There There

by Tommy Orange
First sentence: “There was an Indian head, the head of an Indian, the drawing of the head of a headdressed, long-haired Indian depicted drawn by an unknown artist in 1939, broadcast until the late 1970s to American TVs everywhere after all the shows ran out.”
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Content: There is violence, a rape (though I think it was just talked about) and a lot of f-bombs. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

This book, in a series of short chapters, each focusing on a different character, depicts what life is like for the Native Peoples’ population in Oakland, California. It’s contemporary, but there’s also a bit of historical fiction for context, and it culminates in a huge powwow in Oakland. The overall plot is that there are some kids who, because they need the money and because it’s an easy target, decide to rob the powwow of the cash prize. But, mostly, it’s just a picture of what life is like for the remnants of the tribes that have settled in Oakland.

Most of the Native Peoples fiction I’ve read (admittedly: not a lot) has been centered on the reservation, and I think Orange wanted to remind people (read: white readers) that Native Peoples exist elsewhere too. That, and I think he felt his story — that of the Urban Native — hasn’t been told. There was a lot of inner conflict between feeling “not Indian enough” and feeling lost without a tribe or traditions to fall back on. Orange is exploring what it means to be “Indian”, and the perception (possibly foisted upon them by white culture) that you’re only “Indian” if you’re on the reservation or dressed up in traditional clothes.

I hesitate to say I “liked” this. The more accurate word would be “challenged”. I feel for the characters; their lives are not easy and the systemic racism and oppression of them isn’t helping. I appreciate Orange for exploring all the stereotypes of Native culture, and for giving readers a fuller picture of what Native life — both urban and on the reservation — is like It’s very much a “white people are terrible” book; but it’s an honest sentiment, and one that I think is important. And it’s always good to get an own-voices view of things.

So, while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, I did find it worthwhile to read.

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