THERE THERE. If you haven’t read this extraordinary debut novel by Native American Tommy Orange, you might be wondering about the title. It doesn’t mean, “There, there,” like your mom might have said if you fell off your trike and came home with two bloody knees looking for a hug. It refers to something once said by the writer Gertrude Stein about Oakland, California, the place where she grew up (and also the setting for Orange’s novel). After many years away, she’d discovered that “Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.” Many of us returning home to the place where we grew up might feel as Stein did, and that includes many Native Americans because 78 percent of them now live among the rest of us, not on reservations. But Big Picture? You could say that Native Americans once owned all of America–or, at the very least, were free to roam it from sea to shining sea. Their there there looks very different today. Their there there has been erased by the flow of history.
In this multigenerational story, twelve Native Americans are headed to the Big Oakland Powwow in the city’s coliseum. Chapter by chapter we meet them. Some are related, some know one another through work, through mutual acquaintances, or from childhood. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather are half-sisters whose troubled mom died when they were teens, leaving them in the care of an ‘uncle’ who could have become a different kind of trouble if Opal didn’t take matters into her own hands. Opal’s now raising Jacquie’s three grandsons, and grandson Orvil has taught himself traditional Indian dance and plans to perform for the first time at the Powwow. Meanwhile newly sober Jacquie, a substance abuse counselor in New Mexico, travels to Oakland in the hopes of reconnecting with her family. Then there’s Dene Oxendene. Hoping to honor his dead uncle who always wanted to make a movie, he wins a grant to film the stories of Native Americans living in Oakland. Other characters, however, immediately spell trouble. Calvin Johnson works at the Indian Center and knows there will be $50,000 in prize money at the Powwow; unfortunately he’s told a brother who owes a drug dealer money. Tony Loneman was born with fetal alcohol syndrome. He’s devoted to the ailing grandmother he lives with, and he’s found a way to help her pay some of their expenses–through his connection to the same drug dealer Calvin knows. This drug dealer has a plan involving plastic 3-D printed guns and an easy way to get real bullets inside the coliseum. Since Tony’s chapter opens the novel, it’s pretty clear from the outset that there’s going to be big trouble at the Powwow.
The novel was published a year ago to much acclaim from critics. Within the first month, it had sold 48,000 copies, which is almost unheard of for a book by a first-time novelist. It spent nine weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list; now that it’s out in paperback, it’s been on the list for another four. But we’re a nation of about 329 million people. No matter how many copies it’s sold to date, it’s safe to say that most Americans haven’t read the novel or don’t even know about it.
Tommy Orange grew up in Oakland, and this is what he said in advance of the book’s publication:
“Native people suffer from poor representation in literature. . .but having little representation in literature as well as no (literary) version of your (urban Native) experience, was what made me want to write into that space, that void, and try to honor and express fully all that it entails to be Native and be from Oakland.” –Tommy Orange in an interview in the New Yorker, March 2018
Reading the novel made me want to learn more about how Native Americans are faring today. The picture isn’t pretty. About 22 percent of our 5.2 million Native Americans live on reservations. Living conditions on some have been described as comparable to Third World. Many families live without running water or electricity because these are luxuries when compared to putting food on the table. Employment opportunities are grim. Accessible healthcare is non-existent in some communities.
Urban Native Americans may have left the reservation (60/78 percent live Urban), but they continue to struggle with some of the same problems: drug and alcohol addiction, poverty, suicide, serious health issues like heart disease, diabetes, tuberculosis–all at much higher rates than other Americans.
The multigenerational storyline–the convergence at the Powwow–is powerful, but the power begins with the Preface. It’s, in effect, an essay. It’s true and it gives a short history of Native Americans as a group–after the Pilgrims showed up. It’s different than what I learned in school. For example: the Thanksgiving feast we celebrate every year. Two years later there was a similar meal meant to symbolize eternal friendship. Two hundred Indians dropped dead that night from an unknown poison. Other little things I never really thought about. From 1939 to the late 1970s on late night TV, after all the shows ran out: “the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian.” The Indian Head test pattern, it was called “and you’d see that Indian, surrounded by circles that looked like sights through riflescopes.”
If, as it is said, history is written by the victors, it’s worth doublechecking the facts. There There is worth checking out–for its well-written story that rings true. And for its facts.