There There, Tommy Orange. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.
Summary: The narratives of twelve “Urban Indians” making their way with various motivations to a powwow in Oakland.
Tommy Orange has done for “Urban Indians” what Sherman Alexie has done for those on the reservations. In There There, he captures in the stories of twelve people a cumulative narrative of the quest for identity of Native Americans living in cities. They are people who in various ways are trying to figure out what it means, beyond ancestry and heritage to live as Native Americans in urban America.
In both Prologue and Interlude, Orange discusses the dispossession of Native peoples from their lands, the struggles with alcohol and substance abuse, the challenges to discover one’s identity and the significance of powwows like the Big Oakland Powwow.
The book is structured around the stories of twelve people whose lives are connected who will end up at the Big Oakland Powwow. The book opens with Tony Loneman, “the ‘Drome” representing his birth with fetal alcohol syndrome. He deal drugs with Octavio, along with Charles who is owed money by his brother Calvin. These four hatch a plot to steal the prize money at the powwow, using 3-D printed guns to elude metal detectors. Others come for different reasons. Dene Oxendene is there to set up a story booth to capture the stories of his people. Thomas Frank is a former custodian at the Indian Center and a drummer at the powwow. Edwin Black is a bi-racial young man who lives on the internet who discovers his father is Harvey by accessing his mother Karen’s social media and takes an internship at the Indian Center, coordinating the powwow. Karen’s boyfriend, Bill Davis, a Vietnam veteran, works cleaning up trash at the stadium where the powwow will be held, having held a series of jobs after a prison term in San Quentin. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield cares for three of her half-sister Jacquie Redfeather’s grandchildren including Orvil who discovers Indian regalia packed away in a closet and wants to dance at the powwow. Jacquie, living on the edge of substance abuse, works as a substance abuse counselor. Jacquie and Opal were part of the Alcatraz occupation in 1970, where Jacquie had sex forced on her by the same Harvey, resulting in a daughter who she adopted out. That daughter happens to be Blue, the head of the powwow committee. In a weird turn of events Harvey and Jacquie encounter each other at a substance abuse conference and an AA meeting, and end up traveling together to the powwow.
The narrative moves back and forth between these characters who represent the conflicting currents of Urban Indian identity, from the criminal to those devoted to the cause, or to people they love. The book is organized around four parts: Remain-Reclaim-Return-Powwow, terms that reflect both movement toward the climactic powwow with the threat of violence, and the struggle to reverse the effects of dispossession.
The title comes from a Gertrude Stein reference to Oakland — “There is no there there.” Orange writes:
“The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn’t read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over America, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
The book retraces the struggle to recover a sense of identity and community, and some kind of way of life when there is no “there there.” For the most part, it seems the women fare better at this in the book. Even though Jacquie, Opal, and Blue bear the wounds of their heritage and upbringing, they are the ones caring for others, offering stability and direction to a next generation. Only Bill Davis seems to have clawed his way to some settled identity while the other men are either groping, or descending into criminality.
This is not a “feel good” book. But perhaps those of us who are the descendants of the disposessors need to understand the trauma that has worked its way down the generations. What is evident in a number of the stories is a perhaps inchoate sense that there is something valuable “there” in one’s native heritage that must not be given up on but striven for, perhaps in the shared telling of stories that both Dene Oxendene’s storybooth and this book represents.