The power of literature to address the history of the oppression of Indigenous peoples in North America and chart their futures has never been more important. As the U.S. experiences a wave of popular concern about social justice issues, publishers are really just beginning to embrace a growing number of works on such topics as ancestral domains and land rights of Indigenous communities; preservation of their languages, traditions, rituals, and cultural knowledge; and, just as important, the reimagining of their lives through the storytelling of contemporary Indigenous authors.
PW contacted a variety of publishers to find out how their programs serve the needs of Indigenous readers and their communities. We spoke with Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, publisher and managing editor of Kegedonce Press; Rosemary Brosnan, vice president of editorial at Heartdrum; Catherine Cocks, assistant director and editor-in-chief of Michigan State University Press; Kathie Hanson, managing editor of 7th Generation; Carol Hinz, associate publisher of Millbrook Press; David Levithan, v-p, publisher and editorial director at Scholastic Press; Tyler Mitchell, editor at Salina Bookshelf; Joe Monti, editorial director at Saga Press; Shannon Pennefeather, managing editor of Minnesota Historical Society Press; Kirsten Phillips, director of marketing at HighWater Press; Ann Regan, editor-in-chief of Minnesota Historical Society Press; Olivia Valcarce, associate editor at Scholastic Press; and Margie Wolfe, publisher and president of Second Story Press.
Does your program have a history of publishing works on the history and culture of Indigenous peoples?
Phillips: Portage & Main Press has a long history of publishing works by Indigenous authors. It began with the trailblazing title In Search of April Raintree, published more than 25 years ago. This story and its school edition, April Raintree, has inspired generations of readers across Canada and is still appearing on must-read lists today. Recognizing the need for more stories by Indigenous authors, PMP created the HighWater Press imprint in 2009.
Brosnan: HarperCollins’s Heartdrum imprint, which was cofounded by distinguished author and teacher Cynthia Leitich Smith—who is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation—and me, launched this January, so we are a new imprint. However, I have published works by Native authors for many years, including those of Cynthia herself. At Heartdrum, we publish in all genres for children and young adults, including picture books, chapter books, fiction for middle graders and young adults, graphic novels, and nonfiction.
Akiwenzie-Damm: Kegedonce Press is a dedicated Indigenous publisher, one of only a handful in Canada. We have been publishing works by Indigenous authors since 1993. We also work with Indigenous editors, artists, illustrators, and photographers in the production of our titles.
Hanson: Book Publishing Company is an independent publisher and Native Voices is its first Native imprint. The imprint, established in 1978, has titles on art, history and culture. In 2007, we added the 7th Generation imprint to publish young adult titles, all with Native American authors. We offer titles on a variety of American Indian nations and First Nations in Canada.
Mitchell: Salina Bookshelf was founded in 1994 with the goal of illuminating Indigenous voices and storytelling in the Southwest. As an independent publisher of multicultural materials, our catalog includes textbooks, children’s picture books, children’s chapter books, informational texts, reference books, audiobooks, and language learning materials, all depicting Navajo and Hopi culture. We specialize in dual-language books in Navajo/English and Hopi/English.
Cocks: Michigan State University Press has been publishing scholarly and creative works by and about Native peoples since the late 1990s. This is an important commitment on our part to provide a forum for Native writers, scholars, and activists.
Hinz: On the school and library side, we’ve published a number of series about specific tribal nations, as well as grouping Native nations together by U.S. region, tying in with the elementary curriculum. On the trade side, we published the picture book Sacagawea by Lise Erdrich, illustrated by Julia Buffalohead, in 2003, and it remains in print to this day. More recently, we published the anthology Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, edited by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Marlena Myles, who is Spirit Lake Dakota/Mohegan/Muscogee Creek. The book includes Indigenous authors Kimberly Blaeser, Joseph Bruchac, Carole Lindstrom, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Traci Sorell.
Monti: I’d like to think that Saga Press [an imprint of Simon & Schuster] has been at the vanguard of the recent growth in Indigenous speculative fiction. We had the great pleasure of publishing Rebecca Roanhorse’s debut novel, Trail of Lightning, in 2018. She has since been awarded nearly every major award in the field, continuing with her latest fantasy, Black Sun. We also published Stephen Graham Jones’s horror novel, The Only Good Indians, which was just awarded the Ray Bradbury Prize from the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
Regan: The Minnesota Historical Society started publishing books about the Indigenous peoples of this region in the 1850s. For over a century, these books promoted and reflected colonialist viewpoints. In the 1970s, we began to shift, and today most of our Indigenous titles are written by Ojibwe and Dakota people.
Wolfe: Second Story Press has always specialized in titles that focus on women and diverse peoples, human rights and social justice, so in 2007 we started an Indigenous series for young people—Great Athletes from Our First Nations, and Great Women from our First Nations. Since then, we’ve expanded outside of this series to publish picture books, a baby book, a middle grade series, and stand-alone novels.
Levithan: Scholastic has a long history of publishing Indigenous authors and books with Indigenous subject matter, as well as carrying other publishers’ work in our school channels. That said, we recognize that we need to have a significant commitment to bringing new voices and new perspectives onto our list. Looking to the 2022–2023 lists, just over 3% of the fiction and memoir we’ve acquired is by Indigenous creators, and we are certainly looking to increase this percentage before those lists are finalized.
What is your acquisitions strategy?
Cocks: Currently, our acquisitions strategy focuses on the history, language, and culture of the Anishinaabe peoples—which include the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples—of the Great Lakes region. We also publish scholarly works in philosophy, environmental studies, and literary studies that draw on and examine a wide range of Indigenous intellectual and political traditions.
Akiwenzie-Damm: Kegedonce Press solicits works by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis creators from all regions in Canada. We support the works of emerging authors. The majority of our works have been poetry collections, but we have also published several short story collections and novels, nonfiction, children’s picture and short story books, and in 2020 produced our first graphic novel. Many of our books include sections in Indigenous languages in support of language preservation and education.
Phillips: Staying true to the educational roots of Portage & Main Press, HighWater Press exclusively publishes books written by Indigenous authors, focusing on stories that could be used by teachers and students. Our books cover a variety of topics and formats, including historical fiction, contemporary fiction, speculative fiction, adult nonfiction, children’s picture books, and graphic novels.
Brosnan: Our mission is to publish contemporary stories that center Native and First Nations young people, by Native and First Nations writers and illustrators who are from what are now the United States and Canada. We think of the characters in these books as being contemporary Native heroes. We want our books to showcase the Native and First Nations kids who live in our current world.
Regan: We focus on the Dakota and Ojibwe communities—the people living in Minnesota at the time of contact—with an additional interest in the Ho-Chunk, who lived here briefly. This encompasses books on history, activism, traditional and contemporary culture, and language, including children’s picture books as well as books for the adult trade and academic markets.
Mitchell: We are based in Flagstaff, Ariz. Flagstaff is a border town to many Indigenous communities, and most of our stories are about Diné/Navajo people. With a broad range of titles for young readers, many of our writers and illustrators are Diné. We want to provide resources to help Diné people learn their culture and language at any age.
Levithan: Right now, we are very author-driven: finding Indigenous authors and empowering them to tell whatever stories they want to tell. Our recent acquisitions cover a gamut of genres: an intense queer YA love story, a YA that mixes an exploration of grief with both metaphysics and legend, a middle grade fantasy, a memoir, and a middle grade about a girl and a hedgehog. We also have a range of Indigenous communities being depicted, from ones that are U.S.-based to the Aboriginal communities in Australia.
Wolfe: More now we are publishing #OwnVoices and look for stories that directly reflect the contributions, history, experiences, and injustices confronting Indigenous communities. At the same time we want to see Indigenous primary characters in books not necessarily focused on an Indigenous theme or issue. For instance, we have the Mighty Muskrats series, which features four cousins who live at the Windy Lake First Nation and solve mysteries in the tradition of the Hardy Boys.
What principles and goals guide your acquisition of Indigenous titles for young readers?
Phillips: Portage & Main Press seeks to publish good stories that children can see themselves within, as well as stories that contribute to larger conversations. We acquire #OwnVoices stories that will make a lasting impact, as well as stories and perspectives that may not have been published in the past. We also look for titles that fill a need for teachers and students, particularly in elementary and middle schools.
Mitchell: We prefer #OwnVoices stories written by Diné who have a lived experience of the lifestyle they portray. By doing so, we avoid stereotypes and tropes that can be seen as a misrepresentation of an entire peoples. We also want young non-Diné readers to become aware of the culture’s history and respectful and welcoming of a diverse community.
Hanson: The goal of our Native Trailblazer Series of biographies of Indigenous people is to give students a look at contemporary Native people and the work they are doing that adds to the fabric of our country. The individuals in the books provide positive role models. The goal of the 23 novels in our Pathfinders collection is to provide teenage reading material, written at a low reading level, with plots Native students can relate to, and Native characters they can identify with.
Pennefeather: We always pair Native-told stories with Native artists for illustration—and have heard from some artists that the assignments have helped deepen their knowledge of and appreciation for these vibrant living traditions.
Brosnan: All authors, illustrators, and jacket artists for our fiction are Indigenous. Native educators write our educator guides. Native voice actors narrate our audiobooks. We publish debut authors and illustrators as well as seasoned contributors who have published before.
Hinz: I look for books by #OwnVoices authors whose work addresses curricular themes in ways that will support educators looking to add to their library or classroom collections and replace outdated, inaccurate material.
Akiwenzie-Damm: As with all our works, we look for submissions that honor Indigenous voices and culture, avoid stereotypical representations of Indigenous peoples, and tell a good story. We look for titles that will allow Indigenous children and youth to see themselves and their cultures represented positively, and to allow non-Indigenous children and youth to learn about Indigenous peoples in their communities.
Wolfe: Our preference always is to marry important content with compelling storytelling. At the same time, it is important that Indigenous readers see themselves not as secondary or tertiary characters but as protagonists that drive the story.
What new topics have you noticed emerging in books about Indigenous communities—and what are your most successful titles?
Wolfe: Almost everything is new. Many of us grew up on “cowboy and Indian” stories with dreadful stereotypes, and only in recent years have most of us welcomed Indigenous voices and their understanding of their—and all of our—worlds. Indigenous kids have primarily and historically read about themselves as the “bad guys” or the ones who need to be led.
Today, we are hearing “own voices” tell us about their histories, heroines and heroes, struggles, and contributions, and so hopefully taking us all toward a more inclusive society. Some of our most popular and acclaimed titles are The Case of Windy Lake and The Case of the Missing Aunties, both by Michael Hutchinson, and The Train by Jodie Callaghan, illustrated by Georgia Lesley.
Akiwenzie-Damm: Among recent submissions to Kegedonce Press, we have noticed more focus on two-spirit issues and identities, an emphasis on language education and preservation, and on survivance and healing intergenerational trauma. In terms of mainstream success, we’re proud that Smokii Sumac’s poetry collection You Are Enough won the 2019 Indigenous Voices Award in Published Poetry in English.
Our more recent bestseller is The Trail of Nenaboozhoo by Isaac Murdoch, a collection of sacred Anishinaabe creation stories, most of which appear in English and Anishinaabemowin. We are especially excited about Ghost Lake, a short story collection by Nathan Niigan Noodin Adler that reimagines the horror genre from an Indigenous perspective.
Cocks: A key emerging theme is the effort to address climate change by challenging the inimical effects of Western ways of thinking on our relationships with the more-than-human world. Brian Burkhart’s Indigenizing Philosophy Through the Land is a good example. Another key theme is the reassertion on the global activism of Indigenous nations, as in Famine Pots: The Choctaw-Irish Gift Exchange, 1847–Present, edited by LeAnne Howe and Padraig Kirwan. This book took on added relevance during the pandemic, as Irish people donated generously to the Navajo and other Native Nations severely affected by Covid-19 in memory of the Choctaw people’s generosity during the Potato Famine.
Hinz: While in the past most picture books about Indigenous people would be biographies about well-known historical figures—like Sacagawea, Sequoyah, or Sitting Bull—we’re now seeing books that show Indigenous people in contemporary settings, from We Are Water Protectors to Fry Bread to We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga. Sacagawea by Lise Erdrich, illustrated by Julia Buffalohead, which has been in print for nearly 18 years, is certainly very successful. We’re also seeing strong interest in our more recent releases Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, edited by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Marlena Myles, and Classified: The Secret Career of Mary Golda Ross, Cherokee Aerospace Engineer by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Natasha Donovan.
Regan: Our authors are showing that Ojibwe and Dakota people are still living here, still passing on living cultures, and still recognizable to their ancestors, as author Anton Treuer puts it. In partnership with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, we’re publishing a series of monolingual books for Ojibwe language learners. Indigenous authors are working to decolonize the history we live by: using historical sources in new ways, emphasizing oral history, bringing family stories into the telling of history, writing for members of the Native community. Top sellers include Anton Treuer’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask and a bilingual Ojibwe/English picture book, Bowwow Powwow by Brenda Child, illustrated by Jonathan Thunder—both of whom are Red Lake Ojibwe.
Monti: Sadly, what’s new is the existence of these works at all. Within the framework of speculative fiction, the lack of representation is only recently being countered by the publication and success of new writers like Cherie Dimaline and Darcie Little Badger, and, in children’s and YA, Cynthia Leitch Smith’s Heartdrum imprint.
Mitchell: We’ve recently published two children’s picture books by Diné authors: Fall in Line, Holden! by Daniel W. Vandever and Becoming Miss Navajo by Jolyana Begay-Kroupa. Both focus on the contemporary Diné lifestyle. The only information most students learn about Indigenous communities is through history textbooks that often misrepresent specific cultures, languages, and history. This often creates a lens that Indigenous communities are a thing of the past rather than communities of people that are currently living and thriving in today’s environment. It’s important that we shed light on these amazing individuals and their experiences navigating a modern world.
Levithan: I think the kid lit about Indigenous communities is very much in sync with the larger We Need Diverse Books movement, highlighting that young Indigenous readers need to see themselves on the shelves, front and center, with stories that engage with their lives, history, and lore. Our most successful recent titles have been Eric Gansworth’s If I Ever Get out of Here and Give Me Some Truth, deeply personal YA novels.
Hanson: Books about Native American women. Children’s books written about Native stories and lessons.
Phillips: We are seeing a resurgence in, and a need for, books that include Indigenous languages. Some of our recent titles have been published with this need in mind, such as Stand Like a Cedar, which features words from Salish and Coast Salish languages, and Ispík kákí Ppéyakoyak/When We Were Alone, which is a bilingual Swampy Cree and English edition.
What have you heard from your publishing partners—agents, distributors, retailers—about demand for titles on Indigenous peoples?
Akiwenzie-Damm: Interest in Indigenous literature has increased noticeably over the last several years. Our distributors at the Literary Press Group and their sales teams consistently affirm that there is a demand for such works. We connect with academics in Indigenous studies departments across the country seeking course texts.
The recently established Indigenous Voices Awards and First Nations Communities Read bring national attention to Indigenous works. With the rise of anti-racism in the public consciousness, there has been more demand from non-Indigenous Canadians to learn more about the history, culture, and languages of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in Canada.
Levithan: We’ve had nothing but enthusiasm for bringing more Indigenous voices onto our list. And at Scholastic, we of course have the added benefit of the support from our Book Clubs and Book Fairs. This is particularly meaningful because they bring these books directly into schools—which is where our authors want them to be.
Phillips: HighWater Press has seen strong sales year over year in both Canada and the U.S. A number of titles have been translated into other languages including German and French. Many of our titles have also been recognized as outstanding by IBBY, In the Margins, AICL, and others. Many of our titles explore social justice issues, but at a level appropriate for children. Because of this, we have seen increased interest from teachers who use HWP titles in the classroom alongside our robust teacher guides.
Regan: Our Native American titles sell well nationally, as well as through Minnesota’s strong community of independent bookstores, including Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books and Native Arts in Minneapolis. Among Minnesota Historical Society Press’s bestselling titles overall in 2021 thus far, more than half of our top 50 sellers have Indigenous content, and most of those are by Indigenous authors and/or illustrators.
Monti: The way that Rebecca Roanhorse and Stephen Graham Jones have been embraced by readers and critics alike has been heartening. Publishing had a reckoning in summer 2020 that is still reverberating throughout the BIPOC literary community. Part of that is the realization that works by Indigenous authors are not niche; they are mainstream as hell.
What are your plans for acquiring titles in this category in the future?
Wolfe: We have no plans to stop. It would be wrong to think of these books as a trend. We need and want more of them, because the body of literature that reflects the lives of Indigenous kids is so sparse.
Phillips: We continue to acquire Indigenous authors who write compelling stories, and we are heartened by the number of submissions we receive annually. HighWater Press also sets goals for our acquisitions to fill out our list and address gaps in the larger book publishing market. For example, over the last several years, we have been working to publish more graphic novels written by Indigenous women. We are also looking for more Indigenous artists and author/illustrators, as well as LGBTQ2S+ creators.
Valcarce: I’m looking to widen the horizons of what our Indigenous publishing looks like: to represent many viewpoints across the wide range of Indigenous experiences, especially contemporary ones.
Cocks: We plan to continue acquiring in Native American and Indigenous studies, with a focus on Anishinaabe history, culture, and language; on Indigenous climate change and other environmental activism; and on tribal governance and sovereignty.
Hinz: I’m looking to publish picture books by Indigenous authors writing about a wide variety of topics, both fiction and nonfiction. In addition to picture books, I edit a lot of middle grade nonfiction, and I think there’s a huge opportunity to publish work by Indigenous authors writing about science as well as social studies topics.
Regan: We will continue publishing works by Indigenous authors that show Ojibwe and Dakota life, now and in previous years—books that are accessible to, but not written for, white audiences.
Monti: We have several books under contract with Rebecca Roanhorse and Stephen Graham Jones—in fact, both will have multiple publications in 2022, beginning with the sequel to Black Sun in spring of 2022. I’m looking forward to acquiring other Indigenous writers’ works.
Mitchell: Our submission deadline is in June of every year. We often receive manuscripts year-round, and we are excited to see what new stories Diné writers have to share. We hope to continue our pursuit of elevating Diné storytelling, language, history, and culture.
Akiwenzie-Damm: Kegedonce Press will continue to seek and produce works by Indigenous authors and artists across Canada. We believe in the need for Indigenous contributors to work with a publisher that is aware of the pitfalls of colonialist structures, that honors the unique voices and experiences of Indigenous peoples, and that supports other Indigenous contributors throughout the publishing process. Indigenous literatures are not a category or genre; they are world literatures.