As Indigenous authors from a variety of traditions increasingly command the market’s attention, and as Indigenous editors join ventures large and small, it seems publishing is paying long overdue attention to people of Native backgrounds.
Increased recognition, however, doesn’t mean Indigenous publishing—a shorthand term representing a multitude of experiences and heritages—is a trend. “I don’t want to hear that this is a renaissance period,” says Deborah Jackson Taffa, a citizen of the Yuma Kwaa-Tsaan Nation, a descendent of Laguna Pueblo, and director of the MFA program in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.Mex. “Renaissance implies there will be a decline, when instead the publishing industry is waking up.”
Initiatives supporting emerging writers are gaining steam, among them a new fellowship cosponsored by IAIA and MacDowell artists’ residency center in Peterborough, N.H. (See “MacDowell, IAIA Create Fellowship.”) The Audible Indigenous Writers’ Circle, which is going into its third year, provides mentorship and funding for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit writers in Canada. And a salaried, one-year, entry-level fellowship position at Milkweed Editions, created to bring in underrepresented perspectives and enrich the Milkweed team, has so far trained two Indigenous women and fostered Native advocacy at the company.
In 2022, Milkweed and other independent presses championed books by Native authors in an array of genres, such as the linked-story collections Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty (Tin House) and A Calm and Normal Heart by Chelsea Hicks (Unnamed Press). Norton published a paperback edition of Joy Harjo’s Poet Warrior that coincided with the release of Harjo’s Catching the Light, part of Yale University Press’s Why I Write series. Lerner introduced Braiding Sweetgrass for Young Adults, a YA adaptation of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed), which is holding strong on backlist bestseller lists a decade after its publication.
At Little, Brown, Caldecott Medalist Michaela Goade made her solo debut with the picture book Berry Song. Recent releases for adults from other big houses include Rebecca Roanhorse’s historical fantasy Tread of Angels (Saga), as well as Jessica Johns’s horror-tinged Bad Cree (Doubleday), which pubbed earlier this month.
What else can readers look forward to in 2023 and beyond? PW spoke with editors, many of them Indigenous and all of them advocates, to find out.
Recognition and reconciliation
David Treuer, whose The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee was a National Book Award finalist for nonfiction, was recruited by Pantheon senior v-p and publisher Lisa Lucas in late 2021 to the role of editor-at-large; his debut list is slated for 2024. “My job is to find, acquire, and publish incredible works of literature,” says Treuer, an Ojibwe Indian from Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. “I’ve signed two authors so far; one is Native and one is not.”
Treuer’s catalog will include two nonfiction titles from journalist Mary Annette Pember, a citizen of the Red Cliff Ojibwe tribe, and a book by non-Native journalist Kyle Paoletta. Also a novelist, Treuer adds that he is “hungry for fiction” and seeking “up-and-comers” in his faculty roles at the University of Southern California and Middlebury Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. “My life’s work as a writer, as a professor, and now as an editor is to remind the world that Native American literature belongs to a large body of world literature in English,” he says.
Writers capturing Treuer’s attention include Kelli Jo Ford (Crooked Hallelujah), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation; Erika T. Wurth (White Horse), an urban Native of Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee descent, and modernist writer Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, who grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation and “who’s doing incredible things with language.”
Treuer considered an editorial role after noticing factual errors in a Native-authored book and wondering why an in-house team hadn’t caught them. He realized there needed to be more Native people working at every level in U.S. trade publishing, from the mail room to publicity to marketing to design to editorial. He resolved “to get my foot in the door and then train people up, so there are more feet and more doors.”
Established authors and aspiring writers with Indigenous roots far outnumber publishing industry professionals with Indigenous backgrounds or essential understandings. Treuer expresses gratitude for his agent, Adam Eaglin of Elyse Cheney Literary Associates, who represents several Native authors and focuses on clients from historically underrepresented groups, though he is not Native himself.
No one consulted for this feature knew of U.S. agents claiming Native or Indigenous identities. In Canada, literary agent and memoirist Cody Caetano, an off-reserve member of Pinaymootang First Nation, represents clients at Toronto’s CookeMcDermid Literary Management.
Stephanie Sinclair, who identifies as Cree, Ojibwe, and German/Jewish settler, worked as an agent at CookeMcDermid too, before becoming publisher at PRH Canada’s McClelland & Stewart in September 2022. She recalls an early experience shopping a manuscript by an Indigenous author. “When I started 10 years ago, one of my first meetings was with a hugely important editor, and I was pitching something hybrid,” she says. “There were elements of poetry and elements of prose, and it sort of took the reader in a circle.” The editor “immediately dismissed the thought that having the framework of an Indigenous story would be at all welcome in the industry,” leaving Sinclair “taken aback and uncomfortable.”
Now in the editor’s chair herself, Sinclair thinks expectations have changed. “I’m excited to explore all the different forms we can use to share a narrative,” she says. As an example, she holds up a book she sold to M&S while still agenting at CookeMcDermid: True Reconciliation, in which Jody Wilson-Raybould chronicles her First Nations activism and tumultuous service in Parliament.
In the fall, M&S will publish two volumes by two-spirit artist Kent Monkman, who creates installations and hyperreal tableaus that recast historical narratives. Sinclair also looks forward to her own project, a collection of Indigenous letters slated to be published by PRH Canada’s Tundra Book Group. At M&S and in her own creative work, Sinclair says, she focuses on “decolonizing publishing”; she’s led educational events connected to Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which recognizes the country’s complicity in Indigenous genocide.
Many Indigenous authors have found a home at independent publishers with longtime Native-centered programs and specialized knowledge of diverse peoples’ traditions and storytelling. Terria Smith, a tribal member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, directs the Roundhouse Program for Native authors at Berkeley, Calif., nonprofit Heyday Books. “I can’t remember the last time we had somebody come to Roundhouse with an agent,” she says. “It’s a little more of a humble experience than that.”
Heyday, which recently released a 20th anniversary edition of Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians, will publish the anthology Know We Are Here, edited by Smith, in June. Contributors Miranda, Ursula Pike (An Indian Among los Indígenas), and Greg Sarris (Becoming Story) will participate in a panel on Native memoir as a genre of counternarrative at AWP in March.
As an arts and culture nonprofit, Smith explains, Heyday focuses on history and memoir in a storytelling mode, “art-forward” children’s titles, and books that “perpetuate beauty and the desire for people to learn about our cultures.” Emerging writers often begin by contributing to the Roundhouse program’s magazine, News from Native California, before “growing a book.” (For more from Smith, see “Indigenous Authors Have More to Share Than Trauma Narratives.")
At Milkweed Editions, home of Braiding Sweetgrass, publisher and CEO Daniel Slager senses a “growing receptivity” to the messages in Indigenous narratives. “The cultural conversation has caught up to Robin Wall Kimmerer,” he says. “As climate change and species extinction and related issues become more prominent concerns, there’s an appetite for voices like Robin’s and for alternative ways of being. It’s not a coincidence that hers is an Indigenous voice.” The book’s success “has created more opportunities for us, and we’ve come to be known as a house friendly to Indigenous poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.”
Slager looks forward to publishing Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe’s first poetry collection, Rose Quartz (Mar.), and The Lost Journals of Sacajewea (May), in which Debra Magpie Earling imagines the voice of the tenacious young woman who facilitated Lewis and Clark’s expedition throughout the American West. He says he’d heard about Earling’s fiction from Milkweed author Chris Dombrowski, who’d urged him to read Earling’s 2002 novel Perma Red, and “was astonished Perma Red wasn’t better known.” When he learned Earling, who is Bitterroot Salish, had The Lost Journals in progress, he made a two-book offer. Milkweed republished Perma Red, a coming-of-age story set on Montana’s Flathead Reservation in the 1940s, in August; an earlier version of The Lost Journals was produced as an artist book during the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The HarperCollins imprint Heartdrum launched in 2021 with a mission to “emphasize the present and future of Indian Country and the strength of young Indigenous heroes.” Cynthia Leitich Smith, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, takes the role of curator (“I’m the first-round writing teacher; I give an initial round or two of comments, and I’m constantly available”) and Rosemary Brosnan is the imprint’s editor.
Heartdrum’s spring catalog includes its first picture book, Just Like Grandma (Jan.), written by Kim Rogers, an enrolled member of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, and illustrated by Cree-Métis artist Julie Flett. (See “The Heart of the Story” for our q&a with Flett.) Leitich Smith intends Heartdrum to span the genres of contemporary realism, science fiction, mystery, fantasy, “and what you might call realistic belief-system-based fiction,” like Brian Young’s Heroes of the Water Monster (May), a companion to 2021’s Healer of the Water Monster. Young’s middle grade books “draw on traditional Navajo belief systems and beings,” Leitich Smith says, so they belong more to a faith tradition than to the fantasy shelf. “When we think about speculative fiction, we’re thinking about make believe. With books drawn from traditional stories or Indigenous belief systems, that supernatural component is part of the fact of life.”
By questioning categories and countering stereotypes about Native lives past and present, Heartdrum’s authors fulfill a community educational function. “I’m looking for terrific writing and people committed to a long journey” with the imprint, Leitich Smith says. “I’m also looking to put forward role models, on the page or through an author ambassador on the school and book festival circuit. For better or worse, there’s an expectation that our authors will be educators” working to address misperceptions of Native people.
Heartdrum author Christine Day offers one such example in the middle grade novel We Still Belong (Aug.), whose protagonist is a non-enrolled member of the Upper Skagit; the book acquaints readers with how the character celebrates Indigenous People’s Day as a Native, non-enrolled community member.
Leitich Smith has a new YA novel of her own on the way: Harvest House (Candlewick, Apr.), which revisits the characters of 2018’s Hearts Unbroken. It’s “an Indigenous ghost mystery,” she says, in which a haunted-house fundraiser relies on “a popular local legend trope, the tragic Indian maiden.” The teen characters investigate the troubling lore and come to recognize its basis in true stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Firekeeper’s Daughter author Angeline Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, likewise reckons with missing Indigenous women, as well as grave robbers stealing from the Anishinaabe tribe, in Warrior Girl Unearthed, due in May from Holt. (Boulley recommends “10 Essential Books for Teens by Indigenous Authors.”) Social justice messages lie at the heart of many children’s and YA books with Indigenous authorship. The picture book Heart Berry Bling (HighWater, May), written by Jenny Kay Dupuis, a member of the Nipissing First Nation, and illustrated by Ghana-born artist Eva Campbell, shares the tradition of Anishinaabe beadwork and highlights the experiences of women, including the author’s grandmother, who lost their First Nations status due to Canada’s Indian Act.
Other titles delve into the legacy of residential schools in Canada and the U.S., including the YA novel Wiijiwaaganag: More Than Brothers (Jan.). Based on the experiences of author Peter Razor, who died in 2022 and who was a ward at the State Public School in Owatonna, Minn., in the 1930s, the book is being published by Michigan State University Press’s Makwa Enewed imprint, devoted to presenting various Native American perspectives.
Editors at Kids Can Press likewise feel “a responsibility to advance underrepresented voices,” says president and publisher Lisa Lyons Johnston. When KCP partnered in 2018 with Canadian Geographic to distribute the four-volume Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada to schools and libraries, Johnston says, “that accelerated our interest” in Indigenous history and voices, because of the overwhelmingly positive reception from communities and especially young readers. The atlas, with more than 200 First Nations contributors, features a giant floor map to help readers imagine the vast North American territory.
Forthcoming KCP projects include the fall picture book release Benjamin’s Thunderstorm, written by Melanie Florence, who is of Cree and Scottish heritage, and illustrated by Hawlii Pichette, a Mushkego Cree (Treaty 9) artist, plus a half dozen more Indigenous-authored titles slated for publication.
Honoring who we are now
Stephanie Strachan, whose reserve is Naicatchewenin and who also has Ukrainian heritage, is First Nations acquisitions editor at Annick Press. She shepherds her first picture books into print in May, after adding her editorial role to her other position as Annick marketing associate. The dual-language Âmî Osâwâpikones (Dear Dandelion) by SJ Okemow traces the resilient flower through the seasons in both Plains Cree and English; Walking Together by Mi’kmaq Spiritual Elder Albert Marshall and Louise Zimanyi, illustrated by Emily Kewageshig, teaches respect for the natural world and incorporates Mi’kmaq words.
Other publishers, too, are producing multilingual titles. Orca, for instance, plans two Plains Cree/English picture books for May: a powwow story titled We Belong to the Drum/mistikwaskihk kitipêyimikonaw, written by Sandra Lamouche and illustrated by Azby Whitecalf, and a lullaby about the plants and animals of sacred Indigenous ancestral lands, Forever Our Home/kâkikê kîkinaw, by author-illustrator team Tonya Simpson and Carla Joseph.
“Language revitalization is such a huge topic in our communities,” Strachan says, and picture books seem a “natural storytelling medium” for that purpose. Though her first releases are for younger readers, she’s on the lookout for a “funny YA romance” with “elements of beauty and a celebration of our culture,” she says. “We’ve talked about our trauma for so long, and a lot of younger writers are looking to move past that. A big part of reconciliation for us is honoring who we are now, and that’s my cornerstone in the work I’m doing.”
Two-time Governor General’s Literature Award winner David A. Robertson, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation, recently launched an as-yet-unnamed children’s imprint at Tundra. Robertson had been speaking with his friend Cherie Dimaline, an author from the Historic Georgian Bay Métis Community, about starting an imprint, and when Dimaline stepped aside for projects like her YA novel Funeral Songs for Dying Girls (Tundra, Apr.), Robertson joined Tundra solo.
“Maybe I’ve overstepped in terms of my workload,” he says. But given his own successes, which include a forthcoming picture book with Anishinaabe illustrator Maya McKibbin, The Song That Called Them Home (Tundra, May), he wants to “open up doorways for other people to do well, too.” One priority: raising awareness of Indigenous-owned and -operated indie publishers like Theytus Books and Kegedonce Press.
Like others championing Indigenous identities in publishing and bookselling, Robertson hopes his appointment at Tundra serves as “a catalyst,” because “representation is still very low,” he says. “We may be a little bit better, but we still have a long way to go.”
His takeaways for the industry echo those of the editors and publishers who spoke with PW for this piece. Among their recommendations: Cultivate emerging writers who might not have access to conventional publishing channels or metro areas. Rethink dominant narratives of history and make room for Indigenous storytelling. Invest meaningful resources in the marketing of titles by Indigenous authors and train future professionals who right now lack the resources to begin or sustain careers—they’re the editors, designers, and agents who will one day promote Indigenous voices across publishing.
This feature is part of In Focus: PW’s series of deep dives into topics and themes essential to the publishing industry today.
Correction: An earlier version of this feature misstated the names of the creators of Walking Together (Annick).
Read more about Indigenous voices in publishing:
More Than Books: Indigenous Voices in Publishing
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10 Essential Books for Teens by Indigenous Authors
Angeline Boulley, a Printz Award Winner for 'Firekeeper’s Daughter' and the author of the forthcoming 'Warrior Girl Unearthed,' recommends 10 must-read books by Indigenous authors for teens.
10 Books by Native Authors That Left Their Mark on Me
Poet and memoirist Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe recommends 10 books by Indigenous writers that influenced her.
10 Essential Works in American Indian History
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The Heart of the Story: PW Talks with Julie Flett
Flett discusses her next illustration project, 'Just Like Grandma' by Kim Rogers (Heartdrum, Jan.), preserving and sharing the Cree language, and the universal theme of the importance of elders.
Forthcoming Adult Books by Indigenous Authors: Indigenous Voices in Publishing
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Forthcoming Children's & YA Books by Indigenous Authors: Indigenous Voices in Publishing
These picture, middle grade, and YA books render real-life and fictional stories of adversity and adventure and celebrate a panoply of cultures.
Indigenous Authors Have More to Share Than Trauma Narratives
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