A Community of the People: Tommy Orange’s There There

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Tommy Orange’s debut novel There There is grounded in place, specifically Oakland, California. Early on, Dene Oxendene, one of Orange’s dozen characters, encounters a smug outsider who inaccurately references Gertrude Stein’s lament of her changing hometown, that “there was no there there anymore.” This exchange reflects the larger pressure of gentrification as people from elsewhere in the Bay Area look to take advantage of lower rents and vibrant culture of Oakland while driving out the people who have made their homes in Oakland for generations. That displacement is itself part of the larger system of settler colonialism.

Of course, Orange’s characters are already familiar with the effects of colonialism. The novel is peopled by characters with some degree of Indigenous ancestry, many Cheyenne-Arapaho like Orange. Some of the characters, like Dene Oxendene, Edwin Black, and Orvil Red Feather, are seeking out their Indigenous ancestry to better understand themselves and their place in Oakland. Even though Oakland is the city where they were born, these characters recognize an ancestral connection to other homelands, and they make Oakland something new in the process. That newness is what Orange’s novel is most about—how a city founded after the displacement of the Muwekma Ohlone peoples becomes a home to other Native peoples from all over North America.

It seems ambitious to collect a dozen characters’ stories in a novel under three-hundred pages, many with only slight intersections and brief plots. The novel isn’t preoccupied with plot, however, but rather with place and the people who construct it. There There centers contemporary Oakland in the weeks leading up to the Big Oakland Powwow, the characters’ lives intersecting around this shared trajectory, orbiting around and through their community as they seek to define and understand what that community means to them.

Orange’s older characters, Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather, were present at the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz in 1970, and decades later they undergo their own struggles for healing and cultural recognition. Older and younger characters alike live through the effects of settler colonialism daily—confusion that comes with generations of displacement, depression, violence, addiction. But the legacy of settler colonialism is only part of the story. Orange’s portrayal of the Oakland Native American community, while not shying away from the frequently harsh realities of Native life in the United States, does not make a totality out of the harshness. All of Orange’s characters are in some way marked by trauma but are defined by love and resilience. They are keepers of history and carriers of hope.

There There does not settle, it unsettles. As Jean O’Brien points out, Euro-American treatments of Native communities and cultures have historically leaned toward firsting and lasting in order to brush Indigenous societies aside and usher in Western modernity. Orange confronts this tendency head-on. For Orange and the characters in his novel, there is no sense of being the first or last descendant of Native peoples relocated to cities, first or last Native person to struggle with identity after being removed from family and ancestral homeland, or first or last young Native person to question blood, their place in history, or their future. The brilliance of Orange’s novel, for me, is that it doesn’t try to do any of these firstings or lastings in that it doesn’t tell its characters’ whole stories, which would do a disservice to the novel’s sharpness and its deft construction of people and place.

Even though I did not grow up in a city, Orange’s characters are very familiar for me. I’m a mixed Dakota-Ojibwe-Scandinavian who is phenotypically heavy on the Scandinavian. I grew up in a reservation community in very rural North Dakota, yet I see myself in Orange’s characters who may have never experienced the home community of their ancestors, who may recognize their indigeneity and sometimes worry they’re trying too hard to hold onto it, who may feel the importance of Native presence in all the spaces and the pressures of identity politics, which rarely serve actual Native communities. Dene Oxendene, a young filmmaker and enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma (like Orange), who is “ambiguously nonwhite” in the eyes of those around him, reflects the novel’s vision. He secures a grant to record stories from Native people in Oakland, which he will make into a project that does not put a documentary spin on their stories; he envisions an honest account of daily life that would provide the Oakland Native community a sense of shared experience. In his interview before the grant board, he explains:

I want to bring something new to the vision of the Native experience as it’s seen on the screen. We haven’t seen the Urban Indian story. What we’ve seen is full of the kinds of stereotypes that are the reason no one is interested in the Native story in general, it’s too sad, so sad it can’t even be entertaining, but more importantly because of the way it’s been portrayed, it looks pathetic, and we perpetuate that, but no, fuck that, excuse my language, but it makes me mad, because the whole picture is not pathetic, and the individual people and stories that you come across are not pathetic or weak or in need of pity, and there is real passion there, and rage, and that’s part of what I’m bringing to the project, because I feel that way too…

Through Dene, Orange makes an important intervention by representing Native life in cities (and Native life everywhere) on its own terms as simultaneously joyful, difficult, loving, sad, but never “pathetic or weak or in need of pity.” This isn’t to say that Orange’s novel is blindly optimistic, but Orange does not privilege trauma over the hope that comes from family and community. Damage narratives do little good for Native communities; they favor deficiency over resilience in order to elicit sympathy from non-Native readers. Orange balances the need for holistic representation of hardship and hope together. Through his video project, Dene himself is honoring his recently passed uncle, an aspiring filmmaker who couldn’t beat alcoholism. There is value in recognizing human struggles as both human and also as tied to the history of peoples and places.

Like the project, which captures only snapshots in the lives of the people who share their stories with Dene and his camera, There There presents its characters’ stories in snapshot form, backstory mashed together with their present-day movement toward the Big Oakland Powwwow. Its short chapters constitute a polyvocal novel of memory and healing in the tradition of Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban, or Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves. Polyvocality serves as a world-building component of There There, constructing a sense of community out of the lives of the people.

The fragmented effect of polyvocality gestures toward postmodernity, like the EDM-powwow music of A Tribe Called Red that the character Edwin Black appreciates: “It’s the most modern, or most postmodern, form of Indigenous music I’ve heard that’s both traditional and new-sounding.” Fortunately Orange doesn’t push the novel deep into the rabbit hole of postmodern style (sorry Pynchon, DeLillo, et al.) but it feels well-positioned as “both traditional and new-sounding,” a testament to Native cultural evolution. Academic ethnography, especially in the early 1900s, presented Native societies as arrested and fading—either “traditional” or “new-sounding,” but never both. Much of Native literature since then has challenged that assumption. Orange joins those ranks with There There, staging interventions in harmful misunderstandings and stereotypes about urban Native life.

Foremost, the novel offers Native readers, especially urban Native readers, a representation of their experiences and struggles in a major literary publication. That representation, like Dene’s video project, empowers Indigenous presence in all spaces, urban and reservation and rural alike. For non-Native readers who share in some of the struggles with settler colonialism, Orange’s novel is one of healing, pulling together the intimacies of family, community, history, and violence. For non-Native readers dismissive of the legacy of colonialism and resonant trauma, who “say things like ‘sore losers’ and ‘move on already,’” the novel offers an education. As Orange writes in the interlude midway through the novel,

Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say “Get over it.”

Those kinds of people need this novel in their own way, and we need to find ways to bring them to it. Finally, for Native and non-Native readers alike who buy into prescriptive definitions of indigeneity—that “real Indians” meet a blood quantum or reside on reservations or in non-reservation tribal communities—the novel shows that these prescriptions cannot represent Native identity or experience. Several of Orange’s characters negotiate these kinds of questions, but for each of them simply existing as an Indigenous person is a claim of cultural resilience.

As one pivotal character, Tony Loneman, rides the BART in full regalia to the Big Oakland Powwow, he “wants to laugh at them staring at him,” “just an Indian dressed like an Indian on the train for no apparent reason. But people love to see the pretty history.” For Tony and the other characters of There There and other nonhuman agents—a pistol-grip camera, a sock full of bullets—their trajectories converge at the Powwow, where people come together not to “see the pretty history” but to celebrate, together, their survival, their songs, their stories. In one of the section breaks, Orange quotes James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village”: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” There There is a vibrant movement through the mechanism of that trap.

Alex Cavanaugh studies Native American literature and teaches writing at the University of Oregon. He is interested in Native literary interrogations of justice, place, and history. When not buried in academic work, Alex hikes, runs, and restores cheap mid-century furniture. More from this author →