The best Navajo books

13 authors have picked their favorite books about the Navajo and why they recommend each book.

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Code Talker

By Chester Nez, Judith Schiess Avila,

Book cover of Code Talker

Can there be anything more poignant than a story about a hero who doesn’t think he’s a hero? About a man who endured a boarding school full of abuse, lived through the horrors and injuries of WWII, returned to hate and racism, lost family, and yet confronted it all with resilience and forgiveness?

This memoir is from Chester Nez—one of the original Navajo code talkers. It contains wonderful photos and the actual Navajo code. This is an important piece of history as well as a genuinely insightful read and peek into Navajo culture.

The last line of the book, written when Mr. Nez was 86, reads “It’s been a good life—so far.” As an outsider I couldn’t disagree more. His life was tragic and profoundly difficult, but he endured with grace and strength. This simple last line says much about the heroes we should all admire. It has been a…


Who am I?

Loss, with its many contours, finds us all. For me, it came quite unexpectedly. During a long decade of profound grieving, I found inspiration in books. Through real characters and fictional ones, I learned and questioned and found strength. Adversity should evoke more than sadness. When we cheer for the characters on the page, we learn about ourselves. These are books that have helped me dig deeper into my own loss and to live fuller. I start with The Right Stuff because I know what it means to be married to a test pilot and to get the knock on the door. Loss does not have to be the end.


I wrote...

Flight through Fire

By Carol Fiore,

Book cover of Flight through Fire

What is my book about?

On October 10, 2000, an experimental test aircraft crashed on takeoff, dragging a wing, before turning into a fireball. Barely alive and suffering horrific burns, test pilot Eric Fiore was the only survivor hauled from the wreckage. He has asked his wife to promise him something.

Based on actual events, Flight through Fire is an unforgettable love story centered on a deep devotion to aviation. Deftly interweaving the past and present, the author takes the reader on a wondrous adventure around the world with a complicated and passionate man who was born to be a pilot. Insightful, brutally honest, and unexpectedly humorous, this is the story of what it takes to be a test pilot, and what it costs to love one.

Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code

By Joseph Bruchac, Liz Amini-Holmes (illustrator),

Book cover of Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker's Story

If I had to recommend just one picture book about languages, I’d choose this one, because it does so much. First, of course, it shares a long-secret episode in American history—the triumph of the Navajo “code talkers” in World War II. (Not the first time bilingual heroes came to our country’s rescue: see my own picture book Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution.)  But this book also addresses language justice in a way that kids will find easy to understand. Through Chester, we feel the pain and confusion of being told one’s own language is “bad” and worthless, and the pride of having it finally treated with respect. We also see how language isn’t just a set of words, but carries culture, tradition, religion, a whole way of life.   


Who am I?

I am a children’s author best known for digging up fascinating, often funny stories about famous people—and forgotten people who deserve to be famous again. But only one of them inspired me to take up a whole new hobby: L. L. Zamenhof, creator of the international language Esperanto. Learning Esperanto turned out to be fun and easy. It helped me make friends all over the world, and got me interested in how language works.


I wrote...

Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope

By Mara Rockliff, Zosia Dzierżawska (illustrator),

Book cover of Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope

What is my book about?

Meet the boy who made up his own language—and brought hope to millions! 

Life was harsh in the town of Bialystok, and Leyzer Zamenhof thought he knew why. Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish—with every group speaking a different language, how could people understand each other? Without understanding, how could there be peace? Zamenhof had an idea: a “universal” second language everyone could speak. But a language that would be easy to learn was not so easy to invent, especially when even his own father stood between him and his dream. Yet when at last in 1887 “Doctor Esperanto” sent his words into the world, a boy’s idea became a community that spread across the globe.

Skinwalkers

By Tony Hillerman,

Book cover of Skinwalkers

Tony Hillerman created one of the most original detective series I’ve ever come across - Navajo tribal mystery novels. A Thief of Time is probably my favorite of his books but I chose Skinwalkers because it was the first of Hillerman’s novels I had read and skinwalkers are witches who turn themselves into animals, so there’s that. It was a great introduction to his universe of Navajo mysticism and the otherworldly elements that pervade New Mexico, particularly among, but certainly not limited to, its indigenous people. I loved delving into the Navajo history and legends and Police Lieutenant Leaphorn and Tribal Officer Chee are both unique yet very familiar in what could almost be described as a buddy-cop story.  


Who am I?

I was born and raised in New Mexico and it’s a part of me. New Mexicans will tell you that it’s impossible to describe its uniqueness, that you must experience it for yourself. That may be partially true, but writers have done a great job incorporating the majesty of the landscape, the earthiness of the people, the eclectic nature of its values, and ultimately the spell it casts. I’ve set quite a few books in New Mexico and have tried to show how these layers fit together for me. Ultimately, it’s called The Land of Enchantment for many reasons and we do our best to share them with our readers. 


I wrote...

The Reminisce

By H.L. Cherryholmes,

Book cover of The Reminisce

What is my book about?

Curtis has literally dodged a bullet when he heads for Coronado, New Mexico to borrow money from his sister. The dilapidated desert town’s only mansion belongs to 92-year-old Veronica Meeks, in the final stages of what locals call “the reminisce,” for whom Curtis’s sister and her partner are live-in caretakers. Soon Curtis sees things no one else does and is convinced the unresponsive woman isn’t as disconnected as everyone thinks. Tales of Veronica’s associations with the occult lead him to believe she’s manifesting ghosts. As people from the past, including Veronica herself, appear in phantom rooms —he’s no longer certain she’s the cause. Each vision pulls Curtis further into Veronica’s world, until he fears he could become lost in her past.

A Thief of Time

By Tony Hillerman,

Book cover of A Thief of Time: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel

The story begins with the murder of two grave robbers who have been stealing ancient pots from Anasazi burial sites in the American Southwest. Hillerman’s atmospheric sweep crosses land, centuries, and warring interests. This is The Book that inspired my love for reading and writing mysteries with great art, artifacts, and relics at the heart of the crime. For me, there’s hardly any story more compelling than one where a work of art – a thing of beauty and priceless cultural value – leads to the ugliness of murder. I’m instantly interested in those people and what makes them tick. 


Who am I?

One of the advantages of growing up in New Jersey is the proximity to the museums in New York City. What great school field trips! And I really believe that’s where my love for art and history began. My cathedrals are art museums, great libraries, Civil War battlefields, wilderness shorelines – experiencing these places lifts me out of the dailiness of life, reminds me of struggle, greatness, and excellence. I guess it was just a matter of time before my sweet spot as a writer and reader is the point of intersection between great art and terrible crimes. Things worth writing about. 


I wrote...

A Killer's Guide to Good Works

By Shelley Costa,

Book cover of A Killer's Guide to Good Works

What is my book about?

When Senior Editor Val Cameron’s best friend, a curator, returns to Manhattan from an abbey in England, she invites Val to see a priceless relic that has mysteriously found its way into her carry-on. But by the time Val arrives at the museum, her friend has been murdered – and the relic is gone. Val soon learns that a young monk at the abbey has also been murdered. Is there a single killer at work? What dark purpose is attached to the relic that has led to two murders? Now she has to unmask a killer who stops at nothing to fulfill an ambitious plan – and Val Cameron is just the latest person to stand in the way.

The Blessing Way

By Tony Hillerman,

Book cover of The Blessing Way: A Leaphorn & Chee Novel

The Blessing Way gives us Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn a long-serving member of the Navajo Tribal Police force. He’s had an early childhood education at boarding school, but he goes on to get a master’s in anthropology at the University of New Mexico, so he has an expanded point of view of both Navajo and white cultures which gives him a broad and educated perspective. By nature he is calm, unhurried and methodical, and courteous in his approach, even with people he knows are guilty. He is married to Emma, and she is the emotional center of his world.


Who am I?

I’m the writer of an award-winning, best-selling series called the Lane Winslow Mysteries. They take place in British Columbia right after the Second World War, and feature an intelligent, canny, beautiful, polyglot who has just retired from spying for the British—this character inspired by my own beautiful multilingual mother, who did intelligence work in the war. I love the mystery genre, and while no one loves a burned-out, borderline alcoholic inspector who's divorced and has children who won’t return his calls more than I, I've always really adored what I call the “gentleman inspectors.” Men who are happily married, or will be soon, smart, educated, ethical, emotionally complex people you’d like to meet one day. 


I wrote...

Framed in Fire: A Lane Winslow Mystery

By Iona Whishaw,

Book cover of Framed in Fire: A Lane Winslow Mystery

What is my book about?

It is 1948 and Lane Winslow is visiting an elderly Russian friend in beautiful sleepy New Denver when she meets a veteran of the US 104th, a member of the long-forgotten Indigenous Sinixt Nation returning to his homeland. They stumble on a shallow grave in the friend’s garden…is it the railroad baron missing since 1921? Her husband, Inspector Darling of the Nelson police investigates under a cloud of suspicion and vicious gossip that he is on the take. The action spirals into deadly violence and arson, imperiling everyone connected with the case.

“Whishaw nicely pulls off the dynamics of small-town life while maintaining suspense. Maisie Dobbs and Phryne Fisher fans will be pleased.” - Publisher’s Weekly.  “Excellent.” - Toronto Star

A Voice In Her Tribe

By Irene Stewart,

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

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. 


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.

Trail of Lightning

By Rebecca Roanhorse,

Book cover of Trail of Lightning: Volume 1

Love stories aren’t often a theme of post-apocalyptic literature. In my own book I wanted to highlight that you can find love in times of great hardship, as sometimes love is all we have to keep us going. Roanhorse’s urban fantasy is an exciting post-apocalyptic novel with a badass woman main character who is tough-as-nails but also conflicted. The love story subplot between her and another character was an element that stood out for its realism and depth. While her quest is more personal than a physical journey, the novel (and its sequel, Storm of Locusts) takes place in a fascinating world build: only Native American reserves have survived the cataclysm. My male main character is also of Indigenous descent, though without a real connection to his heritage. Roanhorse also has an engaging, easy-to-read style!  


Who am I?

I’ve clocked so many hours on Fallout 3 and New Vegas (and, less so, on Fallout 4) that it’s disgusting, but my real love of wastelands began with T.S. Eliot. His poem (The Waste Land), with its evocative imagery, fascinated me in university. While not about a literal wasteland, it inspired me to seek out stories of that vein. I even have a tattoo with a line from it! What Branches Grow was the focus of my grad certificate in creative writing and has won two awards. I am a book reviewer, writer at PostApocalypticMedia.com, and the author of the Burnt Ship space opera trilogy. 


I wrote...

What Branches Grow

By T.S. Beier,

Book cover of What Branches Grow

What is my book about?

Thirty-five years ago, the world was ravaged by war. Delia, driven from her home in Savannah by loss, travels north in search of a future. Gennero is tortured by his violent past and devotion to his hometown. Ordered to apprehend Delia, he follows her into the post-apocalyptic landscape. The wasteland is rife with dangers for those seeking to traverse it: homicidal raiders, dictatorial leaders, mutated humans, and increasingly violent and hungry wildlife.

An adventure with no-holds-barred action, strange towns, a slow-burn love story, moments of introspection, a Millennial in his 60s, and a survivalist pug, What Branches Grow is an unflinching depiction of life after civilization, where, above all else, trust is the hardest thing to achieve and give.

Magpie Speaks

By R. Allen Chappell,

Book cover of Magpie Speaks: A Navajo Nation Mystery

R. Allen Chappell’s novel resonates with me from the reality of his depiction of life among the Navajo, reflecting his personal familiarity with the people. His protagonists portray diverse, very human characters with all their inherent weaknesses and strengths, tested by the hard life on the Rez. In Magpie Speaks, Charlie Yazzie’s unflappably grounded outlook balances Paul T’Sosi ’s immersive belief in the old ways, a traditional way of thinking that permits the existence of witches who can cause him harm with their supernatural powers. His depiction of Harley Ponyboy, a sometime drunk (“just because I’m drinking now doesn’t make me a drunk”) is both sympathetic and alarming to me. Chappell’s characters are real.


Who am I?

I am, and always have been, stimulated by a spiritual connection to my world beyond the laws of physics and men. My hiking, climbing, and trail running have taken me to breathless places imbued with auras and presences I don’t understand but readily accept. And I am filled with the same spirituality when performing or listening to music. I have no ego to shun that which I don’t understand, for I know there is so much beyond me. Some authors describe this intangible better than others in their stories; I hope I am among the former.


I wrote...

The Other

By R. Lawson Gamble,

Book cover of The Other

What is my book about?

They are an unlikely investigative team—an eastern, white FBI agent and a half-breed Navajo Hunting Guide. Agent Zack Tolliver somehow manages to survive his first year in Navajo Nation, a place too hot, too harsh, and too hostile for most of his colleagues. When a young girl’s ravaged body is found dumped on a desolate butte, surrounded by bear tracks, tracks that eventually turn into those of a man, Zack will need all the skill and cultural insights offered by his friend, mentor, and colleague Eagle Feather to solve the case. When the impossible is all that remains, it is all that is possible.

Skinwalkers

By Tony Hillerman,

Book cover of Skinwalkers: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel

I have long been intrigued by the concept of shapeshifters, particularly the Navajo Skinwalker, a practitioner of spiritual arts who can learn to transform into another species while in pursuit of a particular end. I am not alone,  judging from all the ancient legends around the globe. Even today, depictions of shapeshifters are found in literature and on film in many guises. Tony Hillerman takes a deep dive into Navajo lore in this early novel with a close encounter with a suspected “yee naaldlooshii”. Feel the hair rise on your neck!


Who am I?

I am, and always have been, stimulated by a spiritual connection to my world beyond the laws of physics and men. My hiking, climbing, and trail running have taken me to breathless places imbued with auras and presences I don’t understand but readily accept. And I am filled with the same spirituality when performing or listening to music. I have no ego to shun that which I don’t understand, for I know there is so much beyond me. Some authors describe this intangible better than others in their stories; I hope I am among the former.


I wrote...

The Other

By R. Lawson Gamble,

Book cover of The Other

What is my book about?

They are an unlikely investigative team—an eastern, white FBI agent and a half-breed Navajo Hunting Guide. Agent Zack Tolliver somehow manages to survive his first year in Navajo Nation, a place too hot, too harsh, and too hostile for most of his colleagues. When a young girl’s ravaged body is found dumped on a desolate butte, surrounded by bear tracks, tracks that eventually turn into those of a man, Zack will need all the skill and cultural insights offered by his friend, mentor, and colleague Eagle Feather to solve the case. When the impossible is all that remains, it is all that is possible.

Laughing Boy

By Oliver La Farge, Wanden Lafarge Gomez,

Book cover of Laughing Boy: A Navajo Love Story

LaFarge’s first novel, Laughing Boy, about the love affair between a reservation Indian and one who had been raised in a religious school, won the 1930 Pulitzer Prize. LaFarge spent much of his life fighting for Native American rights, sometimes in the “dark of Washington.” I wanted to grow up to be an Indian. I still do.


Who am I?

I was a computer programmer (BA and MA in math) for several organizations, including NASA and the Savannah River Ecology Lab before retirement, went to the Clarion and Tulane SF&F Workshops, and read the slush pile for Amazing/Fantastic. I’ve done a lot of theatre as actor and lighting tech, have always liked to hike in the woods, have written 11 novels (including 3 published SF novels), had 5 plays given full production, and have 2 CDs of my original songs. In my copious spare time, I sleep.


I wrote...

Down in the Barraque

By Grant Carrington,

Book cover of Down in the Barraque

What is my book about?

A group of young musicians wind up in possession of a device to be used on a starship and use it for their own purposes while authorities try to find out what happened to it and where it is.

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