Book Reviews

Tommy Orange

Alfred A. Knopf

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…We were not Urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear.

                          from There, There

 

  

A lost people seeking a lost heritage

We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do…

In his debut novel that became a finalist for a 2018 National Book Award, Tommy Orange tells the stories of modern day “urban Indians.” Similar in its anger, power and poetry to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) There There is original in its voice and unique in its vision of what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be a Native American in the twenty-first century.

Orange introduces us to a cast of vivid and memorable characters attending the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow. Among them is Dene Oxendene, trying to capture the oral history of his people before there are no more speakers; Jacquie Red Feather, struggling to face her past sober; her sister, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, who is raising Jacquie’s three young grandsons; 13-year old Orvil Red Feather, excited to perform traditional dances he learned from watching YouTube videos; and Harvey, the powwow’s emcee, who is preparing to meet a son he never knew he had.

They are drawn to the powwow for different reasons, and for the same reason: to connect to a heritage they never knew, and where for several days they will be “Indians dressed up as Indians.” (The book’s title comes from Gertrude Stein’s quote about returning to the Oakland of her youth and finding that “There is no there there.”)

These are sad stories, tales of alcoholism and drug addiction, suicide, domestic violence, and of the despair that creates and feeds them. Yet shafts of hope break through the centuries-old gloom of such inherited despair, epitomized by Dene’s work, by Opal’s dignity and by the fresh dreams of Orvil and his younger brothers. The stories, like their lives, will converge on the Oakland powwow, being propelled toward a climactic moment of violence.

It is a bleak picture of modern day Native Americans who are caught in limbo, struggling to find an identity amid a lost past and an alien present, and who experience themselves as neither Native nor American.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 10-February 15, 2019.) Reprinted with permission.


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