8 Enlightening Works About American Indian History

140 years ago today, hundreds of American Indian refugees were on the run. The Nez Perce had been known as a peaceful and cooperative nation, having helped Lewis and Clark among other white men, but after the US government reneged on treaty promises, some of the Nez Perce refused to be rounded up and hauled off to a reservation that was miniscule in comparison to the land they’d always known. So they left their native homeland in the summer of 1877, led the US military on a wild chase through Yellowstone National Park, and were somewhere in what is now Montana on this day in history.

The Nez Perce story serves as a backdrop for my forthcoming novel, Bear Medicine, in part because the book is set in the Yellowstone region, and I find this part of our country—and this part of our history—fascinating. But I also chose this backdrop because their story is still relevant today, not only for descendants of that nation but for all of us as we witness refugees around the world encountering cultural, language, political, health, and other barriers in their struggles for survival.

If you’d like to read more about the Nez Perce, or American Indian history of the 19th century, check out these books.


One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd – Jim Fergus

A fictional account of outcast pioneer women in the government’s “Brides for Indians” program. 

Kirkus Reviews called this a “long, brisk, charming first novel about an 1875 treaty between Ulysses S. Grant and Little Wolf, chief of the Cheyenne nation.”

My thoughts: Although my book club panned this, I thought it was entertaining and original. The treaty around which the book was based may have been fictional, but the insight offered into prairie life and interactions between whites and Indians was enlightening.

Quote from the book: “And no wonder, by the same token, that the white man builds his forts and houses, his stores and churches–his flimsy fortifications against the vastness and emptiness of earth which he does not know to worship but tries instead to simply fill up.”


The Dying Grass: A Novel of the Nez Perce War – William T. Vollmann

A long and violent, but original and well-researched, addition to the author’s acclaimed series of novels examining the collisions between Native Americans and European colonizers.

The Seattle Times said this was “nothing less than brilliant.”

My thoughts: The writing is lush, the dialogue pointed, the structure original and complex—all of which contribute to the masterpiece. But the attitudes and behaviors of the characters—especially the white soldiers—are disturbing, and the battle scenes highly violent and graphic. And it’s really, really long.

Quote from the book: “…Heinmot Tooyalakekt, carefully helping Animal In A Hole, all the while decorates his heart with a memory of Wallowa: south of the lake, riding up into the pines in the cool morning where the sphagnum moss grows thick and soft like the mane of green grass on each ridge’s neck…”



Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West – Dee Brown

First published in 1970, this became a classic narrative of history as told through the eyes and words of the American Indian. One chapter eventually became a major motion picture.

What the Washington Post said: “Shattering, appalling, compelling…One wonders, reading this searing, heartbreaking book, who, indeed, were the savages.”

My thoughts: A heart-wrenching, stomach-clenching account of how whites treated the indigenous people of North America; it should be required reading for everyone.

Quote from the book: “Already the once sweet-watered streams, most of which bore Indian names, were clouded with silt and the wastes of man; the very earth was being ravaged and squandered. To the Indians it seemed that these Europreans hated everything in nature—the living forests and their birds and beasts, the grassy glades, the water, the soil, and the air itself.”


Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipuu – Allen V. Pinkham and Steven Ross Evans

Some say this is the definitive book that focuses on the famous explorers’ experiences as told from the Nez Perce point of view.

What Jack McNeel wrote for Indian Country Today: “It’s the only book to dwell just on the time spent with one tribe and it’s written from the Native viewpoint.”

My thoughts: True confessions—I’ve only read parts of this book. But what I appreciate most is hearing the story from the native perspective.



Nez Perce Summer 1877: The U.S. Army and the Nee-Me-Poo Crisis – Jerome A. Greene

Authored by a National Park Service historian, this is considered by some to be the definitive history of the Nez Perce War.

What the Denver Post said: “The story of the [Nez Perce’s’] escapes, hardships and ultimate defeat makes an epic struggle any Hollywood scriptwriter would admire. In [this book], Jerome A. Greene . . . is precise, even brilliant, in detailing the Nez Perce trail and the military groups that hounded them for weeks.”

My thoughts: A seemingly well-researched, detailed account of what must have been one of the longest chase scenes in history and which would indeed make a fine epic movie on the big screen. Referred to me by another Yellowstone National Park historian.

Quote from the book: “The earth was the supreme provider, to be revered—not owned—as the mother of life for all creatures.”

Nez Perce Women in Transition: 1877-1990 – Caroline James

An important narrative about the contributions made, and challenges faced, by the Nez Perce women during a period of significant change.

What Martha Harroun Foster of the Pacific Historical Review wrote: “This is a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of Nez Perce women’s lives.”

My thoughts: So few women have shown up in history books, and even fewer indigenous women have. Moreover, the traditional role of women has rarely garnered any attention in history books even though it was essential to survival and advancement. This is a refreshing acknowledgement of a role that some early American women played in a critical time in history.

Quote from the book: “Through their customary role as food gatherers, women provided nutritious food which was at least equal in importance to the men’s contribution of meat and fish.”

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis – Timothy Egan

An account of the charismatic photographer’s epic quest to document the disappearing American Indian.

What Josh Garrett-Davis wrote for The New York Times: “Mr. Egan…is a brisk and muscular writer.”

My thoughts: Fabulous! I’m not sure which I valued most: a condensed history of the Indian Wars, a look at the pathetic trajectory of Chief Joseph’s life, a lesson on early photography, or an insight into Seattle’s early days.

Quote from the book: “The last Indian of Seattle lived in a shack down among the greased piers and coal bunkers of the new city…”


Undaunted Courage: Meriwhether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West – Stephen E. Ambrose

A national bestseller by one of our country’s most esteemed historians.

What Wild West Reviews said for Historynet.com: Ambrose makes a meticulous reconstruction of the 2,000-mile journey through Louisiana Purchase lands, basing this part of the story principally on Lewis’ voluminous journals, and all the joys and miseries of that greatest exploration in our history come to life in the author’s measured prose.

My thoughts: This is certainly no beach read, but it offers an in-depth perspective of the famous exploratory journey through the eyes of the explorers and in the context of their times.

Quote from the book: “Wenching and other debauchery, heavy drinking, and similar personal vices were common enough, but as long as they did not interfere with relations between members of the gentry they were condoned.

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Every time something like Standing Rock comes up in the news, I can’t help but reflect on how poorly our nation has treated the American Indian, and I can’t help but wonder if and when we’ll ever change.

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