryl Doherty is a Saskatoon-born author. She is Cree and Irish and was part of the Sixties Scoop, a generation of Indigenous children who were adopted out to non-Indigenous people for the purpose of assimilation.
Without Reservation, edited by Kateri Akiwenzie Damm
Without Reservation is a collection of poetry and prose by Indigenous writers hailing from Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, Samoa and Australia. The book features themes of Indigenous erotica and romance that reflect diverse cultural, gender and sexual perspectives and viewpoints.
Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is a poet, performer, librettist, spoken word artist and educator who founded Kegedonce Press, Ontario's longest-running Indigenous literary publisher. A member of the Saugeen Ojibwe Nation Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation on the Saugeen Peninsula in Ontario, Akiwenzie-Damm is the author of the short-story collection The Stone Collection, the poetry collection (Re)Generation and wrote the story Nimkii for the graphic novel This Place: 150 Years Retold.
Taaqtumi edited by Neil Christopher
This anthology collects horror stories from Canada's northern writers, including Aviaq Johnston, Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley and Richard Van Camp. Stories include a family struggling to survive on the tundra when a zombie virus breaks out, a chilling Northern community in post-apocalyptic times and a door hiding great horrors.
Neil Christopher is one of the managing partners of independent publisher Inhabit Media, which is based in Nunavut.
All the Quiet Places by Brian Thomas Isaac
In All the Quiet Places, it's 1956 and young Eddie Toma lives on the far edge of the Okanagan Indian Reserve with his mother and little brother. In the summer, he tags along with his mother, her friends and his nephew to farm in Washington state. After tragedy strikes, Eddie comes home grief-stricken, confused and lonely. As he grows up, his life is governed by the decisions of the adults around him. And every time things start to look up, circumstances beyond his control crash down around him — and the effects of guilt, grief and despair keep piling up, threatening everything Eddie has ever known or loved.
- 'Laughter is medicine': Brian Thomas Isaac's novel All the Quiet Places was on the Canada Reads longlist
Brian Thomas Isaac was born on the Okanagan Indian Reserve in B.C. He's worked in oil fields, as a bricklayer, and had a short career riding bulls in local rodeos. As a lover of sports, he has coached minor hockey. All the Quiet Places is his first book, and was on the Canada Reads 2022 longlist.
Four Faces of The Moon by Amanda Strong
Four Faces of The Moon is a personal story of Métis life, love and belonging. Told through the perspective of Michif author Amanda Strong, the graphic novel uses vibrant illustrations and dreamworld imagery to reclaim connection to ancestors, language and the land.
Amanda Strong is a Michif Indigenous filmmaker, media artist and stop-motion director based out of the unceded Coast Salish territory in Vancouver.
Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett, illustrated by Natasha Donovan
High school students Miikwan, who is of Anishinaabe descent, and Dez, who is Inninew, are best friends in Winnipeg. Both have experienced loss, as women in their lives have gone missing or been murdered. In Surviving the City, Miikwan and Dez lean on each other and their communities for support and strive to change the devastating reality of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Tasha Spillett-Sumner is an educator, poet and scholar of Nehiyaw and Trinidadian descent. She is also the author of the graphic novel Surviving the City, which won the $2,000 Indigenous Voices Award for works in an alternative format in 2019.
Donovan is a Métis illustrator originally from Vancouver. She has illustrated several graphic novels, including the Surviving the City series by Tasha Spillet, and Brett Huson's animal series, which includes The Sockeye Mother, The Grizzly Mother and The Eagle Mother. She also illustrated the cover for The Ghost Collector by Allison Mills, and her work appears in the anthology This Place: 150 Years Retold.
When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett
In When We Were Alone, a girl asks her grandmother about why she wears her hair in a long braid and why she speaks in another language. Her grandmother responds by describing her childhood growing up in a residential school.
When We Were Alone won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for young people's literature — illustrated books.
David A. Robertson is an author and graphic novelist based in Winnipeg. He has written several books in many genres, including the graphic novels Will I See? and Sugar Falls, the picture book When We Were Alone, the YA series The Reckoner and the memoir Black Water.
Julie Flett has illustrated several picture books, including Little You, My Heart Fills with Happiness and We Sang You Home. Her picture book Birdsong was a finalist for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award.
This House Is Not a Home by Katlia Lafferty
This House Is Not a Home is a fictional story based on true events. The coming-of-age novel is the story of Kǫ̀, a Dene man who grew up entirely on the land before being taken to residential school. When he finally returns home, he finds himself as he struggles to connect with his family and his own identity. This House Is Not a Home is a story of dignity and resilience as it explores how settlers dispossessed Indigenous communities of their land.
Katlia Lafferty is a Northern Dene author and journalist from the Yellowknives First Nation. Her memoir, Northern Wildflower, topped the bestseller list in the Northwest Territories in 2018. Lafferty is also the first climate writer-in-residence in Canada at the West Vancouver Memorial Library. She dedicates her work and her studies to supporting climate change initiatives and advocacy on issues that bear great impact on Indigenous peoples.
Nobody Cries at Bingo by Dawn Dumont
Dawn Dumont brings readers into her life on the Okanese First Nation in Nobody Cries at Bingo. An eye-opening look at life "on the rez," it's a warm and funny portrait of a quiet girl who loves to read, loves her family, and struggles to bridge the cultural divide between life on the reservation and the world outside the community she calls home.
Dawn Dumont is a Plains Cree writer, comedian and actor who lives in Saskatoon. She is the author of Rose's Run, Glass Beads and Nobody Cries at Bingo, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Alberta Readers Choice Awards, Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Award and First Nation Communities READ Award.
Bawaajigan, edited by Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler and Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith
The word Bawaajigan means "dream or vision" in the Anishinaabemowin language. This short fiction collection of the same name features fantastical tales of the supernatural and the surreal. Edited by Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler and Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith, with contributions by Indigenous authors Richard Van Camp, Autumn Bernhardt, Lee Maracle and more, Bawaajigan highlights the power of dreams and embracing alternative histories and realities.
Adler is an Ojibwe Jewish author and a member of Lac Des Milles Lacs First Nation. His previous book was the horror novel Wrist. He won the 2021 Indigenous Voices Award for published prose in English fiction for Ghost Lake.
Christine Miskonoodinkwe Smith is a Saulteaux writer, editor and journalist from Peguis First Nation who has received numerous awards.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
In the dystopian world of Cherie Dimaline's award-winning The Marrow Thieves, climate change has ravaged the Earth and a continent-wide hunt and slaughter of Indigenous people is underway. Wanted for their bone marrow, which contains the lost ability to dream, a group of Indigenous people seek refuge in the old lands.
In 2017, The Marrow Thieves won the Governor General's Literary Award for Young people's literature — text and the Kirkus Prize for young readers' literature. The national bestselling book is currently being adapted for television. The sequel, Hunting by Stars, was released in 2021.
The Marrow Thieves was a finalist on Canada Reads 2018.
After blockbuster book The Marrow Thieves, 'peer pressure' led Cherie Dimaline to pen sequel Hunting by Stars
Dimaline is a Métis author and editor. Her other books include Red Rooms, The Girl Who Grew a Galaxy, A Gentle Habit and Empire of Wild. The Marrow Thieves was named one of Time magazine's top 100 YA novels of all time.
Tilly by Monique Gray Smith
Tilly is a nonfiction book about Indigenous identity and belonging. Tilly has always known she's part Lakota on her dad's side. She's grown up with the traditional teachings of her grandma, relishing the life lessons of her beloved mentor. But it isn't until an angry man shouts something on the street that Tilly realizes her mom is Indigenous, too — a Cree woman taken from her own parents as a baby.
Monique Gray Smith is a mixed-heritage — Cree, Lakota and Scottish — author who often writes and speaks about the resilience of Indigenous communities in Canada. She is also the author of the children's books Speaking Our Truth and You Hold Me Up and the novels Tilly and Tilly and the Crazy Eights.
Yamoria by George Blondin
Yamoria is a work by Dene Elder George Blondin structured as a spiritual guidebook. It weaves together oral stories with the historical recounting of how the northern Canadian Dene interacted with the European fur traders.
Blondin, who died in 2008, was a highly respected Dene elder from N.W.T. His accomplishments include working as a wilderness guide, writer, miner and trapper, as well as serving as vice-president of the Dene Nation.
Arctic Dreams and Nightmares by Alootook Ipellie
Alootook Ipellie's Arctic Dreams and Nightmares is comprised of 20 short stories with pen ink drawings, a fantastical collection exploring Inuit mythology, colonialism and the realities of life in the North.
Ipellie was an Inuit artist and creator who died in 2007. His work included the comic strip Nuna and Vut, which ran in the Nunatsiaq News for three years and satirized the experience of Inuit men and women in Canada.
Stories of Our People, edited by Norman Fleury, et al
Stories of Our People is a graphic novel anthology featuring Métis stories and storytelling from a range of Indigenous authors and artists. The collection merges Métis characters and motifs — including tricksters, spirits and mythological creatures — from Cree, Ojibwe and French-Canadian traditions. The five-story collection includes the storytellers' original transcripts and prose renditions.
Norman Fleury is a former director of Michif languages for the Manitoba Métis Federation and is a leader in the goal to preserve Michif/Cree languages and traditions.
Porcupines and China Dolls by Robert Arthur Alexie
Porcupines and China Dolls is about two men, James and Jake, confronting their childhood abuse and breaking the silence to begin a journey of healing and rediscovery. Enough alcohol silences the demons for a night; a gun and a single bullet silences demons forever. When a friend dies by suicide and a former priest appears on television, the community is shattered.
Robert Arthur Alexie was born and raised in Fort McPherson in Canada's Northwest Territories. He became the chief of the Tetlit Gwich'in of Fort McPherson, served two terms as vice-president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, and was instrumental in obtaining a land claim agreement for the Gwich'in of the Northwest Territories. He died in 2014.
Firewater by Harold R. Johnson
In both his personal and professional life, Cree lawyer Harold R. Johnson witnessed too many lives ruined by alcohol in his Saskatchewan community. The loss of his younger brother to a drunk driver has inspired his book Firewater: How Alcohol Is Killing My People (And Yours), which was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award.
Harold R. Johnson was an influential voice among Indigenous writers in Canada. He died in 2022 at the age of 68. Johnson, a member of the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, was a lawyer and writer whose groundbreaking book Firewater was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.
The Curse of the Shaman by Michael Kusugak
Michael Kusugak's YA novel tells the story of Wolverine, a young man burdened with a curse set upon him by a cranky shaman. Banished by the shaman's magic animal, Wolverine must embark on a dangerous journey in order to return home to his family. Kusugak is a bestselling writer who has published a dozen books for children.
Michael Kusugak's other books include The Littlest Sled Dog, The Curse of the Shaman, T is for Territories and the classic A Promise Is A Promise, co-written with children's author Robert Munsch and illustrated by artist Vladyana Krykorka.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.