With his debut novel, There There, Tommy Orange interjects a voice that has been missing from the literary conversation
How do we know it has been missing? Here’s a test: If asked to recall the image on an Indian Head nickel, we would reasonably expect that most people could picture the stoic, silent chief staring off to the side. Many would be able to remember the Indian Head test pattern that was widely broadcast each night on American televisions up through the 1970s.
But if asked to picture the lives of contemporary urban Native Americans, might not many readers draw a complete blank? This blindness exists despite the fact that 70 percent of America’s indigenous people now live, not on reservations, but in the cities.
It is this void, this lack of cultural awareness that Orange seeks to fill.
A member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations with a master’s degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Orange crafts a tale about the interwoven lives of 12 indigenous people living in Oakland, Calif. Each lives a very contemporary American life while wrestling with the effects that their heritage imposes upon their daily experiences.
Orange borrows the title of the book from an observation Gertrude Stein once made about Oakland: “There is no there there.” He begins with a searing prologue, a fact-based record that will be unfamiliar to many. In these nine pages, Orange does a reality check on American history, sharing the true accounts of massacres and beheadings, of cultural annihilation and appropriation (sports team mascots, anyone?).
He confronts the sanitized narrative that depicts Indians as the anonymous figures slaughtered by John Wayne in his popular films. He brings to American literature characters that are more realistic though less familiar than the crazy (again, silent) Indian in the classic book “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
And while some readers routinely skip over prologues, to do so this time would be a disservice to the experience of reading “There There.” These pages provide a context for the stories that follow, stories that give voices to members of the First Nations. Each life provides a different perspective of what it means to be an Indian in the 21st century.
There are the sisters, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather. Their adult lives continue to be shaped by their childhood experiences as members of the Indian tribes who, accompanying their mother, occupied Alcatraz Island in the late 1960s (another chapter of American history left out of most accounts.)
There is Orvil, the boy who secretly dresses in the Indian regalia he found hidden away at his grandmother’s house and learns native dances from watching YouTube videos. He takes pride in his talent as a dancer and struggles to understand why the adults around him say, “it is too risky to do anything Indian.”
And also Edwin. Raised by his white mother who has little information to share about his father other than a name, Edwin yearns to know his heritage. He identifies as an Indian while keenly aware that he is half white. His mother’s politically correct terminology frustrates him. Turning to the “tribe” that he does know, he takes control of his label: “I use Native, that’s what other Native people on Facebook use.”
The 12 tales unfold and overlap as each of Orange’s characters prepares for the Big Oakland Powwow to be held at the Oakland Coliseum. Halfway through the book, Orange pauses to include an Interlude. Like the Prologue, it provides context. He describes the current interpretation of the traditional powwows and its importance to people too often viewed as anonymous, en masse. Orange shares the many reasons Indians attend, whether to feel a sense of identity or simply to make some money selling their jewelry.
“We made powwows because we needed a place to be together,” he writes.
Resuming their stories, Orange brings them all together, including Tony Loneman. With his distinct facial features and impaired abilities, Tony is shaped forever by his mother’s drinking. Fetal alcohol syndrome, prevalent in many indigenous communities, is as much a part of his identity as his Cheyenne blood. Tony has his own reasons for attending the powwow, ones that take the story in a direction that is as contemporary, tragic, and American as a breaking news alert.
That might be the point. In this tremendously diverse country, is it not our shared experiences that make us American? Orange simply makes the conversation more authentic.