- Author: Tommy Orange
- Genre: Contemporary
- Publication Date: June 5, 2018
- Publisher: Knopf
TRIGGER WARNING: description of a massacre, substance use, mention of substance use while pregnant, drug dealing, domestic violence, rape, cancer, death, suicide, child abuse, death of animals, gun violence
There There is a relentlessly paced multigenerational story about violence and recovery, memory and identity, and the beauty and despair woven into the history of a nation and its people. It tells the story of twelve characters, each of whom has private reasons for traveling to the Big Oakland Powwow. Jacquie Red Feather is newly sober and trying to make it back to the family she left behind in shame. Dene Oxendene is pulling his life back together after his uncle’s death and has come to work at the powwow to honor his uncle’s memory. Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield has come to watch her nephew Orvil, who has taught himself traditional Indian dance through YouTube videos and has come to the powwow to dance in public for the very first time. There will be glorious communion, and a spectacle of sacred tradition and pageantry. And there will be sacrifice, and heroism, and unspeakable loss.
Here is a voice we have never heard — a voice full of poetry and rage, exploding onto the page with stunning urgency and force. Tommy Orange writes the plight of the urban Native American, the Native American in the city, in a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide. An unforgettable debut, destined to become required reading in schools and universities across the country.
I’ve never read a book quite like this one. It was initially a bit intimidating to realize that I’d be reading a book that had twelve main characters, but once I started reading, it wasn’t hard to keep track.
The prologue starts by giving some information about Native American history. I learned more from the 9 page prologue than I did in all my years in history classes. The book is broken up into several sections, and between each sections are more facts. I found this to be really interesting on top of the story itself.
“We’ve been defined by everyone else and continue to be slandered, despite easy-to-look-up-on-the-internet facts about the realities of our histories and current state as a people.”
The story and the factual snippets speak to the realities of life as an Urban Indian. Moving to urban environments doesn’t mean that they have lost their culture, which is something that is a huge part of who they are:
“Called us citified, superficial, inauthentic, cultureless refugees, apples. An apple is red on the outside and white on the inside. But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sign and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a wound made by a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.”
Each character is introduced and gives a window into their lives. Some stories are told in the present, some are told from the past. But as I read on, I realized that all of these stories were moving towards an intersection. While all of the characters were different, they had some similarities. Obviously, each of the characters are Urban Indians, even if some of them are biracial.
“He is ambiguously nonwhite. Over the years he’d been assumed Mexican plenty, been asked if he was Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Salvadoran once, but mostly the question came like this: What are you?”
All of the characters have difficult experiences in their past and in some cases, their present. There’s a strong legacy of intergenerational trauma that goes back more than a few generations — in these stories, the trauma has existed for centuries. Pain, anger, and difficulty trusting in people outside of the community is a natural consequence of generations of experiences like the Indigenous community has been subjected to. But where is the outlet for this trauma?
“The wound that was made when white people came and took all that they took has never healed. An unattended wound gets infected. Becomes a new kind of wound like the history of what actually happened became a new kind history.”
Some of the characters experienced periods of questioning their identity and feeling as though they didn’t know enough about their cultural heritage. One particularly poignant conversation with an older family member resonated with me. Even though I’m not Indigenous, I connected with the statement as a member of a community that has been persecuted and as the child of a survivor of genocide.
“‘…anything you hear from me about your heritage does not make you more or less Indian. More or less a real Indian. Too many of us died to get just a little bit of us here, right now, right in this kitchen. You, me. Every part of our people that made it is precious.”
This book was difficult, and powerful, and incredibly moving. It felt realistic and gritty. While this doesn’t speak to experiences for all Native Americans, it is an OwnVoices account of Urban Indians from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. It gave me a view into what life is like for a culture that is different from my own, and as always, I walked away from this book feeling that no matter the differences, there’s always a way to connect and more to identify with.
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