Native Americans, or Indians, were the first settlers in North America. But when colonizers from Europe came, they not only took away the Native Americans’ lands and livelihoods but rewrote their narratives. There There is Tommy Orange’s way of reclaiming the narrative of the Native Americans living in the United States today.
“We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and the current state as a people. … We have all the logos and mascots. … Our heads were on the penny first, of course, the Indian cent, and then on the buffalo nickel, both before we could even vote as a people—which, like the truth of what happened in history all over the world, and like all that spilled blood from slaughter, are now out of circulation.”
The book follows a group of people in Oakland, California, as they prepare to go for a powwow. It builds up a picture through a mosaic of characters, each with his or her fears and dreams.
There is Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, looking after the three grandsons of her sister, Jacqui Red Feather. Feeling responsible for the suicide of her only daughter, and fearing that she would only damage her grandsons, Jacqui won’t come near them. One of the grandsons, Orwil Red Feather, is trying to make sense of what it means to be an Indian (with a bit of help from Google) and is planning to go to the powwow in full regalia. Calvin Johnson doesn’t really identify as Indian; he just sees himself as someone from Oakland. Dene Oxendene is recording the stories of Native Americans to build an oral history of his people. Edwin Black, who once dreamed of being a writer, is an overweight man who lives with his mother and spends his life in front of computer screens.
It isn’t all bleak but many of the characters deal with addiction, depression and alcoholism, and some of them turn to crime. Like Octavio Gomez, whose father died protecting him from bullets, and Tony Loneman, who is suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and is planning to rob the powwow.
Orange dedicates chapters to the individual characters. As the book plays out, heading towards the final confrontation, the web of connections between them becomes clearer.
I loved the way Orange writes. Edwin, avoiding contact at a planning meeting for the powwow “gets out his phone as everyone does now when they want to leave without leaving”. Opal “doesn’t step on cracks. She walks carefully because she has always had the sense that there are holes everywhere, cracks you can slip between—the world, after all, is porous. She lives by a superstition she would never admit to. … She lives by it, like breathing.”
This is a powerful, angry book. The title doesn’t refer to the soothing words you say to a child but is from a quote by Gloria Stein about Oakland: “there isn’t a there there”. But Orange interprets it not to mean that the place is worthless but to mean that nothing stays the same—the “there” she grew up doesn’t exist any more. “[F]or Native people in this country, all over the Americas, it’s been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
The writing is lyrical and brutal. And using different characters to tell the story means that Tommy Orange gives you a multi-faceted view of what it means to be Native American in the US today. I will end with a final quote that I find apt: “Opal and Jacqui’s mom never let them kill a spider… . Her mom said spiders carry miles of web in their bodies, miles of story, miles of potential home and trap. She said that’s what we are. Home and trap.”