In his debut novel, Tommy Orange represents a new generation of Native American writers.
It’s a common misconception that most Native Americans live on reservations. More than 70 percent live in urban or suburban environments, an exodus that began in the 1950s with the Indian Relocation Act, part of a federal government policy that pushed them away from their traditional culture and into the dominant American culture. About 140,000 Native Americans live in the San Francisco Bay Area, 18 percent below the federal poverty level.
“Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign,” Tommy Orange writes in his debut novel, “There There.” “But the city made us new, and we made it ours. We didn’t get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream on anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found one another, started Indian Centers, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, our beadwork … We made art and we made babies and we made way for our people to go back and forth between reservation and city. We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete, absorbed our heaviness.”
There’s plenty of heaviness to absorb in “There There.” Orange follows a dozen characters — some connected by blood, others by fate and circumstances — as they prepare for a powwow in the Oakland Coliseum. He goes back and forth in time and bounces from first-to-second-to-third person, telling their stories in a rush of intensity and fervor: Two sisters accompany their mother to Alcatraz Island during the Indian occupation of 1969-71 and experience a darkness that shadows their lives. A boy finds regalia in a closet and believes he is born to dance at the powwow. A gang makes plans for a robbery using plastic guns made on a printer. An overweight young man gets off his computer and starts to engage with the world.
All are wrapped in their heritage, a patchwork of pride and history and confusion that’s different for each one. When Orvil Red Feather puts on the regalia and looks in the mirror he sees “a fake, a copy, a boy playing dress-up,” but something more. “It’s important that he dress like an Indian, dance like an Indian, even if it is an act, even if he feels like a fraud the whole time, because the only way to be Indian in this world is to look and act like an Indian. To be or not to be Indian depends on it.”
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Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma who grew up in Oakland and is bursting with talent and big ideas. He wants to give voice to those who are like him, the mail carriers and stadium workers and transients who live in shacks under the freeway. For the last 20 years, Native American literature has been dominated by two writers, Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, who have concentrated on the reservation experience. Orange comes from a different generation and has a different perspective, funny and profane and conscious of the violence that runs like a scar through American culture.
“There There” takes its title from Gertrude Stein’s famous quote about Oakland: “there is no there there.” He rightly points out that the line that has long been used to condemn the city is taken out of context and was really an expression of nostalgia by Stein about how her hometown had changed so much that she couldn’t recognize it. Ironic in light of the gentrification that’s sweeping Oakland, but Orange isn’t done. “There There” is the title of a song by Radiohead, with a refrain that goes “Just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.”
“There There” by Tommy Orange; Knopf; 294 pp.; $25.95
Tommy Orange will read from “There There” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 13, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; 206-624-6600, elliottbaybook.com