25 books that explore Indigenous characters and cultures

For July’s reading challenge theme, we’re spotlighting Indigenous authors, characters, and cultures by celebrating their stories across the globe. The majority of the following books are based in Australia, making this a slightly biased book list as Australia is where I now call home, and I was super keen to add as many from around the country as possible. However, thanks to the lovely book community and their recommendations, there is also a range of books based on Native American culture, plus one on Inuit culture. (Side note: there’s a high chance this list will increase your TBR. A lot).

Spotlight anticipation

Every month, I share my top recommendation, but this as is a relatively new-to-me theme, I’m sharing my most anticipated read instead:

Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina & Ezekiel Kwaymullina

Genre: YA mystery (cultural Australian)

When I first moved to Australia, this was the book I saw recommended everywhere. It was one of the first books I borrowed from the library, but I never got around to reading it. I like to think I was just saving it for this month’s challenge 😉

Quick overview
Nothing’s been the same for Beth Teller since she died. Her dad, a detective, is the only one who can see and hear her – and he’s drowning in grief. But now they have a mystery to solve together. Who is Isobel Catching, and what’s her connection to the fire that killed a man? What happened to the people who haven’t been seen since the fire? As Beth unravels the mystery, she finds a shocking story lurking beneath the surface of a small town and a friendship that lasts beyond one life and into another.

Told in two unforgettable voices, this gripping novel weaves together themes of grief, colonial history, violence, love and family.

Hayley’s highlights

Along with some top recommendations from fellow bookstagrammers, here is a wide selection of books you can pick from for July’s theme.

Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

Genre: YA fantasy (Native American culture)

Elatsoe lives in an America shaped by magic, monsters, and legends of its inhabitants. Some of the forces are harmless, others very much not. Elatsoe can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. The picture-perfect facade of Willowbee masks gruesome secrets, and she will rely on her wits, skills, and friends to tear off the mask and protect her family.

Recommended by @Moni.Lib.

The White Girl by Tony Birch

Genre: Historical fiction (cultural Australian)

Set in the 1960s, The White Girl highlights the devastating government policy of taking Indigenous children from their families.

Odette Brown has always lived on the fringes of a small country town. When her daughter disappears and leaves her to raise her granddaughter Sissy, Odette works hard to evade the welfare authorities taking fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their families. When a new policeman arrives, Odette must risk everything to save Sissy and protect everything she loves.

Recommended by @WhatSamReads.

Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown

Genre: Historical fiction (Native American culture)

Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1676. Even before Mary Rowlandson is captured by Indians, she sometimes found herself in conflict with her rigid Puritan community. Now, she has been sold into the service of a powerful woman tribal leader. Battling cold, hunger, and exhaustion, Mary witnesses harrowing brutality but also unexpected kindness. After being taught to abhor Indians, she soon starts to question the edicts that have guided her, torn between the life she knew and the wisdom the natives have shown her.

Based on a true story, Flight of the Sparrow transports the reader to early America and explores the real meaning of freedom, faith, and acceptance.

Recommended by @Read.Write.Janis.

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Genre: Contemporary YA (Native American culture)

Firekeeper’s Daughter is described as a ground-breaking YA thriller about a Native teen who must root out the corruption in her community. As a biracial, unenrolled tribal member and the product of a scandal, 18-year-old Daunis has never quite fit in, both in her hometown and on the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis dreams of studying medicine, but when her family is struck by tragedy, she puts her future on hold to care for her fragile mother.

Recommended by @RachelleLovesBooks and @KeepingYouOnRead.

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller

Genre: YA mystery (cultural Australian)

Ghost Bird follows Stacey and Laney – identical twins but polar opposites. When Laney disappears, Stacey can’t understand why she didn’t tell her. In the passing days, Stacey has dark dreams about Laney and can’t tell what’s real and what she’s imagining. All she knows is that Laney is alive and needs her help.

Recommended by @WhatSamReads.

If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth

Genre: YA historical fiction (Native American culture)

1975: Lewis is used to life on the Tuscarora Indian reservation; what he’s not used to is white people being nice to him – people like George, whose family just moved to town with the Air Force. As the boys connect through their love for music, Lewis has to lie more and more to hide the reality of his family’s poverty from George. If George finds out the truth, will he still be his friend?

If I Ever Get Out of Here is a wry and powerful novel about friendship, memory, and the joy of rock ‘n’ roll.

Recommended by @DanaDoesBooks.

Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe

Genre: Historical fiction (Native American culture)

The action in Shell Shaker alternates between 1738, as a Choctaw family prepares for war against the English, and the 1990s, as their Oklahoma descendants, the Billys, fight a Mafia takeover of the tribe’s casino. In trouble with the law and in the fight of their lives, the Billy women must find a way, as their ancestors did, to join forces against a devious foe. Humour, toughness, and resourcefulness are the Billys’ only weapons.

Until the Shell Shaker shows up.

Recommended by @OtterlyBooks.

My Father’s Shadow by Jannali Jones

Genre: YA mystery (cultural Australian)

In My Father’s Shadow, Kaya tries to piece together a crime she witnessed but has no recollection of after experiencing memory loss caused by PTSD.

After her father gives evidence against some dangerous criminals, Kaya and her mother must flee to safety. Not knowing who to trust and how to unravel the multiplying mysteries, Kaya struggles to make sense of what is happening.

Recommended by @WhatSamReads.

Shauna’s Great Expectations by Kathleen Loughnan

Genre: YA contemporary (cultural Australian)

Shauna holds an Indigenous scholarship and is determined to be the first member of her family to go to university. Her final year of school is off to a great start until she’s forced to make a choice that threatens to throw her future into disarray. As pressure builds, Shauna wonders what she’ll have to sacrifice to keep hold of her dreams.

Shauna’s Great Expectations was the first book I read that explored Indigenous culture, and I loved it. If you strip it back, the plot seems a bit basic and even unoriginal to an extent, but there were so many elements that gave it a unique edge. I highly recommend it!

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Genre: Contemporary fiction (cultural Australian)

In Too Much Lip, Kerry spends her life avoiding two things – her hometown and prison. But now her Pop is dying, and she’s inches away from the lockup, so she heads south on a stolen Harley. Kerry plans to stay 24 hours, max, but soon discovers that Bundjalung country has a funny way of holding on to people. Family wounds reopen, and the unexpected arrival of a good-looking dugai fella only adds more trouble – but then trouble is Kerry’s middle name.

Recommended by @WhatSamReads.

Black Cockatoo by Carl Merrison & Hakea Hustler

Genre: Middle-grade fiction (cultural Australian)

Black Cockatoo is a vignette that follows 13-year-old Mia, an Aboriginal girl exploring the fragile connections of family and culture. She feels powerless to change the things she sees around her until one day, she rescues her totem animal, the dirran black cockatoo, and soon discovers her own inner strength.

Recommended by @WhatSamReads.

Meet Me at the Intersection by multiple authors

Genre: Memoir (cultural Australian)

Meet Me at the Intersection is an anthology of short fiction, memoir and poetry by authors who are First Nations, People of Colour, LGBTIQA+ or living with a disability. The focus of the anthology is on Australian life as seen through each author’s unique and seldom heard perspective.

Recommended by @WhatSamReads.

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea by Marie Munkara

Genre: Memoir (cultural Australian)

Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea is Marie’s story; how she was born on the banks of the Mainoru River with light skin, which meant she was taken by authorities to be raised by a white family. 28 years later, she finds a link to her past and sets out to find the family she lost, leaving her strict white Catholic parents aghast.

Recommended by @WhatSamReads.

There There by Tommy Orange

Genre: Contemporary fiction (Native American culture)

There There follows 12 characters from Native communities, all travelling to the Big Oakland Powwow, all connected in ways they may not yet realise. 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.

Recommended by @Beth.Eats.And.Reads.

Taboo by Kim Scott

Genre: Contemporary fiction (cultural Australian)

Set in rural Western Australia, Taboo tells the story of a group of Noongar people who, for the first time in decades, revisit the site of a massacre that followed the assassination, by these Noongar’s descendants, of a white man who had stolen a black woman. The elderly owner of the farm on which the massacres unfolded invites the group, hoping to satisfy his wife’s dying wishes and cleanse some moral stain from the ground where his family have lived for generations. But the sins of the past will not be so easily erased.

Recommended by @WhatSamReads.

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

Genre: Fiction / poetry (Inuit culture)

From the internationally acclaimed Inuit throat singer who dazzled and enthralled the world with music it had never heard before, Split Tooth is a fierce, tender, and heartbreaking story unlike anything you’ve ever read.

Recommended by @StefaniPutria.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Genre: Mystery/thriller (Native American culture)

In Winter Counts, a vigilante on a Native American reservation embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from and how to make them stop. As Virgil starts linking the pieces together, he realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost.

Recommended by @Nihar_Satsangi

Even more books to choose from:

Plenty to choose from for this month’s theme and plenty of others that I haven’t (yet) included! My aim is to broaden my cultural knowledge this month and learn more about the history of the country I now permanently live in. Hope you can join me on that journey and gain some Indigenous insights too in whichever part of the world/time you choose to armchair travel to.

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