For months, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota has been fighting a seemingly endless war against a proposed pipeline that is planned to run through their land. Members of the tribe say that the Dakota Access oil pipeline could endanger sacred land and pollute the water supply.
In recent weeks, tensions reached new heights as thousands of activists occupied the land to keep the pipeline from being built, and police forces responded by using rubber bullets, pepper spray, and water cannons to disperse protestors.
But while the pipeline is a current (and controversial) political battle, the sides of the debate are as old as this country. On one side, the government is trying to protect the implementation of the already approved pipeline. And it's worth noting that when the people of Bismarck—a larger, whiter community—protested the pipeline for similar reasons, it was rerouted. On the other stands a Native American tribe who has historically had their land taken, their voices ignored, and the things that they hold sacred, ruined.
"We have reached a breaking point, a place prophesied years ago. The water protectors are essentially standing at the edge of destruction," Joy Harjo, Mvskoke, poet, musician, performer, writer told me last week via email. "If they are successful, we will get another chance, as humans. If this pipeline is allowed to go through, it will mark the end of our world."
It’s easy to get mixed up in policy while forgetting that these decisions have real stakes and impact real people. The easiest and best—seriously, it's scientifically proven–way to empathize is to read a novel. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” PhD candidate David Kidd, who conducted five studies on the effectiveness of literary fiction in creating empathy, told Scientific American. Researchers have found over and over and over again that reading fiction helps people empathize better, and forces them to think about the world in more complex ways.
If for whatever reason you're finding it difficult to accept the very real threat that the Dakota Access pipeline poses to the Sioux people of Standing Rock, it's time to think outside yourself. "We are the original peoples of these lands, with rich cultures and knowledges," Harjo told me. "How can there be an American literature without indigenous literature? American music without indigenous music?"
Here are four novels, all written by Native American authors–that while unrelated in content to the pipeline debate—illustrate Native American life through rich, multi-dimensional, and undeniably relatable characters.
Louise Edrich's novels tell the stories of women and families on and near Native American reservations with generosity and beauty. In The Round House, Erdrich tells the story of a woman who is assaulted on a Native American reservation with a deftness of prose and plot that very few novelists can master.
The book is about justice, family, and the lingering effects of individual and generational trauma—with pain you can feel, and characters you can't help but worry over.
Sherman Alexie has written nearly a dozen brilliant novels about Native American life, but the one I always come back to is his stunning young adult fiction novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The book is loosely based on Alexie's own life and tells the story of Junior, a young cartoonist growing up on the Spokane reservation. Trying to make a future for himself, Junior leaves the underfunded and understaffed reservation school to attend an all-white school in another town. The only other "Indian" is the school's mascot.
Alexie depicts Junior's trials with racism and his coming of age in a beautiful, heartbreaking way. And on top of that, the novel is paired with gorgeous illustrations by Ellen Forney. It's a very easy read and great for younger readers.
Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony is one of the most widely studied and read pieces of Native American fiction in higher education. Many consider the novel to have kicked off a new wave of Native American art, which many of the other books on this list belong to. But Ceremony is worth more than just its impact.
Ceremony follows a young man, who is half white, half Laguna, as he tries to process the worlds around him. He survives World War II only to return to a country that cannot help him process his post-traumatic stress.
Cecelia, a 30-year-old mother of two, is arrested for drunk driving. In Janet Campbell's beautiful novel, she is forced to look back over her life—growing up on a reservation, marrying a white liberal, and raising her two daughters alone–all while trapped in a jail cell on some seemingly unreasonable charges.
It's a beautifully written book, and one with a lot of relevance, as Native Americans are currently being jailed for their protest of the pipeline.
"Standing Rock is a daily reminder that for indigenous peoples, the experience of colonialism has never ended," Dr. James H. Cox, a professor who studies twentieth and twenty-first century Native American literature at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. "The pipeline is one in a long and ongoing list of injustices and indignities that the people of Standing Rock, like all indigenous peoples throughout the Americas, face. How will it ever stop if we don't care about it as it happens right in front of us?"
Hopefully these books can help us all care a little bit more.
More books recommended by Native American poets, writers, and scholars included:
The Way to Rainy Mountain, N.Scott Momaday
House Made of Dawn, N.Scott Momaday
Almanac of the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko
From Sand Creek, Simon J. Ortiz
Manifestation Wolverine, the Collected Poems of Ray Young Bear, Ray Young Bear
Whereas, Layli Long Soldier
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.