Sasha taqʷšəblu LaPointe is an artist from the Upper Skagit and Nooksack Indian Tribe and the author of the 2022 memoir Red Paint. Her debut poetry collection, Rose Quartz, is forthcoming in March.
I fell in love with poetry in the small bathroom of our cramped trailer, in the middle of the woods on the Swinomish reservation where I grew up. I discovered poems by way of punk rock. I’d drag the portable boombox into the bathroom and sit on the counter, listening to the college radio station for hours. I learned how to make mix tapes and about the Riot Grrrl scene that had exploded out of Olympia, Washington. Though I was hours up the interstate I was enamored with the songs and stories that flooded our small bathroom through the crappy speakers of my Sony stereo. I listened to bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. I discovered the art of zines and spoken word and eventually poetry.
Attending rowdy DIY shows exposed me to poets in punk bands who opened their sets with passionate monologues. I was hooked pretty immediately. It was easy to fall into the works of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. But as I moved through my teenagehood and grew into adulthood I began to notice in all the poems and albums I loved something was missing. The collections I devoured and in the liner notes of the records I played on repeat, nothing spoke to my Indigenous identity.
When you love books and poetry but never see yourself reflected back from those pages it can be isolating. It certainly was for me. I eventually made it to college at The Institute of American Indian Arts and I was finally introduced to a world of Native literature. Suddenly the poems spoke to me on a different level. In a poem about raisins by Natalie Diaz I felt my own experience of being young and hungry on a reservation. I awed at the work of Layli Long Soldier, the first poet I read who wrote in her traditional language as well as in English. Reading novels like Winter in the Blood, Ceremony, and Love Medicine, I fell in love with the art of storytelling in a way that encompassed my whole self. In Native literature I finally began to feel less alone, and even more than that I felt a hope begin to take root in me, that the world of books, poetry, and music would no longer be a place where I had to dig to find other Native voices, but rather find them as abundant and as easily available as the all-white poets and authors I grew up on.
The literary landscape is changing, and Native voices are on the rise. It’s impossible to list all the books and authors I believe with a passion that you should be reading. Because the truth is you should be reading all of them. This is simply a list of the books that had an impact on me, books that left a mark and shifted something in me. Hopefully they’ll leave their mark on you too. And by all means please do not stop at this list. Find new Native authors, find books by Indigenous poets, and read them all!
1. Poūkahangatus: Poems by Tayi Tibble
I read Tayi Tibble’s Poūkahangatus in one sitting on a camping trip. Shortly after, I had the pleasure of joining Tayi for a couple of her West Coast book tour events and in her I found a kindred spirit, a lifelong friend. In our conversations between poetry readings and book festivals we discovered a shared love of oyster shooters and velvet mini dresses and bonded over the nervous newness of having our first book out in the world. I felt at home in her friendship as well as in the pages of this collection. The opening poem, "Poūkahangatus: An Essay About Indigenous Hair Dos and Don’ts," moves through the biting imagery of girlhood against the backdrop of colonization and generational trauma, as well as strength. These poems cut to the bone and demand that you not shy away from the blood, but rather look closely into the generations of story you’ll find there. There is a fierce femininity in these poems, as Tayi examines lineage, history, and the importance of representation.
This was the book I needed to find back in that bathroom with the mix tapes and the Riot Grrrl zines. All of Tommy Pico’s poetry collections are fire. This one just happens to be my favorite. His work challenges the perceived identity often placed upon Native writers. In Nature Poem, Pico admits he’d slap a tree in the face. He’d rather be in the city than in nature. These poems are so necessary in the undoing of stereotypes and expectations. His work often reminds me that sure, we’re Indigenous writers, but we’re also punks, we’re queer. We exist outside of the often sacred and ceremonial backdrops non-Native readers place us against. It’s not always grandmothers and rivers. Sometimes it’s pizza parlors and clubs.
3. No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies: A Lyric Essay by Julian Aguon
Julian Aguon is an astounding writer, a Chamarro Indigenous rights lawyer, the founder of Blue Ocean Law, and the author of this gorgeous and much needed book. No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies is a fierce yet tender lyric essay, one that demands our attention at every page. He asks of his readers to consider the Eight-Spot Butterfly of his homelands, specifically the threat of its disappearance. Through such a delicate and small creature, we are forced to confront the ways in which a colonial world has crushed and erased things. Page by page, Aguon shows us another way. As he shines light on those who have been overlooked and cast aside, he asks that we stop and look closely at the world around us, to the ocean and the forests, to the Indigenous people and their relationship to the land. He is a remarkable human being, and his book could not have come at a better time. The world needs this kind of story right now. Julian’s words, his resistance and resilience give us hope. This book is a gift.
4. Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir by Deborah Miranda
This is a lyric memoir that defies traditional forms and is beautifully experimental in its approach. Miranda weaves together poetry, prose, historical texts, and her own narrative as she examines the real history of her people and the attempted erasure brought on by the Spanish missions throughout California. I teach this book to my students in every creative nonfiction class and am excited by it every time. It is a powerful example of how memoir can be what we want it to be. This is a fearless and beautiful book.
I fell in love with the novel’s protagonist, Louise White Elk, immediately. The opening sentence signals that she’s in danger: “When Louise White Elk was nine, Baptiste Yellow Knife blew a fine powder in her face and told her she would disappear.” But Louise doesn’t disappear. She not only survives—she finds safety. Embodying strength in the face of erasure, she narrowly escapes the predatory men that pursue her on the Flathead reservation in the 1940s. She’s a hero. This is a book I’ve read again and again, and each time I do, Earling’s words are a treasured and welcomed power.
6. Hyperboreal by Joan Naviyuk Kane
I first heard Joan Naviyuk Kane read during my undergrad at The Institute of American Indian Arts. I had never heard entire poems read aloud in the poet’s Inupiaq language and it stirred something in me. It brought me back to memories of my grandmother telling stories in Lushootseed, and I hadn’t realized how deeply I craved the breaking up of the English language. When we are only reading and writing, or speaking and listening to, the colonizer’s language, something is lost. Joan’s poems brought a fierce and alarming beauty into the auditorium, and I couldn’t wait to read them on the page. Hyperboreal walks us through arctic landscapes as it skirts the threat of biological and cultural erasure. But through the pages there is still hope to be found. It exists in the beauty of the poet’s language as she remains connected to the land and the voices of her people.
This book was explosive when hit the world. Tommy Orange gave us a novel that defied expectations and challenged the way the literary world perceived Indigenous identity. This is a book that demanded its readers consider a new kind of story, one that didn’t confine the Native experience to ceremonies and reservations. It brought us into the urban landscapes of Oakland and reminded the world, that yeah, the Native experience is still Native even when you drop it in the middle of a city or set it against a backdrop that some readers might find unexpected. This book was unapologetically heartbreaking and yet still managed to be funny in places, and that’s a style of storytelling that is after my own heart. This book changed things and it’s a welcomed shift.
When I first encountered Layli’s work in a poetry class during my undergrad I was stunned. Her bold use of language and blank space on the page brought me back to the zines I loved as a teenager. There was something so visual and engaging about her work, it felt radical in way that brought me right back to the world of punk, art, and activism. Only this time it wasn’t through a white feminist lens, it was unapologetically Indigenous and breathtaking. Following Layli’s work, I’m always in awe of her voice and her fearless exploration of poetry and visual art. She brings large-scale installation art and textiles into the world of poetry and it’s a powerful intersection, one that I think I’ve been seeking out since I first discovered poetry. Whereas is a gorgeous and lyrical book, and like all of her writing, it’s also active and asks its readers to look more closely at the injustices and the systemic violence perpetrated against Native communities by the federal government.
9. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
I’m pretty sure Louise Erdrich is one of the big reasons I decided I wanted to become a writer. It’s hard to only recommend one of her many incredible books here and I hope that you find her entire collected works and read every word she’s ever written. I’m currently in the middle of her latest book, The Sentence, and it’s fantastic. But I’m choosing Love Medicine because it had a profound impact on my journey into writing. This book blew me open and broke apart my heart in the best way. Her poetic storytelling seemed to soften the blows of hard-hitting trauma and sorrow. It both wounded and soothed. It inspired me at a young age and continues to. This is a stunning book.
10. Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Mailhot
Heart Berries excited me in the ways it challenged what a Native memoir could be. It is an Indigenous woman’s story told on her terms. Mailhot’s approach to narrative is bold and beautiful and calls to mind the experimental style of other books that left a mark on me, books like Bluets by Maggie Nelson and A Bestiary by Lily Hoang. Here is a story both fragmented and solidly woven, dreamy and disjointed in the ways trauma often is, but full of unrelenting strength