There’s an unfortunate lack of books that a) comprehensively cover Native American history, b) do so in a way that is respectful of Native people, c) illustrate why Native American history is important, and d) are actually readable and accessible by the general public. But I’ve attempted to cobble together some kind of list of recommendation, aimed at people who are interested in learning more about Native history but don’t really know where to start, with a heavy emphasis on why and how Native American history is important on a world scale, since that seems to be something many people need clarified.
1491 by Charles Mann. I would pretty much call this the number one must-read book on Native American history for the non-specialist. This book does a lot of things all in one: it directly addresses the assumptions that are made about Native history, it covers the history of the study of Native history and how it’s impacted those assumptions, and it covers an incredible range of indigenous history itself. There’s a great analysis of the political situation of Tisquantum and the northeastern communities, there’s Maya history, there’s Inka history, there’s a great section on the Amazon that was entirely new to me. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s probably the best out there right now for a general overview.
1493 by Charles Mann. Okay, I have not actually finished reading this yet–in fact I really only just started. But I’ve heard good things. Whereas 1491’s main focus is precolumbian history, 1493 is mostly about the world-altering effects that occurred as a result of the Western hemisphere and Eastern hemisphere coming into contact. Based on what I’ve read so far, I’m not as big a fan of it as 1491, but it’s still probably worth a read.
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. This focuses specifically on the failures of textbooks and grade school education about United States history, focusing on treatment of Native American and African American history in particular. Your mileage may vary on the textbooks cited; my experience in school was better than a lot of them but it doesn’t change the fact that they are all textbook that were and are in use. The thrust of his argument is that the way the narrative of American history is taught in most schools is not just damaging, but that it is also boring. In addition to this critique though, there’s just a plain lot of really great historical details on various eras of US history that most people don’t know about because they’re not deemed fitting for the narrative. Highly recommended.
Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World. This isn’t exactly something you can sit down and read start to finish, but I would definitely recommend checking it out and flipping through it if you can find a copy. It’s an incredible answer to the idea that Native Americans lacked technology, and although it’s necessarily a brief overview, there are sources provided at the end of each entry if you want to look into a particular topic further.
Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World by Jack Weatherford. I have a lot more reservations about this than the other books listed here, and I’m still not convinced that there isn’t a better book out there that does the same kind of stuff this one does. But I haven’t found it yet, and I just read this one, so it’s going on the list. This book is really frustrating in that it does a bad job of treating Native people as people with full-fledged agency and motivation, but it is a pretty good overview for the unfamiliar of the extent to which Native Americans shaped the course of world history. I include it because a lot of people commenting seem to be of the opinion that Native American history isn’t as important because it had no impact other than being dominated. This book says otherwise.
The Earth Shall Weep by James Wilson. It’s been a while since I read this, but it’s a general overview of indigenous history in the territory of the modern United States from about 1500 to 1900. It does a nice job of showing how archaeology, written records, and oral traditions can be combined to tell a story, and it’s a very good place to start getting a general grounding in Native history in the United States, as it covers most regions of the country at least briefly.
You should note that none of these are by Native authors. This frustrates me, but I can’t think of any books by indigenous authors that cover this kind of broad territory off the top of my head, though I’ll definitely do some digging. There are a variety of reasons, such as the fact that Native historians tend to either focus on their specific nation’s history or to be engaged in very theoretical work on indigenous history, the fact that much of Native-written history is intended for Native audiences rather than non-Natives, and the depressing fact that non-Natives are very, very frequently taken as authorities on Native history over Native people themselves. Not to mention how the academic system discourages Native people from getting involved in history. If anyone can think of something along these lines, please let me know, and of course do put other recommendations in the comments if you know them. Hopefully this can be of use to some people who don’t know where to start!