There There is an innovative and engrossing first novel from Native American writer Tommy Orange. Through his multiple character narration, he explores the question of what it means to be an “urban Indian” in the US. The title There There comes from a Gertrude Stein quote that is often taken out of context and misunderstood, much like Native Americans. In referring to Oakland, California, where Stein grew up and where the action of There There takes place, Stein wrote that there was no there there anymore, meaning that the Oakland she knew as a child had changed so much that the there of her childhood was gone. In There There, Orange’s characters are getting ready to participate in the big Oakland Powwow and we see that each character has his/her own unique way of viewing their native roots and very different reasons for attending. For some, it’s a chance to connect to a culture they haven’t known and/or with family. Some attend begrudgingly and others are there for purely selfish reasons.
The novel is divided into three parts, and each chapter presents the narrative point of view of a particular character. They are a diverse bunch. Among them are estranged sisters Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather, who have had experiences with alcoholism and untimely death since childhood. Tony Loneman, whose physical features have been affected by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, is a quiet observer of the world around him; people assume from his looks that he lacks intelligence but he knows how to read people and is thoughtful about his Native heritage, even if no one thinks to ask him about it. Dene Oxendene is a student filmmaker who is interested in recording the stories of native people and allowing them to describe in their own words, who/what they are. Calvin Johnson works at the Indian Center, which is running the powwow, but we learn that he has other reasons to be there. Orvil Red Feather, grandson of Jacquie, has been secretly watching YouTube videos of native dancing in preparation for the powwow. Edwin Black, whose mother is white, has recently discovered who his father is and that he will attend the powwow. Twelve characters are featured, and they each get a few turns to describe their backgrounds, their actions leading up to the powwow, and what happens at the event itself. The reader will see how their lives have intersected, often in ways that the characters themselves cannot see. We also know, unlike most of the characters, what is planned for the powwow. The description of what happens there is powerful and wrenching.
Orange provides a Prologue and an Interlude which address the idea of what it means to be an Urban Indian and the importance of storytelling. An Urban Indian belongs to the generation of Indians born in cities as opposed to reservations. They haven’t experienced reservation life, but it would be mistaken to think that that makes them somehow less Indian. The idea of needing to “get back to the land” in order to be Indian makes no sense; cities are land, after all.
They used to call us sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees, apples. An apple is red on the outside and white on the inside. But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember….
While whites have pushed natives off their land, onto reservations, into cities in the hopes of erasing them, Indians have always found each other. Powwows are a place to find one another, be together, share stories. The best expression of Orange’s ideas regarding what it means to be Indian come from Opal and her grandsons (grand nephews). Orvil notes that Opal opposes the boys doing anything Indian (like the powwow). She tells them, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what being Indian means.” She says, “You’re Indian because you’re Indian because you’re Indian.” Yet Orvil persists in thinking that, “…the only way to be Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian.” He tells his brothers that powwows are important so that Indian ways don’t disappear, to which his little brother replies, “Why can’t we just make up our own ways?”
The end of the novel is, as previously mentioned, quite powerful. I think it would lead to some lively discussion in a book group. There There is an eye-opener of a novel. Orange uses his formidable skills as writer and storyteller to challenge the reader’s conceptions of what it is to be Native American in an ever-changing world.