Review: There There

there there

There ThereTommy 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.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Council Rock


[Note: I found this image online. See note below from pepost. This is an altered image of a George Catlin painting]

Growing up on the West side of Youngstown, I never visited Council Rock on the East Side in Lincoln Park, above Dry Run Creek. The rock, which has a crack dividing it roughly one-quarter/three-quarters, is the site of one of the most interesting Youngstown legends, one that may or may not be true.

The story, as recounted in Joseph G. Butler’s History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, Volume 1, was written down by William G. Conner, a pioneer resident of Dry Run Creek. On a hunting trip in Illinois in 1865, Conner met an aged trapper, Cyrus Dunlap, who knew the Dry Run area, having been part of the survey party, headed by Alfred Wolcott, who surveyed the area of Dry Run (township two, range two) in 1796. They encountered two French-Canadian trappers living in a cabin in what is now Lincoln Park.

From these trappers, Dunlap learned that Council Rock was a favorite gathering place of Indians living throughout the area as well as those farming the nearby Haselton fields. They would gather three times a year for feasts and celebrations. They called the rock that was the central gathering place, Nea-To-Ka, translated as “Council Rock.”

The most significant, and last, gathering occurred in 1755. On July 9, 1755, a coalition of French and Indian tribes defeated General Edward Braddock, who was assisted by George Washington at Fort Duquesne (later Fort Pitt). Nearly 3500 Indians from Seneca, Shawnee, Mingo, and Delaware tribe gathered to celebrate at an autumn feast on or around September 20. The harvest and game was plentiful. In the middle of the feast, high winds (possibly a tornado, from Butler’s description) swept through and a bolt of lightning struck Council Rock, splitting the Rock. Four chiefs and 300 Indians were killed. One piece of evidence that might corroborate the trappers account is that when the Haselton Furnace was built nearby, excavations uncovered an Indian burial ground.

This was the last gathering at Council Rock. Indians, who lived around Mill Creek and throughout the area apparently moved away about twenty years before Youngstown was settled. Apart from a dispirited band of Blacksnake Indians, the immediate area was abandoned when surveyors arrived, along with John Young, in 1796.


Arrowheads found by my father-in-law in his yard, photo © Bob Trube, 2018

Many Youngstown residents have arrowheads, often found in their own backyard. These, along with Council Rock, and the name Mahoning, remind us of the native peoples that lived in or migrated through our area before the first settlement on the banks of the Mahoning. Their presence gave us one of the most unusual stories in Valley history.

Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie. New York: Grove Press, 2013 (20th Anniversary edition, first published 1993).

Summary: A collection of short stories all relating to growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation.

Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 and grew up on a Spokane Indian reservation. This collection of short stories followed a critically acclaimed book of poetry, and so is one of Alexie’s earliest works. In the introduction to the twentieth anniversary edition, Alexie describes these stories as “thinly disguised memoir.” And to be truthful, it has that feel to it. He describes his style as “reservation realism” and in this collection one finds a mix of the starkly realistic and the fantastic.

What is starkly realistic is his portrayal of life on the reservation. Of course there is a strong web of friendships, families, kinship and love relationships. There is the sense of a people attempting to keep the core of a cultural memory together when much of its substance has been gutted. It’s also a portrayal of financial destitution, un- and under-employment, fighting, government issue cheese and housing, and alcohol and substance abuse. Alexie admits that his own father was an alcoholic and that in his extended family only a dozen are currently sober and only a few that never drank.

One of the most interesting characters in this whole mix is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix” accompanies the narrator and covers most of the cost of flying from Spokane to Phoenix to re-cover his alcoholic father’s remains. Thomas is a story-teller to whom no one listens. In a subsequent story more on the fantastic, Kafka-esque side, Thomas goes on trial for his storytelling, going to prison for murder as he tells the story in first person of another Indian who had killed two soldiers a century before.

From the absurd, Alexie moves to the sad in telling the story of the death of Samuel Builds-the-Fire, a hotel maid who uses his money to pay Indian prostitutes to take the day off, is laid off, gets drunk for the first time in his life, trips and falls on railroad tracks and does not get up as an oncoming train approaches.

There is the funny and sad. The title says it all in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” In another, the narrator talks about his father, who heard Jimi Hendrix play the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and whose son would always turn it on for him when he arrived home from a night of drinking. In “Amusements” a young couple at a carnival spot an old drunk from the reservation and load him onto a coaster, on which he rides until he comes to and gets sick to his stomach.

So much of this seems like autobiography. “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” begins in 1966, chronicles the growing up of a boy dropped on his head (Alexie was hydrocephalic) yet has a fairly normal boyhood while the narrator plays basketball, similar to Alexie’s high school self. “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” describes a young man who went off to Gonzaga, felt out of place and left without graduating. Alexie also went to Gonzaga, leaving after two years, although he completed a degree at Washington State.

Alexie gives us twenty-four stories that explore the life of a people displaced, consigned to make some sense of life in a world they’ve not chosen, fighting addictions that may have been the worst depredation of them all upon their lives. You have accounts of people who want to live, love and make their way in the world while holding onto a cultural heritage, a way of living in the world out of step with the American culture in which they are embedded. It is admittedly one perspective but it does begin to help us understand “the American experience” of these First Peoples and the stark realities of reservation life.

  [Note: Adult language and situations.]

Our National Wound

"At the bus station," Durham, North Carolina, May 1940. Photo by Jack Delano. Public domain.

“At the bus station,” Durham, North Carolina, May 1940. Photo by Jack Delano. Public domain.

“They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”  —Jeremiah 6:14 (English Standard Version)

If the Bible is to be believed, it is possible for a people, a nation to have unhealed wounds. I would propose this is so for my nation, the United States. I believe that wound is a wound involving racial injustice and hatred. We said in our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And yet we have systematically and brutally restricted these rights for a number of our people.

We did so for the native peoples who held our land when we arrived, breaking every treaty we made, and at times engaging in acts of genocide, and in the end confining the remaining to “reservations”. Was this Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?

In our Constitution we called the African-American slave “three-fifths” of a person and codified a system of oppression. We spent hundreds of thousands of lives over this issue, and while slaves were emancipated and supposedly given many rights, the hatred of African-Americans by both north and south continued from the time of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow laws that followed down to the present. We say we’ve made progress, and indeed we have when we elect a President of partial African-American descent. And certainly racial attitudes have changed for many. But hatred remains, and anger, and we are faced with the dilemma of realizing that no laws or policies can change the human heart.

Despite all we have spent in money, and blood, and in our legal system, I would propose that we have healed the wounds of our nation lightly. While more might be done institutionally, and probably should be, unless we face our woundedness as a people, these are only bandages on festering sores–concealing the wound but not really cleansing it.

What is involved in facing our woundedness? First of all, I think it means to acknowledge that it is there in all its uglinessness and fetidness. We often want to believe the best of ourselves and our national ideals and so it is hard to face that we are caught up in a legacy of oppression, hatred, and deeds of violence. It is hard to just sit with this–we want to move on, change the topic of conversation, change the channel. And we go on healing wounds lightly.

Sitting with this leads to grief. I grieve that my only fear in driving is being cited for speeding. I never think that I might be stopped, and my vehicle searched, because I fit a racial profile. Some of my friends live with this fear every time they get in their car. I live between two rivers with Indian names, yet the history of my own state is one of driving native peoples out and taking their land. Now in my state only 25,000 claim native heritage out of 11.5 million. Who have we lost, and what have we lost?

Sitting with our woundedness may lead to repentance. Repentance is coming to the place of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Repentance is honestly facing our wounds and wanting healing, whatever it takes. In this case, it is saying we can no longer live with an atmosphere of hatred, of systemic injustices and the demeaning of others to preserve our sense of self.

As a person of faith, repentance takes me to a place of acknowledging that I need God, and others to heal my wounds. This so goes against American solutionism that thinks we can fix anything with a few more laws, more money, more research. Could it be the case that we are faced with something that runs so deep in our national nature that we need the help of God, and even those we might consider our enemies or those we fear or resent to help us?

The language of repentance and faith is language that makes many of us uncomfortable. We think, maybe if we just try a little harder, do a little more, elect the right people, things will get better. The question remains, have we just covered a festering wound?

Henri Nouwen speaks about how wounds brought to God can become “sacred wounds.” This makes me wonder if the honest facing of our woundedness could lead not only to healing, but something better, the experience of the “beloved community” our founders envisioned where the opportunity of each to pursue life, liberty, and happiness immeasurably enriched us all. I think in fact that the degree to which we have done this as a nation is the degree to which we are rich.

I must close, and would simply ask a question Jesus sometimes asked before healing, is, “do we want to be well?”