Navajo poet and arts advocate Kinsale Drake started the NDN Girls Book Club last April out of a desire to develop a fun, safe space for her fellow bibliophiles to geek out over Native American literature. She couldn’t have predicted how the initiative would take off—more than 18,000 Instagram followers, well-attended in-person workshops and readings, sold-out merchandise in bedazzled pops of pink, and ongoing donations to fund more than 500 free book care packages sent out to Indigenous youth in 2023.
This year, Drake is collaborating with mutual aid organizations and other partners on a big dream: to give every child on the vast Navajo reservation a contemporary Native book. That’s in addition to goals like supporting Indigenous visual artists and finding ways to merge the worlds of literature and fashion. But it’s the core mission of amplifying Native storytelling that attracts readers of all ages to this club.
“Historically, Native peoples were shown that literature was not for us; it was a weapon of assimilation and erasure,” Drake says. “We grew up without fair representation, but now we’re seeing all these Native authors popping up in genres where we haven’t seen ourselves. Books are such a beautiful thing because they transcend Indigeneity and help us form these common connections.”
That feeling of connectedness is what Drake and other Indigenous Bookstagrammers PW spoke with were seeking when they started out. Sure, it was about making book recommendations, but it was also about making a community. It’s safe to say they’ve found kinship, both with one another and among their thousands of loyal followers.
The power of platform
Dani Roulette, who is Anishinaabe from Dog Creek First Nation, and Erin Tripp, who is Lingít, had each developed strong followings before they teamed up for a 2019 read-along of Turtle Mountain Chippewa author Louise Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine. The success of that experience prompted them to establish their online book club in 2020.
Though the Indigenous Reading Circle’s top priority is bringing together Native readers in appreciation of Native authors, the monthly club attracts non-Native bookworms, too. That’s just fine by Roulette and Tripp, who understand that education is part of their responsibility, including enlightening participants about topics affecting tribal communities, showcasing the rich diversity of Indigenous cultures, and underscoring the basic fact that Native peoples are still here.
“Since the start of colonization, there’s been a move to erase us from existence, whether that’s by killing us, forcing us to assimilate, or straight up pretending we don’t exist,” Tripp says. “Indigenous literature is one way we can reclaim our identities. As Native readers, we get to connect through story, see ourselves reflected in those stories, and learn about all of our peoples.”
To the average Instagrammer, those types of teachings might seem beyond the scope of an influencer’s job, but they’re necessary to build empathy and upend tired tropes. “Too often, Indigenous stories have not been told by the tribal people the story is focused on, which has led to stereotypes, misinformation, and an inaccurate portrayal of Native life,” says Carolann Duro, aka NDN Book Nerd, who is of Maara’yam and Kumeyaay descent and who runs the Southern California pop-up Quiet Quail Books. “Research has shown that when we read stories beyond our own backgrounds, it can positively impact our ability to empathize with and support people from other communities.”
Native Hawaiian and Samoan children’s book author Kealani Netane started the Instagram account Little Pasifika Readers in 2021 after struggling to find bedtime reading material that reflected her kids’ heritage. “Pacific Islander books are really hard to find; if you search for them, you typically come up with Asian books,” she explains. “Every May, we see a ton of Asian American and Pacific Islander month book lists, but they typically only have Asian American representation. The books I share may not mean a lot to everyone, but to some people, seeing their cultures recognized means so much.”
In addition to amplifying Pacific Islander authors, Netane also helps showcase the cultural diversity of the area, which is home to 15 independent nations and thousands of isles. Her forthcoming debut picture book, Tala Learns to Siva (illus. by Dong Ho; Orchard, May), honors her Samoan ancestry.
The ills of Instagram
While the Native Bookstagrammers PW spoke with extol the powerful reach of social media, it’s not without its problems. Some online trolling is to be expected, but Roulette has received death threats in response to her posts. “People have lashed out at me when I’ve spoken up against beloved white authors saying harmful things or perpetuating stereotypes,” she says. “As much love as there is for Indigenous literature, there is also a lot of misunderstanding. I’ve read reviews of Indigenous works where the critiques make it clear people are forgetting that Indigenous tribes aren’t a monolith.”
Hillary Smith, who owns Black Walnut Books in Glens Falls, N.Y., was braced for backlash when, back in 2021, she started her queer- and Indigenous-focused Bookstagram, where she also promotes a monthly book club. Smith, who is Southern Pomo and Coastal Miwok, is relieved to have received overwhelmingly positive feedback, save for people sometimes questioning the authenticity of authors’ ancestry.
“That’s something I obviously take very seriously, so I try to find out as much information as I can,” she says. “It does happen that people sometimes pretend to be Native to take advantage of a situation, but then there are more nuanced circumstances, like if someone was adopted. To me, that’s a by-product of systemic violence via colonialism, so I don’t necessarily think those people should be completely discredited. Ultimately, everyone has to make their own judgment calls.”
A lot of work goes into selecting the titles to feature. Smith and her counterparts endeavor to showcase both the joys and traumas of tribal communities and to emphasize that Native books belong in all genres, not just history.
“There’s been this pattern of breakout Indigenous books being focused on the trauma that has happened to Indigenous communities on Turtle Island,” says fantasy author Melissa Blair, who is Anishinaabe and a prominent Native BookTokker. “But now we’re seeing Indigenous authors breaking into genres that have nothing to do with intergenerational trauma, residential schools, or colonization in this beautiful way that readers are really appreciating.”
Kate Nelson, an Alaska Native Tlingit tribal member, is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis.
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