When poet and Pulitzer-winning novelist Louise Erdrich, an enrolled Turtle Mountain Chippewa, founded Birchbark Books & Native Arts in Minneapolis in 2001, there were few Indigenous-owned bookstores in North America and even fewer that specialized in Indigenous books and authors. In the two decades since, Native-owned stores have continued to open across the U.S. and Canada. PW spoke with booksellers at five of these shops, all of whom consider themselves more than merely purveyors of books: they are bastions of Indigenous languages and cultures.
From the Heartland to Hawaii
Birchbark co-manager Nadine Teisberg, who is white, notes the density and tribal diversity of Native peoples living in the Twin Cities metro area, and explains that Erdrich founded Birchbark “to become a locus of Indigenous intellectual life. We strive to be intentional about lifting up as many Indigenous authors and artists as we can.” The store is also committed to providing schools and libraries with “accurate and authentic children’s books written and illustrated by Indigenous authors,” Teisberg says, “rather than just books about Indigenous people.”
In addition to signed copies of Erdrich’s books, perennial bestsellers include nonfiction about Indigenous ways of being, such as Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and The Seven Circles by Chelsea Luger and Thosh Collins. Birchbark has long drawn both Indigenous and non-Indigenous customers, but in recent years, Teisberg says, more non-Native people have come in, seeking books to help them “understand more about the Indigenous nations that originally lived, and in many cases still live, on this land.”
Birchbark Books may be the best-known Native-owned bookstore in North America, but when it opened, Native Books in Honolulu’s Chinatown was already a decade old. Founder and owner Maile Meyer, who is Kānaka Maoli Maoli (Native Hawaiian), says she wanted to dispel the notion “that Hawaiians don’t read” and also “deepen my own understanding of my culture, which had been cut off from us since the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.” Native Books specializes in literature by Indigenous Hawaiian and other local authors, she says, as well as books related to the state’s “many Pacific and Indigenous sister cultures.” Perennial bestsellers include Haunani-Kay Trask’s From a Native Daughter and others on the impact of U.S. imperialism, as well as Hawaiian language and culture books, local histories, and children’s titles.
Operations manager Kamalei Marrotte, who is also Kānaka Maoli, notes that the customer base is diverse—a mix of locals, visiting Hawaiians who’ve moved away from the islands, curious tourists, and mainlanders “who share a Hawaiian value system.” E-commerce, she adds, represents a third of all sales, and the shop stocks titles that are unavailable in mainland stores, such as the Nānā I Ke Kumu series on social customs, published by Hui Hānai and distributed by University of Hawai‘i Press.
In contrast to Hawaii, southeast Kansas does not have a significant Indigenous population, says Darcie Shultz, an enrolled member of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma. But since she opened Books & Burrow in Pittsburg in 2020, residents have been “very receptive” to the shop, which specializes in titles by Indigenous authors. “There’s been interest from the beginning and an openness to reading those stories,” she adds, noting partnerships with local businesses and organizations, as well as with the high school, public library, and Pittsburg State University. Audiences for in-store events are growing, and the monthly adult fiction book club is a particular draw. “We’ve found that events that are a bit social do well; we’re working on finding a good balance within our programming between education and entertainment.”
Store bestsellers include Braiding Sweetgrass and Diane Wilson’s The Seed Keeper. As for handselling, Shultz says that she is happiest talking up picture books, literary fiction, and YA fantasy, such as A Snake Falls to Earth by Darcie Little Badger, which she describes as a “magical and beautiful” read. “It’s great to see growth in the publishing industry, like the start of Heartdrum, which offers such a wide range of innovative, unexpected, and heartfelt stories by Native creators. It’s an exciting time in Indigenous literature.”
Jeff Burnham, a member of the Oneida Nation, launched GoodMinds in 2000 as an online store along with a bricks-and-mortar outlet located on Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in Brantford, Ontario. Achilles Gentle, a member of Skownan First Nation, Treaty 2 Territory in Manitoba, bought GoodMinds in 2019, and rebuilt the website and renovated the storefront two years later.
Online and in-store inventory consists almost entirely of titles by Indigenous authors, illustrators, and translators, Gentle says, with an emphasis on the school and library market. Besides titles in English and French, Good-Minds carries books for children and adults in at least 10 Indigenous languages. It also sells educational resources for teachers and librarians, and donates 5% of all sales to its Supporting Indigenous Libraries Today fund.
Language instruction books are among the company’s top sellers; other popular categories include local histories, books about treaties, and the memoirs of those forced to attend the notorious government-run residential schools. Store employees’ current handselling favorite, Gentle says, is the multigenerational history Valley of the Birdtail by Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Douglas Sanderson.
Across the continent at Iron Dog Books in Vancouver, co-owner Hilary Atleo says that she and her husband, Cliff Atleo, decided to open a bookstore six years ago because they couldn’t find books about Indigenous history and culture. “Although books were essential to our lives, we rarely saw our Indigenous identity reflected in the shops we visited,” says Hilary Atleo, who is Anishinaabe/Settler; her husband is Nuu-Chah-Nulth/Tsimsian. If we wanted our dream bookstore to exist, we would have to build it ourselves.”
Launched as a mobile bookstore in 2017, Iron Dog moved into a bricks-and-mortar storefront in a “very family-oriented” area in December 2019. The couple market Iron Dog as a neighborhood bookstore, but, Atleo says, it’s become a destination for Indigenous customers across the region, as well as teachers and librarians.
Iron Dog faces the same challenges other indies do—Amazon, rising costs, supply chain disruptions—plus obstacles specific to its inventory. “There are often titles we want to sell that don’t have wide distribution or are only available through the academic market at a huge list price,” Atleo says. “The other main barrier is that there just isn’t enough content, outside of Indigenous Studies or picture books. We’ve seen an increase in available titles, but there’s still a dearth of content across most fiction genres, particularly romance and SF, and there aren’t nearly enough graphic novels for kids or early chapter books.”
On the positive side, in addition to offering the bestsellers many customers are looking for (Braiding Sweetgrass, books by Louise Erdrich), Atleo says her staff loves introducing readers to “undercover gems” written by Indigenous authors. “I’m always talking up Lee Maracle, Joshua Whitehead, and Darcie Little Badger,” she notes. “Our inventory manager is very excited about Erika Wurth and Aviaq Johnston, while our head shelver recommends Cody Caetano and Buffy Sainte-Marie. The thing we’re most excited about is showing folks that Indigenous people have so many different stories to tell.”
Read more about Indigenous voices in publishing:
Forthcoming Adult Books by Indigenous Authors
New releases include memoirs and works of investigative reporting—in some cases, both in one book—as well as fiction tinted with fantasy and horror.
Forthcoming Children’s & YA Books by Indigenous Authors
These picture, middle grade, and YA books render real-life and fictional stories of adversity and adventure and celebrate a panoply of cultures.