20 Best Books on Native American History for Your Library

Explore these 20 best books on Native American history, and gain an appreciation for the struggle of America’s first people.

The history of the United States does not start with the Pilgrims. Instead, it starts with the native people that lived on these lands long before Europeans arrived. From the early days of colonization to the days of the Civil War and even in modern times, Native Americans have played a crucial role in the modern world.

If you are curious to know more about the people that made up America before Europeans came, check out these 20 best books on Native American history. The list includes narratives, novels, memoirs, and academic works for a well-rounded reading list.

1. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

This is one of the top books on the history of Native American people in the United States. It has sold almost 4 million copies and has been translated into 17 languages. When writing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown looked into council records, first-hand accounts, and autobiographies of the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, and Cheyenne people to explore how Native Americans were systematically destroyed in the second half of the 19th century.

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” 

Dee Brown

2. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Today, the United States has over 500 federally recognized Indigenous nations, and this book is the first history of the United States told from their point of view. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States explores how these native people resisted the expansion of the United States. It covers over 400 years of history and carefully reframes and restructures the narrative of US history.

“The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism—the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft.”

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States (REVISIONING HISTORY)
  • Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 08/11/2015 (Publication Date) - Beacon Press (Publisher)

3. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux by John G. Neihardt

In Black Elk Speaks, John G. Neihardt tells the story of Black Elk, using his own words to explore what life was like for the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It explores the history of the Lakota nation while also showing what daily life was like for the medical man. Most of the book comes from transcriptions of interviews with Black Elk himself, which Neihardt had in the 1930s.

“Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things.”

John G. Neihart/Black Elk
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Black Elk Speaks: The Complete Edition
  • The Complete Edition
  • Neihardt, John G. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 424 Pages - 03/01/2014 (Publication Date) - Bison Books (Publisher)

4. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto by Vine Deloria Jr.

Custer Died for Your Sins takes a humorous approach to the challenge of Native American history. While the book is entertaining, it sheds light on the dark and dreadful history of the Native American and United States racial tensions. It even has a chapter on Indian humor, which can shed significant light on Native American culture and what it means to be indigenous. Because a Native American writes it, this book is even more powerful.

“The white man must learn to stop viewing history as a plot against himself.”

Vine Deloria Jr.
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Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto
  • Vine Deloria, Jr. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 296 Pages - 11/26/1988 (Publication Date) - University of Oklahoma Press (Publisher)

5. Native American History: A Chronology of a Culture’s Vast Achievements by Judith Nies

Native American History is a reference guide that was the first to explore the experience of the native people as their cultures developed in the global climate. It highlights that there were already 50 million people in North America when Europeans discovered the continent. It also shows how Native Americans influenced the ideas of the people of Europe. Nies published this 400-page reference in 1996.

“History is context.”

Judith Nies
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Native American History: A Chronology of a Culture's Vast Achievements and Their Links to World Events
  • Nies, Judith (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 432 Pages - 12/03/1996 (Publication Date) - Ballantine Books (Publisher)

6. Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hamalainen

Indigenous Continent challenges the “origin story” of America. Historian Pekka Hamalainen shifts the perspective away from the initial 13 colonies and looks at the world of the Native nations who had complex societies before the arrival of the Europeans. He also shows that often, it was the native warriors who were victorious in battle. He further theorizes that the idea of colonial America is misleading and not a true version of what happened.

Sale
Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America
  • Hardcover Book
  • Hämäläinen, Pekka (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 592 Pages - 09/20/2022 (Publication Date) - Liveright (Publisher)

7. Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne

Empire of the Summer Moon explores the 40-year fight between the white settlers and the Comanche tribe in the western parts of America. It talks about two stories, first the rise and fall of the nation and then the story of pioneer woman Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah, the last Comanche Indian chief. Finally, the book shows the Comanches’ legendary fighting abilities, which allowed the war to span four decades.

“Forty years ago my mother died,” he said. “She captured by Comanches, nine years old. Love Indian and wild life so well, no want to go back to white folks.”

S. C. Gwynne
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Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
  • Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
  • Gwynne, S. C. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 371 Pages - 05/10/2011 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

8. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Published in 2017, Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. As these wealthy native people were slowly being murdered, the brand new FBI was asked to investigate. Led by J. Edgar Hoover, the new bureau struggled to find the answers until they started to unravel a deep conspiracy. This reads like a murder mystery but is a true crime story.

“History is a merciless judge.”

David Grann
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Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
  • Named a best book of the year by Amazon, Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, GQ, Time, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly, Time Magazine, NPR, Vogue, Smithsonian, Cosmopolitan, Seattle Times, Bloomberg, Lit Hub, and Slate
  • From the #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Lost City of Z, a twisting, haunting true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history
  • In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.
  • Grann, David (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

9. The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History by Joseph M. Marshall III

Crazy Horse is one of the most famous figures of the American West, having destroyed Custer’s 7th Calvary at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The Journey of Crazy Horse is the work of historian Joseph Marshall, and he takes the time to get to know the leader as a person, not a legend. This book was published in 2005.

“The strength of a tree, the old ones say, comes not from growing thicker in the good years when there is water, but from staying alive in the bad, dry times.”

Joseph Marshall
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The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History
  • Marshall III, Joseph M. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 336 Pages - 09/27/2005 (Publication Date) - Penguin Books (Publisher)

10. Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides

Blood and Thunder tell how the Navajo people fought against the white soldiers who tried to enforce Manifest Destiny and take over the American West. This book starts in Santa Fe and explores what it took to take the West from the people who had called it home from the beginning. The primary focus is on the story of Narbona, one of the most powerful chieftains of the Navajo.

“We do not want to go to the right or left, but straight back to our own country!”

Hampton Sides

11. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman is not a history book but rather a novel. It tells of the fight against Native American displacement in the 1950s, and it did so with such flair that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021. In addition, the book draws some of its information from the life of the National Book Award-winning author’s grandfather, which gives a feeling of truth to this fiction work.

“When he needed to calm his mind, he opened a book. Any book. He had never failed to feel refreshed, even if the book was no good.”

Louise Erdrich
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The Night Watchman: A Novel
  • Erdrich, Louise (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 464 Pages - 03/23/2021 (Publication Date) - Harper Perennial (Publisher)

12. The Columbian Exchange by Alfred W. Crosby Jr.

The Columbian Exchange looks at the impact of Columbus on Native Americans and the New World, not just culturally but biologically. When Columbus came to the Americas, he brought organisms that were not visible to the naked eye. When he returned to Europe, he did the same. Initially published in 1972, this book shed light on one of the less-known impacts of European conquest on Native America.

“The most important changes brought on by the Columbian voyages were biological in nature”

Alfred W. Crosby, Jr.
The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 30th Anniversary Edition
  • Crosby Jr., Alfred W. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 04/30/2003 (Publication Date) - Praeger (Publisher)

13. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but in 1491 the native people were actively interacting with and influencing the land that is now America. Running water from the Aztecs, specialized corn pollination that was the first attempt at genetic engineering, and even landscaping techniques showed advanced populations, not uneducated people. This is what Charles C. Mann tried to show in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

“The Maya collapsed because they overshot the carrying capacity of their environment. They exhausted their resource base, began to die of starvation and thirst, and fled their cities en masse, leaving them as silent warnings of the perils of ecological hubris.”

Charles C. Mann
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1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
  • Mann, Charles C. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 541 Pages - 10/10/2006 (Publication Date) - Vintage (Publisher)

14. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer

David Treuer grew up in Ojibwe on an Indian reservation in Minnesota. Using that knowledge, he writes a new narrative on the story of Wounded Knee. In The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, he shows that the Native people did not disappear but kept their distinctive cultures even as they learned new ways to survive in an ever-changing world. This book, which he published in 2019, shows people’s resilience.

“If you want to know America—if you want to see it for what it was and what it is—you need to look at Indian history and at the Indian present.”

David Treuer
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The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present
  • Treuer, David (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 528 Pages - 11/05/2019 (Publication Date) - Penguin Publishing Group (Publisher)

15. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region by Richard White

In 1991, Richard White published The Middle Ground. This book talks about the native tribes that lived in the Great Lakes region from 1650 to 1815. Because both the French and the English laid claim to this region during those centuries, the region had many instances of interaction between the various people groups.

“But since Clark’s triumphs were those of a war leader, that is, the products of fear, pain, and opportunity, they were not stable. Clark’s mistake was to think them the larger triumphs of alliance.”

Richard White
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The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (Studies in North American Indian History)
  • White, Richard (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 576 Pages - 11/01/2010 (Publication Date) - Cambridge University Press (Publisher)

16. Lakota Woman by Mary Brave Bird and Richard Erdoes

Growing up in poverty on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Mary Brave Bird knows what it means to be a Native American. Despite her rough beginning, this brave woman joined the tribal pride movement in the 1970s and worked to revive the traditions of her people. Lakota Woman is her memoir, and it shows the inner strength of the Native American people in modern-day America. Since Mary Brave Bird was learning how to write a book, she partnered with Richard Erdoes to pen her autobiography.

“Moral power is always more dangerous to an oppressor than political force.”

Mary Brave Bird
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Lakota Woman
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • Crow Dog, Mary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 272 Pages - 06/14/2011 (Publication Date) - Grove Press (Publisher)

17. Code Talker by Chester Nez

During World War II, the Marines brought 29 Navajo men on board to create an unbreakable code. This code was based on the verbal and complex Navajo language and remained the only unbroken code in modern-day warfare. Code Talker is the only memoir of these men told by one of the original code talkers. The book was published in 2011.

“Quiet! English only!” The dark eyes of a matron bored into me. “English, or you’ll be punished.” I wonder what she said?”

Chester Nez
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Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII
  • Nez, Chester (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 320 Pages - 08/07/2012 (Publication Date) - Dutton Caliber (Publisher)

18. Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation Life by David Treuer

Rez Life is the first full-length nonfiction work by one of the best authors of historical fiction, David Treuer. Told in a storytelling manner, it explores what life was like as a member of the Ojibwe tribe on the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. The first-hand account was published in 2012.

“To understand American Indians is to understand America. This is the story of the paradoxically least and most American place in the twenty-first century. Welcome to the Rez.”

David Treuer
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Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life
  • Treuer, David (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 330 Pages - 01/01/2013 (Publication Date) - Grove Press (Publisher)

19. The Rise and Fall of North American Indians by William P. Brandon

The Rise and Fall of North American Indians explore the cultures and history of the native people who lived from Mexico to the Bering Straight. Of note are the Cree, Illinois, Apache, Natches, Sioux, Ojibwa, and Cherokee in the book. The 2003 work tries to chronicle 10,000 years of history in one concise book.

The Rise and Fall of North American Indians: From Prehistory through Geronimo
  • Brandon, William P. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 628 Pages - 01/16/2013 (Publication Date) - Roberts Rinehart (Publisher)

20. Trail of Tears by John Ehle

The Trail of Tears is one of the saddest stories of the Cherokee Nation, and John Ehle tells it well in this 1988 book. Trail of Tears brings a human side to this sad part of American history. It also shows how grueling the journey west was for the displaced Cherokee.

“They passed a law that further denied Indians’ rights in a court, declaring that an Indian cannot testify at a trial involving white men.” 

John Ehle
Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation
  • Hardcover Book
  • Ehle, John (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 424 Pages - 10/23/1989 (Publication Date) - Doubleday (Publisher)

FAQs About Best Books on Native American History

What is the most powerful Native American tribe in history?

Known for their fierce warriors and tenacity in keeping the land they lived on, the Comanche is considered the most powerful Native Americans in all history. This tribe stopped the Spanish and the French in their Westward expansion efforts.

What are the five historic Native American tribes?

While there are more than five historic Native American tribes, there were Five Civilized Tribes in the southeast. The major nations in the southeast were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes.

What was the first tribe to be recognized in the United States?

There are currently 567 Federally recognized tribes in the United States. However, the historical process of becoming recognized was not cut and dried. Thus, it is hard to name the “first” tribe to be recognized in the United States.

Looking for more? Check out our round-up of the best Michener books!

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