The best books with true stories about Indian country

Philip Burnham Author Of Song of Dewey Beard: Last Survivor of the Little Bighorn
By Philip Burnham

Who am I?

I’ve been teaching, writing, and learning about Indian issues, past and present, for more than four decades. I taught for several years on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and for years I was a correspondent for Indian Country Today and reported from reservations across the country and several Mexican states. I’ve written and published widely about rez issues including cultural repatriation, land use, Native corporations, language preservation, environmental dumping, and Indian law. I’ve spent a lot of time listening, watching, and reading before putting my own thoughts down on paper, and these are some of the books that have deeply moved me.

I wrote...

Song of Dewey Beard: Last Survivor of the Little Bighorn

By Philip Burnham,

Book cover of Song of Dewey Beard: Last Survivor of the Little Bighorn

What is my book about?

Most people have heard of Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull. But few know of Dewey Beard, a Lakota hero in his own right whose life spanned from the Civil War to the Cold War, a century of trauma and transformation for Indian people across the West. Beard (ca. 1862-1955) fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and survived the Wounded Knee Massacre—where he witnessed the murder of almost half his family—while leading a remarkable life that included touring with William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West show; working as a Hollywood Indian; ranching on a Pine Ridge allotment; and advocating in Washington for reparations due to his family and the Lakota people.

The books I picked & why

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Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions

By Richard Erdoes, John (Fire) Lame Deer,

Book cover of Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions

Why this book?

John (Fire) Lame Deer gets right to the heart of modern rez life: the crazy humor, the quest to preserve culture, the bumbling government policies, and the chronic problems that beset Native people. An outspoken Lakota medicine man, Lame Deer’s story is more than just his own—it’s a ‘community autobiography’ that breaks the mold of American memoir. Call it what you will: reverent or profane, amusing or grim, tender or feisty, Lame Deer calls into question many of the upbeat assumptions so common in American life stories. There are more rags than riches in this story, and that suits Lame Deer just fine.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

By David Grann,

Book cover of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Why this book?

An old cliché has it that nobody loves a rich Indian. As David Grann reveals in his account of 1920s Osage County, Oklahoma, outsiders stopped at nothing short of maiming and murdering Osage tribal people who found themselves sitting on large oil deposits and a windfall of cash. Even J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI are called west to try and solve the mysterious deaths of numerous tribal members in a scandal, long forgotten by many, that rocked the press in the era of Prohibition and The Roaring Twenties.  

Indians in Unexpected Places

By Philip J. Deloria,

Book cover of Indians in Unexpected Places

Why this book?

Buffalo Bill made a movie on the rez about Indians? Geronimo had a Cadillac? Indian rhythms are all over 20th-century classical music? Philip Deloria has a knack for showing us how Indian people usually defy what the media says they are—they turn up in funny places, do remarkable things, and achieve extraordinary results. Many of the Indians in this book aren’t found on the reservation, a reminder that Native people have traveled far and wide to do astonishing things when the spirit of adventure calls.

Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer

By Thomas B. Marquis,

Book cover of Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer

Why this book?

For more than eighty years, the Cheyenne warrior Wooden Leg did a bit of just about everything. He joined a warrior society as a boy, fought against Custer and Crook in the Indian Wars, rode as an army scout, served as a tribal judge, converted to Christianity, and had to divorce one of his two wives (a heartrending scene!) before his new religion would accept him. His story is told by Thomas Marquis, a Cheyenne agency physician, who translated Wooden Leg’s story from sign language since they didn’t speak each other’s mother tongue. This is one of the best accounts of how Plains Indian men negotiated the challenge of transitioning from traditional ways to life on the reservation.

A Voice In Her Tribe: A Navajo Woman's Own Story

By Irene Stewart,

Book cover of A Voice In Her Tribe: A Navajo Woman's Own Story

Why this book?

Thankfully, not all Indian stories are written or recounted by men. Irene Stewart, born at the base of Canyon de Chelly in 1907, grew up in the shadow of her father, a medicine man who had her kidnapped and taken against her will to boarding school. She survived three of those schools, including Haskell Institute, where she learned to bob her hair, studied home economics, and later became a Presbyterian. But this is no simple tale of assimilation. Like many of her schoolmates, she remained attached to tribal ways and remained true to Navajo tradition even while transforming herself for the world beyond the rez. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Navajo, murders, and Native Americans?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Navajo, murders, and Native Americans.

The Navajo Explore 9 books about the Navajo
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Native Americans Explore 108 books about Native Americans

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like A Thief of Time: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel, Cessions of Land by Indian Tribes to the United States, and The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Resistance if you like this list.