Oklahoma Voices: Best Native American Books For High School Students

Native American Books For High School

In preparation for Native American Heritage Month this November, I decided to curate a list of Indigenous young adult literature with connections to my home state.  After a few hours of searching and talking to other English teachers in Oklahoma, I realized that in spite of having lived in various parts of the state for almost half a century, and having taught middle and high school English for a decade of that, I am still not as familiar with the wealth of Native American books for high school students penned by authors from or connected to Oklahoma.

The following list is my attempt to correct that and to ensure that Oklahoma English teachers have young adult novel and nonfiction book options to offer that both serve as mirrors for their American Indian students, but also as windows for their students who don't realize Native American people exist today.

This list of books represents some of the diversity of the Native American nations in Oklahoma, including those who were removed from their lands to Oklahoma and those who were forced to cede their lands on the Oklahoma plains, where they had lived for thousands of years

While I'm publishing this list during the time of year set aside to celebrate Native American culture and heritage, this list features stories that are relevant year-round and can be offered in school and classroom libraries, discussed in literature circles, added to independent reading recommendations, or taught to the whole class

I've also included in this list other forms of literature, including TV shows, that have recently been created by authors, directors, and actors representing several Native American nations located in or connected to Oklahoma.

Kelli Jo Ford
Cherokee Nation

Crooked Hallelujah, 2020

It's 1974 in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and fifteen-year-old Justine grows up in a family of tough, complicated, and loyal women presided over by her mother, Lula, and Granny. After Justine's father abandoned the family, Lula became a devout member of the Holiness Church - a community that Justine at times finds stifling and terrifying. But Justine does her best as a devoted daughter until an act of violence sends her on a different path forever.

Joy Harjo
Muscogee (Creek) Nation

Poet Warrior, 2021

Joy Harjo, the first Native American to serve as U.S. poet laureate, invites us to travel along the heartaches, losses, and humble realizations of her poet-warrior road. A musical, kaleidoscopic, and wise follow-up to Crazy Brave, Poet Warrior reveals how Harjo came to write poetry of compassion and healing, poetry with the power to unearth the truth and demand justice.

For a Girl Becoming, 2019

Transformative moments in the cycle of life are a time for acknowledgment, a chance to guide a child's path in a positive and loving direction. Swirling images laden with both myth and personal meaning illustrate this unique, poetic tale of the joys and lessons of a girl's journey through birth, youth, and finally adulthood. Within these colorful pages, family and community come together in celebration of her arrival, offering praise, love, and advice to help carry her forward through the many milestones to come, and reminding her always of how deeply she is cherished. It is a reminder, too, of our abiding connections to the natural world, and the cyclical nature of life as a whole.

Crazy Brave, 2012

In this transcendent memoir, grounded in tribal myth and ancestry, music and poetry, Joy Harjo details her journey to becoming a poet. Born in Oklahoma, the end place of the Trail of Tears, Harjo grew up learning to dodge an abusive stepfather by finding shelter in her imagination, a deep spiritual life, and connection with the natural world. Narrating the complexities of betrayal and love, Crazy Brave is a haunting, visionary memoir about family and the breaking apart necessary in finding a voice.

Brandon Hobson
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

The Removed: A Novel, 2021

Steeped in Cherokee myths and history, a novel about a fractured family reckoning with the tragic death of their son long ago--from National Book Award finalist Brandon Hobson. In the fifteen years since their teenage son, Ray-Ray, was killed in a police shooting, the Echota family has been suspended in private grief. The mother, Maria, increasingly struggles to manage the onset of Alzheimer's in her husband, Ernest. Their adult daughter, Sonja, leads a life of solitude, punctuated only by spells of dizzying romantic obsession. And their son, Edgar, fled home long ago, turning to drugs to mute his feelings of alienation.

Where the Dead Sit Talking, 2018

Set in rural Oklahoma during the late 1980s, Where the Dead Sit Talking is a stunning and lyrical Native American coming-of-age story. With his single mother in jail, Sequoyah, a fifteen-year-old Cherokee boy, is placed in foster care with the Troutt family. Literally and figuratively scarred by his mother's years of substance abuse, Sequoyah keeps mostly to himself, living with his emotions pressed deep below the surface. At least until he meets seventeen-year-old Rosemary, a troubled artist who also lives with the family.

Oscar Hokeah
Cherokee Nation and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma

Calling for a Blanket Dance, 2022

Ever Geimausaddle, whose family--part Mexican, part Native American--is determined to hold onto their community despite obstacles everywhere they turn. Ever's father is injured at the hands of corrupt police on the border when he goes to visit family in Mexico, while his mother struggles both to keep her job and care for her husband. And young Ever is lost and angry at all that he doesn't understand, at this world that seems to undermine his sense of safety. Ever's relatives all have ideas about who he is and who he should be. His Cherokee grandmother, knowing the importance of proximity, urges the family to move across Oklahoma to be near her, while his grandfather, watching their traditions slip away, tries to reunite Ever with his heritage through traditional gourd dances. Through it all, every relative wants the same: to remind Ever of the rich and supportive communities that surround him, there to hold him tight, and for Ever to learn to take the strength given to him to save not only himself but also the next generation.

LeAnne Howe
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Shell Shaker, 2001

Red Shoes, the most formidable Choctaw warrior of the eighteenth century, was assassinated by his own people. Why does his death haunt Auda Billy, an Oklahoma Choctaw woman accused in 1991 of murdering Choctaw Chief Redford McAlester? Moving between the known details of Red Shoes' life and the riddle of McAlester's death, this novel traces the history of the Billy women whose destiny it is to solve both murders with the help of a powerful spirit known as the Shell Shaker.

John Joseph Mathews
Osage Nation

Sundown, 1934

Editor's Note: If you've read Killers of the Flower Moon, I recommend you read this book, too.

Challenge Windzer, the mixed-blood protagonist of this compelling autobiographical novel, was born at the beginning of the twentieth century "when the god of the great Osages was still dominate over the wild prairie and the blackjack hills" of northeast Oklahoma Territory. Named by his father to be "a challenge to the disinheritors of his people," Windzer finds it hard to fulfill his destiny, despite oil money, a university education, and the opportunities presented by the Great War and the roaring twenties. Critics have praised Sundown generously, both as a literary work and a vignette into the Native American past.

N. Scott Momaday
Kiowa Tribe

Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land, 2020

Momaday shares stories and memories throughout his life, stories that have been passed down through generations, stories that reveal a profound spiritual connection to the American landscape and reverence for the natural world. He offers an homage and a warning. He shows us that the earth is a sacred place of wonder and beauty, a source of strength and healing that must be honored and protected before it's too late. As he so eloquently and simply reminds us, we must all be keepers of the earth.

House Made of Dawn, 1968

A young Native American, Abel has come home from war to find himself caught between two worlds. The first is the world of his father's, wedding him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the land, and the ancient rites and traditions of his people. But the other world--modern, industrial America--pulls at Abel, demanding his loyalty, trying to claim his soul, and goading him into a destructive, compulsive cycle of depravity and disgust.

Tommy Orange
Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma

There There, 2018

A wondrous and shattering novel that follows twelve characters from Native communities: all traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected to one another in ways they may not yet realize. Among them is Jacquie Red Feather, newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind. Dene Oxendene, pulling his life together after his uncle's death and working at the powwow to honor his memory. Fourteen-year-old Orvil, coming to perform traditional dance for the very first time. Together, this chorus of voices tells of the plight of the urban Native American--grappling with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and spirituality, with communion and sacrifice and heroism.

Andrea Rogers
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Survival Story, 2020

Twelve-year-old Mary and her Cherokee family are forced out of their home in Georgia by U.S. soldiers in May 1838. From the beginning of the forced move, Mary and her family are separated from her father. Facing horrors such as internment, violence, disease, and harsh weather, Mary perseveres and helps keep her family and friends together until they can reach the new Cherokee nation in Indian Territory. Featuring nonfiction support material, a glossary, and reader response questions, this Girls Survive story explores the tragedy of forced removals following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Kim Rogers
Wichita and Affiliated Tribes

“Flying Together” in Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, 2021

In this short story, a girl goes to the powwow with her grandfather while her mother is deployed to the Middle East.

The anthology, Ancestor Approved, is edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Traci Sorell
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Classified, 2022

Cherokee author Traci Sorell and Métis illustrator Natasha Donovan trace Ross's journey from being the only girl in a high school math class to becoming a teacher to pursuing an engineering degree, joining the top-secret Skunk Works division of Lockheed, and being a mentor for Native Americans and young women interested in engineering. In addition, the narrative highlights Cherokee values including education, working cooperatively, remaining humble, and helping ensure equal opportunity and education for all.

We Are Still Here!, 2022

Twelve Native American kids present historical and contemporary laws, policies, struggles, and victories in Native life, each with a powerful refrain: We are still here!
Too often, Native American history is treated as a finished chapter instead of relevant and ongoing. This companion book to the award-winning We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga offers readers everything they never learned in school about Native American people's past, present, and future. 

Indian No More, 2019

Editor's Note: Sorell co-authored this book with the late Charlene Willing Mcmanis.

When Regina's Umpqua tribe is legally terminated and her family must relocate from Oregon to Los Angeles, she goes on a quest to understand her identity as an Indian despite being so far from home. Regina Petit's family has always been Umpqua, and living on the Grand Ronde Tribe's reservation is all ten-year-old Regina has ever known. Her biggest worry is that Sasquatch may actually exist out in the forest. But when the federal government enacts a law that says Regina's tribe no longer exists, Regina becomes Indian no more overnight--even though she lives with her tribe and practices tribal customs, and even though her ancestors were Indian for countless generations.

We are grateful: Otsaliheliga, 2018

The Cherokee community is grateful for blessings and challenges that each season brings. This is modern Native American life as told by an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. The word otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is used by members of the Cherokee Nation to express gratitude. Beginning in the fall with the new year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences. Written by a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, this look at one group of Native Americans is appended with a glossary and the complete Cherokee syllabary, originally created by Sequoyah.

Cynthia Leitich Smith Muscogee (Creek) Nation

Hearts Unbroken, 2018

When Louise Wolfe's first real boyfriend mocks and disrespects Native people in front of her, she breaks things off and dumps him over e-mail. It's her senior year, anyway, and she'd rather spend her time with her family and friends and working on the school newspaper. The editors pair her up with Joey Kairouz, the ambitious new photojournalist, and in no time the paper's staff find themselves with a major story to cover: the school musical director's inclusive approach to casting The Wizard of Oz has been provoking backlash in their mostly white, middle-class Kansas town. From the newly formed Parents Against Revisionist Theater to anonymous threats, long-held prejudices are being laid bare and hostilities are spreading against teachers, parents, and students -- especially the cast members at the center of the controversy, including Lou's little brother, who's playing the Tin Man. As tensions mount at school, so does a romance between Lou and Joey -- but as she's learned, "dating while Native" can be difficult. In trying to protect her own heart, will Lou break Joey's?

Feral Nights, 2013

Fans of best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith's Tantalize quartet will recognize Yoshi, a sexy, freespirited werecat; Clyde, a sarcastic werepossum; and Aimee, a human with shifter connections. Now these three former sidekicks are starring in an adventure of their own, kidnapped and transported to a remote tropical island ruled by an unusual (even by shape-shifter standards) species. The island harbors a grim secret, and predator and prey must join forces in a fight to escape alive.

Tantalize, 2007

Quincie Morris has never felt more alone. Her parents are dead, and her hybrid-werewolf first love is threatening to embark on a rite of passage that will separate them forever. Then, as she and her uncle are about to unveil their hot vampire-themed restaurant, a brutal murder leaves them scrambling for a chef. Can Quincie transform their new hire into a culinary Dark Lord before opening night? Can he wow the crowd in his fake fangs, cheap cape, and red contact lenses -- or is there more to this earnest face than meets the eye? As human and preternatural forces clash, a deadly love triangle forms, and the line between predator and prey begins to blur. Who's playing whom? And how long can Quincie play along before she loses everything?

Rain Is Not My Indian Name, 2001

It's been six months since Cassidy Rain Berghoff's best friend, Galen, died, and up until now she has succeeded in shutting herself off from the world. But when controversy arises around Aunt Georgia's Indian Camp in their mostly white midwestern community, Rain decides to face the outside world again, with a new job photographing the campers for her town's newspaper. Soon, Rain has to decide how involved she wants to become in Indian Camp. Does she want to keep a professional distance from her fellow Native teens? And, though she is still grieving, will she be able to embrace new friends and new beginnings?

Tim Tingle
Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma

House of Purple Cedar, 2014

A Choctaw tale of tragedy, good and evil, revenge and ultimately forgiveness, laced with healing Choctaw humor and a little magical realism thrown in. 
The hour has come to speak of troubled times. It is time we spoke of Skullyville. Thus begins Rose Goode's story of growing up in Indian Territory in pre-statehood Oklahoma. Skullyville, a once-thriving Choctaw community, was destroyed by land-grabbers, culminating in the arson of New Hope Academy for Girls in 1896. Twenty Choctaw girls died, but Rose escaped. She was blessed by the presence of her grandmother Pokoni and her grandfather Amafo, both respected elders who understand the old ways.

Margaret Verble
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Maud's Line, 2016

In Eastern Oklahoma, 1928, eighteen-year-old Maud Nail lives with her rogue father and sensitive brother on one of the allotments parceled out by the US Government to the Cherokees when their land was confiscated for Oklahoma's statehood. Maud's days are filled with hard work and simple pleasures, but often marked by violence and tragedy, a fact that she accepts with determined practicality. Her prospects for a better life are slim, but when a newcomer with good looks and books rides down her section line, she takes notice. Soon she finds herself facing a series of high-stakes decisions that will determine her future and those of her loved ones.

Daniel H. Wilson
Osage Nation in Oklahoma

Robopocalypse, 2011

Not far into our future, the dazzling technology that runs our world turns against us. Controlled by a childlike--yet massively powerful--artificial intelligence known as Archos, the global network of machines on which our world has grown dependent suddenly becomes an implacable, deadly foe. At Zero Hour--the moment the robots attack--the human race is almost annihilated, but as its scattered remnants regroup, humanity for the first time unites in a determined effort to fight back. This is the oral history of that conflict, told by an international cast of survivors who experienced this long and bloody confrontation with the machines.

Non-Print Literature

The following texts are written or directed by Native American authors or directors, filmed and/or set in Oklahoma.

Reservation Dogs, 2021

Editor's Note: This TV series is rated TVMA.

Four indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma steal, rob, and save in order to get to the exotic, mysterious, and faraway land of California. Reservation Dogs is directed by Seminole/Muscogee Creek filmmaker Sterlin Harjo and stars Oklahoma actor Lane Factor (Creek-Seminole and Caddo) and the Oklahoma-born Elva Guerra (Ponca, Indigenous Mexican).

Do you live in Central Oklahoma?

Purchase the books listed above at the Green Feather Book Company, in Norman, Oklahoma. The company is owned by a Chickasaw Nation citizen, who supports Norman Public Schools teachers and students.

Know of any other young adult literature written, illustrated, or directed by Native American authors? Share them in the comments below so educators can find them to share with their students.

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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