By David Heska Wanbli Weiden
The genre of Native American crime fiction remains popular among mystery fans, yet few would be able to name writers in this field beyond the wildly successful Tony Hillerman, Thomas Perry, James Doss, and perhaps a few others. For those who’ve enjoyed the work of these non-Native writers, it may be a natural evolution to read some crime fiction written by indigenous authors. These writers use different strategies and viewpoints to bring a fresh approach to mystery and suspense novels.
Native crime fiction has deep roots. The first novel ever to be written by a Native American is generally considered to be The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854) by the Cherokee writer John Rollin Ridge; it’s the tale of a Mexican immigrant who seeks revenge after his family is murdered by white settlers. Much later, the Choctaw writer Todd Downing wrote a series of detective novels in the 1930s, most of which were set in Mexico and featuring non-Native protagonists and characters, including Vultures in the Sky (1935), recently reissued by American Mystery Classics in 2020. Finally, the bestselling author Martin Cruz Smith (Pueblo) wrote one of the first Native thrillers, Nightwing (1977, reissued 2019), a hybrid crime and horror novel set on a reservation in the Southwest. Smith also wrote The Indians Won (1970), perhaps the first indigenous alternate history novel, which envisioned a world where the Indian nations in the 1800s worked together to defeat the American military and establish their own independent country in the Plains states. Although the book is now out of print, it’s well worth a search as the novel is an important early work in the Native American literary canon.
Returning to more recent works, the list below contains some of the most important crime novels by Native writers, each of whom approach the genre in a different way. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive compilation, but rather a sampling of writers who have added some distinctive elements to the field. In addition to the books noted, I highly recommend novels by the Native writers Linda Rodriguez (Cherokee), Sara Sue Hokklotubbe (Cherokee), Tom Holm (Cherokee-Creek), and Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), among others.
Mean Spirit (1990) by Linda Hogan (Chickasaw).
Not just one of the most important indigenous crime novels, this is a seminal work in the Native American canon. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the book tells the story of the Osage murders in the 1920s. The brutal killing of the character Grace Blanket drives the narrative although it soon expands to larger questions of societal justice. The novel is not only a mystery, but also an engrossing view into Native culture, spirituality, and the struggle against colonization. Kirkus Reviews in 1990 noted about the book: “Justice prevails for the most part, though not all of it is brought about through the courts. Meanwhile, the Indians’ efforts to influence events through the spirit world, their ever-tightening circle of defense, and their steady dread of the fate they fully expect to overtake them evoke a brutal time and place in American history, giving this tale an odd beauty.”
The Sharpest Sight (1995) by Louis Owens (Choctaw-Cherokee).
I’d argue that Louis Owens is the most important figure in the genre of Native American crime fiction, as he wrote compelling page-turners that also interrogated questions of identity, culture, and colonization. Nominally the story of the death of Attis McCurtain, The Sharpest Sight’s characters travel between the earthly and spirit worlds as the question of Attis’s murder is resolved. This complex narrative set the stage for a unique indigenous style of suspense fiction that incorporates political, legal, and cultural issues.
Evil Dead Center (1997) by Carole LaFavor (Ojibwe).
LaFavor was a Two-Spirit indigenous activist and writer, and Evil Dead Center tells the story of Renee LaRoche, a Native investigator who discovers that a pornography ring is harming Indian children. The novel, tautly written and the sequel to Along the Journey River (1997), brought a new sensibility to Native crime fiction and the first LGBTQ protagonist in the genre.
Murder on the Red Cliff Rez (2002) by Mardi Oakley Medawar (Cherokee).
Medawar, the author of several Native historical mysteries, branched out to modern crime fiction with this novel, the story of Karen “Tracker” Charboneau, a successful artist on the Red Cliff Reservation who’s known for her superior skills in the woods. She assists the chief of police in finding a murder suspect, but they find more than they’d anticipated. The novel features a complicated plot and a cast of interesting characters, and the novel shows that Medawar is a worthy successor to Tony Hillerman.
All the Beautiful Sinners (2003; alternate edition 2010) by Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet).
Jones established himself as the direct heir to Louis Owens with this tale of Deputy Sheriff Jim Doe, a Native law enforcement officer who’s pursuing a serial killer who’s also Indian, and who physically resembles Doe. The serial killer—known as the Tin Man–follows tornadoes and seizes a pair of Indian children immediately after the storm has subsided. Doe engages on a cross-country journey to find the killers and his own missing sister, as well as come to grips with his own indigenous identity. The book–a sprawling 486 pages–has multiple twists and reversals as well as shifts in characters and points of view, taking the reader inside the head of the killer as well as Doe and various law enforcement officers. A landmark in Native suspense fiction.
The Round House (2012) by Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa).
This novel, winner of the National Book Award, is a modern masterpiece, and a book that appeals to fans of literary and genre fiction. Set on a reservation in North Dakota, it’s the story of Joe Coutts, a 13-year-old boy whose mother is brutally raped and his search to find her attacker and take revenge. The novel dramatizes the themes of violence against indigenous women and also the broken system of tribal criminal justice enforcement. A brief summary can’t do the novel justice, as it’s one of Erdrich’s most deeply moving and affecting books.
Girl Gone Missing (2019) by Marcie R. Rendon (White Earth Nation).
The sequel to Murder on the Red River (2017), this novel again features Cash Blackbear, a tough-talking, billiards-playing, exceptionally intelligent 19-year-old Native woman and college student. When young women start vanishing from Cash’s community, she gets involved and nearly suffers the same fate. The voice of Cash is riveting, and this wonderful crime novel is another example of indigenous crime fiction that decenters law enforcement officers in a uniquely Native way.
Bio: David Heska Wanbli Weiden, an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, is the author of Winter Counts (Ecco, 2020), a thriller set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Find out more at davidweiden.com.