Native American…or Indian…or whatever you call us - "There There" book review
A review of “There There” by Krystyna Printup ( Tuscarora, Turtle Clan)
By Tommy Orange
294 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95.
Edited by Moeima Makeba
The first time I revealed in a public place that I was Native (American) I was in 4th grade. It was part of the usual Elementary multicultural day celebration and I was asked to stand in front of the class and present my culture. I spoke simply and stated “I am an American Indian” and presented corn bread as my potluck contribution (as if corn bread is some national identifying Native food.) Before I could sit back down in my seat I was heckled at from a child across the room “INDIANS ARE EXTINCT -- LIKE THE DINOSAURS! You’re a liar!” It was the first time I questioned my identity, am I a liar? Am I not Native? What does it mean to be an American Indian?
Tommy Orange’s debut novel “There There” feels like a reflection of my own childhood and presents a well needed dialogue on the urban Indigenous identity. Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, tackles Native stereotypes and rewrites what it means to be Native American raised by a city. In his prologue Orange laments, “They used to call us sidewalk Indians. Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refuges, apples. An apple is red on the outside and white on the inside.” He masterfully captures the true internal dialogue of the plight of the Urban Indian on the journey to find inclusion amongst a whitewashed America.
Orange starts his novel with a grand entry. The prologue, actually an essay, acts as a little history lesson on the cruelty and historical portrayal of the American Indian. You begin “There There” with an understanding that non Native Americans and American Indians share an entangled (really messed up) history. You aren't given much time to digest these horrors and truths before Orange dives you right into the heart of his first character.
The plot slowly weaves twelve main characters of whom share the single goal of reaching the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange presents to the reader, a variety of personalities and erases the monolithic idea of 'the Native' in historical and past tense. He gives each character their own voice while simultaneously updating the archaic persona of who Native people are in the modern world. The tone of Orange’s storytelling feels autobiographical - despite being a work of fiction. Each character's role is gracefully portrayed, while building anticipation by foreshadowing an explosive ending to the novel.
These characters, many whom are related, are working their way towards the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The standout main characters are Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, a postal worker who cares for her sister’s three grandsons, and is traveling to watch her nephew Orvil perform for the first time at the Powwow. Orvil Red Feather, a 'self-taught Indian' who's absorbed his culture mainly by “...watching hours and hours of powwow footage, documentaries on YouTube, [and] by reading all that there was to read on sites like Wikipedia, PowWows.com, and Indian Country Today...”. Orvil is constantly seeking answer to the ever confounding personal question: “What does it mean to be a real Indian?” Dene Oxendene, a student who is on a similar mission and is documenting his findings on the question “What does Indian mean to you?” -- while slowly putting his life together after his uncle’s death. With Jacquie Red Feather, her story is told from the perspective of a substance abuse counselor who is on her way to meet her three grandsons for the first time in the wake of her teenage daughter’s suicide. To build a climactic ending the stories of the novel's characters parallel that of Daniel Gonzales, who has created plastic 3-D printed guns and plans to rob the event to repay drug debts.
The story flips back and forth following the perspectives and voices of the cast, and Orange’s rhythmic prose feels musical, as if it pays homage to a powwow drum beat.
Bum bum bum,
Although the flow of the book may not be intentionally musical it’s something that Orange has naturally embedded in him. The sound and soul of Native culture is apart of his DNA, and it clearly shines through every word of the book. Music and rhythm play an important role and the book's title might be a nod to the song of the same title by Radiohead. Highlighting the hook that Thom Yorke wails: “Just ‘cause you feel doesn’t mean it’s there.”
“There There” is not a western about cowboys and Indians. We are not cooking fry bread or beading regalia while riding horses with our long flowing feathered braids bouncing within the woods. “There There” is a powwow in itself, a gathering of nations, of tribes, of ideas; a celebration (or in this case tragedy.) Orange has successfully presented to us a new voice for the contemporary Native community and the Urban Native generation. Outlining and sharing a solid perspective of who we are as a people -- and underlining the fact that we are not extinct like the dinosaurs, but rather very much alive.